Until recently, Saudi Arabia did little to promote its public image in the west. Now, its crown prince is pictured tieless, chatting with Mark Zuckerbergby Jane Kinninmont / October 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement that women would finally be issued with driving licences was the single biggest thing the country could do to improve its global image. It was not just a PR stunt in that it reflects social change and economic necessity; women are increasingly educated and working, and there is almost no public transport. But changing the rules on women driving has helped to shift the international media spotlight away from austerity, autocracy, arrests, the war in Yemen and the row with Qatar, and onto Saudi Arabia’s social and economic liberalisation.
For years, the driving ban has been the best-known fact about Saudi Arabia internationally, seen as a symbol of a country that was repressive, extremist, or just weird. Saudi diplomats, whose own daughters often drove in their overseas postings, spent days of their life trying to defend the policy, saying it was required by the conservative public. But now, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (nicknamed “MBS”) is using the driving change to bolster his credentials as a moderniser, both at home and abroad. He emphasises social liberalisation and economic development—not the political reform that Arab crown princes used to promise in the 1990s and 2000s.
The 32-year-old prince has also focused much more on public opinion than his predecessors—commissioning opinion surveys and social media analyses, and adopting a new, informal style of communicating with Saudi youth. Internationally, too, MBS has taken a new approach to the press. After his father’s accession in 2015, suddenly journalists were being invited in to a country where media visas had been like gold dust. Cleverly, the royal court invited journalists from critical newspapers, who would be more credible than those already seen as sympathetic. The country’s image was so bad that giving access could hardly make it worse.