The young crown prince seems to have transformed one of the Middle East’s most traditional nations in months—but does he know what he's doing?by Jane Kinninmont / March 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Even as western governments have bonded themselves closely to Saudi Arabia, thinkers and writers have long said the monarchy could not last. Here was a bloated and sclerotic ruling family, they said, presiding over a system of what has been called gender apartheid, only marginally less repressive of everyone else than it was of women. Fearing democracy, the Al Saud promoted an intolerant version of religion as a distraction. Sages acknowledged that petrodollars and American weapons could prop up this brutal anachronism of a regime for only so long; in the end—surely—it couldn’t survive.
For their own part, the Saudi royals presented themselves as merely respecting the needs of a conservative population, which they sought to educate and to modernise, gently. They were a moderating force, they explained; if they held elections, the world might end up with Islamic State in charge of Mecca and Medina. While some of the thousands of princes might whisper concerns in private, in the public eye they kept a united front. This was the path that Saudi Arabia had chosen—and change, if it came at all, would be gradual.
Conventional wisdom in the west, therefore, was that the Riyadh regime could not be sustained, whereas the prevalent view at home was that it couldn’t radically reform. It seemed stuck. But no longer. In June 2017, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman was appointed as Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince—a role that is both heir apparent and effectively chief executive under his 82-year-old father, King Salman. At first blush, MBS, as he is known, appears to have transformed one of the Middle East’s most traditional nations in a matter of months, while keeping a firm grip on political control.
Corruption? It is, he says, a “cancer” throughout the body of the nation. It can only be fixed by “shock treatment,” by “chemotherapy.” Oil? It’s an “addiction,” something that has virtually become part of Saudi Arabia’s constitution along with the Koran. Those strict social rules? Abruptly, they are “not normal” anymore. As for extremists, it no longer has to be whispered: previous rulers “didn’t know how to” deal with them.