Mohammed bin Salman is a Saudi (not a Western) Reformer

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler is not the “reformer” Western governments had optimistically hoped for. But the ways in which Saudi Arabia has changed socially and economically during his tenure as first Deputy Crown Prince and now Crown Prince illustrate how Mohammed bin Salman is a “reformer” of sorts—albeit a ruthlessly authoritarian one—who has taken a lesson out of the books of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and China’s President, with no intent to liberalize the oil-rich Kingdom’s political system.
Mohammed bin Salman is a Saudi not a Western Reformer
Photo credits: U.S. Department of State

In early 2016, Saudi Arabia’s-then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) told The Economist that he was “most certainly” driving a “Thatcher Revolution” in the oil-rich desert kingdom. In Western capitals there was then much optimism that he would modernize Saudi Arabia in ways that aligned with Western understandings of modernization and forward-thinking reform. Yet such optimism has drastically dropped among Western elites due to the circumstances surrounding Jamal Khashoggi’s death.

When Khashoggi went into “self-exile” in 2017 in America, it was after a long career in journalism in Saudi Arabia, coupled with high-profile experiences as an advisor to several Saudi Princes close to the former King, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Khashoggi was therefore not a dissident per se and had never questioned the legitimacy of the royal family or the Saudi political system. However, he had been critical of MbS’s policies, such as the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, crackdown on dissent within the Kingdom, and the Crown Prince’s tight alliance with Donald Trump.  

Many analysts have recently contended that all who previously called MbS a “reformer” have been proven wrong by Khashoggi’s case. As American and European lawmakers, business leaders, and press outlets voice growing anger and outrage over the U.S.-resident and Washington Post contributor’s death, there is no doubt that years of lobbying efforts to promote MbS as the West’s best hope for Saudi Arabia’s future have been severely undermined this month.

Nonetheless, despite Khashoggi’s death, it is arguably still correct to call MbS a “reformer.” MbS is reforming Saudi Arabia in the sense that he’s committed to changing certain institutions in order to improve them and advance his country’s long-term national interests, even if he is not tolerating dissent in the process. His deep reforms in Saudi Arabia are based on eastern and authoritarian styles of governance—not western, liberal, or democratic ones. To be sure, despite calling for large-scale privatization of public services, MbS is not transforming Saudi Arabia in line with a “Thatcher Revolution” that emphasizes individuals rights and personal liberties. Instead, MbS intends to reform Saudi Arabia based on lessons from Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

The perception and narrative in Riyadh seem to be that only further centralization of power and authoritarian leadership can ensure delivery on economic and social reforms. Reforms, in the positive sense of more civil and political rights, were never in the cards and, to the contrary, were treated as “threatening” to stability in the country (at least as seen by the regime). And still, notwithstanding the utter barbarity of the murder of Khashoggi allegedly at the hands of the Crown Prince, there is no doubt that MbS has sought fundamentally to transform Saudi Arabia in line with Vision 2030, his ambitious reform agenda that calls for overhauling the Kingdom’s economy and drastically reforming Saudi society in ways that dramatically loosen highly rigid Islamic norms and customs.

As a Western diplomat in Riyadh recently told these authors, it is remarkable that today all over the Saudi capital women are driving given that only several years ago this idea was unimaginable. In 1990, when Saudi women activists drove for the first time in Saudi Arabia, virtually every Saudi Imam voiced condemnation while the Kingdom’s religious conservatives and reactionaries vocally and actively opposed them. That no major acts of violence or instability have thus far resulted from women driving this year in Saudi Arabia is significant within the context of this country, where social change has come more slowly than any other Arab state since its formation.

The reining in of the religious police under MbS’s leadership further attests to the Prince’s ability to diminish the influence of reactionary institutions in the Kingdom, which previously held Saudi society back. With MbS and his father at the helm in Saudi Arabia, members of the Wahhabi establishment have been successfully coerced and co-opted into softening their intolerant discourse. This was underscored by top clerics from the official establishment issuing conciliatory statements on issues ranging from the female dress code to exhibitions featuring pre-Islamic statues, from women driving to music and gender segregation and the guardianship system. Undeniably, these Islamic scholars’ support for the social dimensions of the Vision 2030 reform agenda (ending the ban on cinemas, permitting women to drive, allowing an entertainment sector with Western music to take form, etc.) has helped MbS bring about changes in the Kingdom with greater ease and less blowback than expected at the time of their announcements.

Changing religious discourse in Saudi Arabia has also resulted from the regime detaining certain clerics, Islamists, and intellectuals who dissented after MbS began his rise to power. Such figures have included Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, Safar al-Hawali, and Abdulaziz al-Fawzan. It is unclear if clerical backing for Vision 2030’s social dimensions has resulted more from genuine support for MbS’s quest to diversify and modernize the Saudi economy, or fear of detention for voicing opposition.

It goes without saying that while pushing these changes, MbS has been ruthlessly consolidating and concentrating power into his own hands. Saudi Arabia has never been a democratic country. Yet power, until quite recently, was diffused among a number of members of the royal Al Saud family, and a form of consensus-building was required to further much of the major decision-making. In contrast, under the new Saudi government, many of these royals have been cut out of the decision-making process in a progressive personalization with MbS and King Salman in the Kingdom’s driving seat.

The process has not been dissimilar to that ongoing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest and biggest of the federation’s seven emirates, has significantly consolidated power in his hands, trading decision-making capital in the other six emirates with much-needed financial capital. As in Abu Dhabi, the current leadership in Saudi Arabia believes in a form of stability in which political opposition is absent and political dialogue is severely monitored and the room for debate is tightly constricted by the state. Whether it be from Islamists, conservative clerics, journalists, or from liberals, business tycoons or royals, dissent is not tolerated in MbS’s Saudi Arabia. Like the UAE and other GCC states, Saudi Arabia has implemented cybercrime legislation which on paper goes after money launderers and online fraudsters, yet in practice mainly targets social media users in the Kingdom who criticize the country’s political leaders.

The type of reformer whom MbS has proven to be, and the leader he might be in the future, matters to the entire world. But for a power shift scenario (unlikely but possible), the Crown Prince is set to become the Kingdom’s next ruler. His actions now are certainly an indication of how he will lead the Kingdom both internally and internationally if he becomes the next official Saudi monarch. Given how much Saudi Arabia has changed—both for better and for worse—since MbS’s ascendancy to the Palace in 2015, a King Mohammed bin Salman would likely further reform Saudi Arabia to make it more of an Arabian version of China or Singapore, strongly influenced by Abu Dhabi.

Western political leaders, business leaders, and investors are currently questioning whether they will continue supporting MbS in driving his reforms via Vision 2030 or whether they will sever cooperative ties with the Saudi rulers amid the bitter reality of the regime’s authoritarianism. This month, the second edition of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative (FII), a conference dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” has suffered from many of the most important Western attendees canceling their attendance due to Khashoggi’s death. Executives of western media groups (Bloomberg, CNN, Financial Times, New York Times, etc.), financial firms (Credit Suisse, HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, etc.), and Silicon Valley giants (Google, Uber, etc.) decided not to participate in FII, signaling negative news for Saudi Arabia as the Kingdom seeks to lure high levels of foreign investment to make Vision 2030 successful.

What remains to be seen is whether there might be a way for Western states to advance their fundamental interests in seeing Vision 2030 succeed if for nothing else to avert a collapse of the Saudi state, while also containing and constraining the Crown Prince’s despotic drives which ultimately are bound to spell the failure of his ambitious reform agenda with catastrophic consequences for the region.