Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms

Mohammed bin Salman has transformed his country at breathtaking speed, while stifling public debate and intensifying repression. Without a minimum level of citizen participation, the country will not progress.

Nothing in the kingdom goes against the will of the powerful young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.


Mohammed bin Salman never lacked for vision, ambition and ruthlessness. In October 2017, the young crown prince made the world sit up and take notice when he «Return of Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam» announced. Under the impact of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the kingdom took a wrong turn, said the then newly appointed heir to the throne. But that will be the end of it. At an investor conference in Riyadh, he promised his country would do away with extremist ideas and return to an Islam that was open to the world and other religions.

His announcement at the Future Investment Initiative Conference on the Red Sea caused just as much excitement a futuristic new metropolis called Neom to build. It would have its own laws and it would be run strictly according to capitalist principles, the then 32-year-old prince announced to the applause of the invited entrepreneurs. With the project, the petrostate will take an important step towards diversifying the economy and opening up to international investors.

A few days later, MbS, as he is often called, made headlines again: he had dozens of Saudi princes and businessmen arrested on charges of corruption in the same hotel where the conference had taken place. Among the Ritz Carlton’s involuntary guests were some of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the royal family. They were only allowed to leave their gilded cage once they had agreed to cede a significant part of their wealth to the state.

Nothing is further from him than the participation of the citizens

In the West, many celebrated the young heir to the throne as a visionary and reformer who would resolutely lead the conservative kingdom into the modern age. His authoritarian methods caused some uneasiness, but many commentators and politicians were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The “New York Times” columnist Thomas Friedman, who interviewed MbS in Riyadh at the time, raved about it most important reform process in the entire Middle East.

Five years later, Saudi Arabia has indeed changed like no other country in the region. The crown prince has reformed the country’s culture, economy and society at breathtaking speed. However, today nobody would speak of a new Arab Spring like Friedman did then. The downsides of MbS’ rule are all too visible for that.

The Crown Prince has never left any doubt that he is aiming for an opening up of the economy and society, but not an opening up of politics. Nothing is further from his mind than a democratization of the country and a participation of the citizens in power. On the contrary, the kingdom has become even more authoritarian and repressive under his rule. The power once shared between dozens of princes is now concentrated in one person: MbS.

Freedom is a privilege, not a right

The freedoms that the population has received under MbS remain a privilege and not a right. They are granted to subjects by the ruler, who can also revoke them. There is no right to them, and anyone who dares to demand them will be severely punished. So it only seems a contradiction that the crown prince allowed women to drive, but at the same time had the activists who had campaigned for this imprisoned.

For MbS, the social reforms are not an end in themselves, but serve to transform the economy. So did the crown prince women are allowed to drive mainly because to enable their participation in the labor market. He has recognized that the Saudis have to work more because the state can no longer afford to support them with falling oil revenues. And that the country must free itself from its dependence on oil exports in the longer term.

The establishment of one’s own entertainment industry is also to be understood as part of the diversification of the economy. If the crown prince has allowed cinemas again after decades and now allows pop concerts, car races and film festivals, it is less because the young Saudis thirst for them, but rather because it makes money. The relaxation of the strict gender segregation and the strict dress codes should also be seen in this context.

The women remain dependent on the men

Many young Saudis are nevertheless grateful to the crown prince for the reforms. Finally, men and women can meet casually in the café, go to the cinema and attend concerts. The feared religious police have disappeared from the streets. Women no longer have to wear the black abaya. Also, they no longer need their male guardian’s consent to travel abroad. They have been able to advance into courses and professions that were previously reserved for men.

Saudi women are now allowed to go to the cinema, but for many of the new freedoms they still need the consent of their husbands or fathers.

Saudi women are now allowed to go to the cinema, but for many of the new freedoms they still need the consent of their husbands or fathers.

Sean Gallup/Getty

But it would be wrong to believe that MbS liberated women. Although the state has granted them new freedoms, they still need the consent of their male guardians to benefit from them. So the guardian must agree when a woman wants to apply for a driver’s license. If he refuses his consent, she gains nothing from the fact that the state allows her to drive. To this day, many conservative men do not let their wives drive.

In other respects too, women’s freedom remains very limited. Although a guardian can no longer force a woman to marry, every marriage requires his consent. Once a woman is married, she must obey her husband, must not refuse him intercourse, and is obliged to breastfeed her children herself. Women are still not citizens with equal rights, but dependent on their fathers, husbands or brothers.

There is no public debate or control

Anyone who dares to criticize the royal family will be severely punished. In summer were two women sentenced to 34 and 45 years in prison, because they had shared critical posts on social networks. The number of executions has risen sharply. In March were at a executed 81 men in a single day half of them belong to the Shiite minority, which has long been discriminated against in Saudi Arabia. Fear and self-censorship prevail in society today. Public debate has largely died down.

The culture of fear means that hardly anyone dares to contradict the crown prince. Even his most absurd ideas like «The Line», a hundred-mile-long tower block in the desert, are presented to the public as if they were actually feasible or useful. The lack of any public debate and scrutiny means that projects like the demolition of half of Yidda are also implemented, although they are obviously not well thought out.

Half of downtown Jidda was demolished without the residents being offered any other housing.

Half of downtown Jidda was demolished without the residents being offered any other housing.

Eric Lafforgue/Getty

Half of the center of the port city on the Red Sea is now in ruins, and reconstruction will take years. Up to 500,000 residents have been made homeless by the urban regeneration project as they were not offered any other accommodation. As a result, rents are skyrocketing across the city. Had there been a prior public debate involving citizens, this planning debacle could have been avoided.

It doesn’t work without participation and freedom of the press

In foreign policy, things are no better. Many of the Crown Prince’s initiatives have cost the country dearly and ultimately failed miserably. This applies to the catastrophic intervention in Yemen as well as to the unsuccessful blockade of Qatar and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who made the heir to the Saudi throne persona non grata in the West for years. His attempt to contain Iran has also failed. Today the Saudis have lost virtually all influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The alliance with Russia in Opec+ in October alienated the Americans. The decision to cut oil production in the middle of the energy crisis was seen in Washington not only as a lack of solidarity, but also as direct interference in the American midterm elections at the beginning of November. The fact that MbS acknowledged Joe Biden’s displeasure with a shrug testifies to dangerous hubris. After all, the USA is still Saudi Arabia’s most important protecting power.

The Crown Prince is certainly not lacking in vision, ambition or ruthlessness. But he lacks diplomatic skills, patience and foresight. He will need all three in order to master the Herculean task of the economic and social transformation of his country. He won’t be able to do it alone. He would do well not only to listen to experienced diplomats and experts, but also to allow broader citizen participation.

Like other dictators, MbS sees free, public debate as a threat rather than an asset. Free debate is important to generate new ideas, identify problems and correct mistakes. Even in an autocracy like Saudi Arabia, a minimum level of criticism and control of the government by the citizens is essential for the success of politics. In order to lead the transformation of his country to success, the crown prince must therefore allow a minimum of participation and freedom of the press.

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