Mohammad bin Salman is a young man in a hurry. When I visited Saudi Arabia back in February he was only the deputy crown prince. Nevertheless, it was he — not 81-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and not the crown prince, 58-year-old Muhammad bin Nayef — who was the talk of the town.
The 32-year old MBS, as he is known, was regarded as the brains and energy behind Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to construct, by the aforementioned date, a dynamic and diverse Saudi economy, one not dependent on extracting and exporting petroleum. To achieve that, he appeared to understand, will require significant economic, social and religious reforms.
Then, in June, King Salman suddenly decided to replace the crown prince, his nephew, with MBS, his son. Perhaps the king prefers to have a direct descendant as his heir apparent. Perhaps he thinks MBS is better equipped to navigate the stormy seas of the 21st century Middle East. Difficult to say; Saudi Arabia is not transparent.
There have been reports — rumors really — that the king plans to step down any day now. In the meantime, the new crown prince has not been idle. Last month, he announced plans to create a $500 billion independent economic zone on the Red Sea, a cosmopolitan city of the future to be governed by laws “on par with international standards.”
Change is coming to other parts of the country as well. The powers of the religious police have been curbed. Concerts are no longer forbidden. Next year, women will be permitted to drive cars. The prohibition on unrelated men and women mixing and mingling has been loosening.
MBS is promising that under his rule Saudi Arabia will follow “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” As for “extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”
A few decades ago, he added, the kingdom became “not normal.” His meaning was clear: Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Saudis spent billions of dollars attempting to demonstrate that they were no less committed to jihad against the West than the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Al Qaeda was one result.
Early this month, MBS ordered what’s being called a “corruption crackdown.” More than 30 princes, government ministers and senior military officers were arrested. They have not been incarcerated in a royal dungeon. They’ve been confined instead to the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh, which boasts landscaped gardens, restaurants, a “world-class spa,” a swimming pool and a bowling alley. Still, these guests of the crown prince may not be having a wonderful holiday. And checking out may be expensive.
The Saudi prosecutor has reportedly determined how much wealth each detainee has accumulated illicitly. Those who agree to turn over ill-gotten gains to the government will be allowed to go home. Those who profess their innocence can go to court instead. More than $100 billion is expected to be deposited in government coffers.
Putting the screws to the big shots is likely increasing MBS’ popularity among the young — more than 70 percent of Saudis are under 30. It also communicates that the future king’s authority is not to be challenged.
Those who say he is violating due process have a point. But MBS is pursuing modernization, which is facilitated by social liberalization. Neither should be confused with democratization. More to the point, MBS has only one overriding concern: the survival of the kingdom.
Which brings us back to Iran. In the mainstream media, you’ll see references to a Saudi-Iranian “rivalry.” That’s misleading. What’s going on in the Middle East isn’t akin to a competition between the Yankees and the Red Sox.
MBS believes Iran’s rulers pose an existential threat to Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region. With this in mind he last week told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: “We learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work.” Referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he said: “We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.” (Not surprisingly, this outraged Tehran’s apologists and enablers in the U.S. and Europe.)
The Saudis were dismayed by President Obama, who seemed eager to accommodate the Islamic republic’s rising hegemony, and they have embraced President Trump, who at least talks tough about the ruling mullahs. MBS also appears to be looking at Israel — which Iran’s rulers openly vow to eradicate — with new eyes.
There are those who don’t believe MBS is serious, who regard the notion of a liberalized Saudi Arabia as oxymoronic. Some may observe that prisoners of conscience who pose no threat to the throne, for example Raif Badawi, founder of Free Saudi Liberals, an online forum, has been publicly flogged and imprisoned since 2012 (and not in a luxury hotel). Releasing Mr. Badawi and other prisoners of conscience would go a long way toward proving MBS’ sincerity.
Confronting a mortal enemy on the march, cleaning up deep-rooted corruption, diversifying an extractive economy and moderating the Saudi reading of Islam — these are not modest goals and time is probably not on MBS’ side.
Should he fail, critics will say: “He was inexperienced, took too many risks and alienated too many powerful people.” On the other hand, if a generation from now Saudi Arabia is stable, prosperous and capable of deterring its enemies, MBS will be seen as a brilliant visionary and strategist. Might he then choose to transition from benevolent dictator to constitutional monarch in a democratic system of his own making? My guess is he figures he’ll cross that bridge if he’s lucky enough to come to it.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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