Editor’s Note: Dr. Ian Black is a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics. He is the former Middle East editor, diplomatic editor and European editor of the Guardian. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, has made headlines across the world after promising the kingdom will return to a “moderate” form of Islam. He also guaranteed a brighter future for his people, as he promoted modernization plans to wean the country off oil, attract foreign investment and diversify the economy.
Bin Salman’s strategy, Vision 2030, has looked stunningly ambitious since it was unveiled last year, at a time when he was still deputy crown prince and not set to inherit the throne.
It has been accompanied from the start by a slick PR campaign, which seeks to improve the kingdom’s poor international image by emphasizing the positive, the forward-looking and the needs of young people.
Naturally enough, it ignores opposition from those Saudis who are alarmed by even limited moves toward social liberalization. And it certainly doesn’t mention domestic repression.
The latest message from bin Salman included a reference to being “open to all religions,” a remarkable pledge in a deeply conservative country that is the birthplace of Islam and where churches are banned and Jews not tolerated.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that these comments were made at an international investment conference – tellingly dubbed “Davos in the Desert” – with a glittering VIP guest list and a large delegation of foreign journalists, who would normally struggle to obtain visas.
Last month’s royal decree allowing women to drive was an equally eye-catching element of bin Salman’s national makeover. It certainly makes sense economically, as it boosts female participation in the work force. And women can now also go to sports stadiums.
But reflecting the constraints that operate on this leap into the future, there have been no parallel moves to end the notorious guardianship system, under which women require the permission of a father, husband or brother to travel abroad or to marry. That would be a far bigger step forward for Saudi women and more convincing evidence that this is a country embracing social liberalization.
And it’s in this context that bin Salman’s promises to modernize need to be read.
Since being promoted by his father to crown prince, the 32-year-old has been consolidating power in the traditional way: by appointing royal cousins to key jobs. In absolute monarchies, some things just don’t change.
Bin Salman was already known as a rising star from his time as defense minister and deputy crown prince. But he shot to global prominence in June when his father the king, who is 82 and in poor health, appointed him crown prince instead of the incumbent Mohammed bin Nayef.
In a country where dynastic rivalries really matter, that was a highly significant move – and not least because of bin Salman’s youth and inexperience.
His reputation for being impetuous was not helped by the decision to go to war in neighboring Yemen in 2015, not long after his appointment to the defense ministry.
The continuing crisis with the neighboring Gulf state of Qatar – which has been blockaded and isolated by the Saudis and their allies on spurious charges that it backs terrorism and extremism – also looks reckless for a man trying to project an image of cool-headed statesmanship.
All of which raises the question of exactly how committed bin Salman can be to what a Western audience would consider to be genuine modernization. Furthermore, how easy will it be to keep his promises in a country like Saudi Arabia?
His desire to return to a form of “moderate” Islam is clearly designed to counter the widely held belief that the Saudi Wahhabi doctrine is a source of extremism, and an inspiration to the jihadis of Isis and al Qaeda. The recent establishment of a center to examine the authenticity of Muslim religious texts made the same point.
Skeptics will invariably point to the historic bargain between the Al Saud family and the religious establishment, which led to Saudi money funding Wahhabi mosques and education across the world. Can bin Salman really change this?
Conservative clerics remain powerful while human rights violations are often the result of punishments enshrined in Sharia law. Still, the Mutawa religious police have seen their power curbed in recent years. It remains to be seen how popular clerics, especially those with a massive social media following, will react to plans to encourage Red Sea tourism and the liberal Western habits that will inevitably go with it.
And of course repression continues, even if it goes unseen by visitors to carefully stage-managed events. Last month saw the arrest of a number of religious figures and other intellectuals and activists in advance of a call by exiled opposition leaders for demonstrations after Friday prayers – though these were prevented by the prior deployment of security forces, a lesson learned during the turbulent years of the Arab spring.
And some of bin Salman’s economic reforms have already brought unpopular changes, not least the removal of state subsidies that sent fuel and water prices soaring for ordinary people who have no way, in a country without any form of democracy, to choose their representatives.
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Back to the issue of religious extremism: Bin Salman blamed the influence of the kingdom’s strategic rival Iran in causing instability across the region. Indeed, the Islamic revolution in 1979 did reverberate across the entire Muslim world.
But one of the ways it affected Saudi Arabia was for the king to formally change his title to the grandiloquent and legitimacy-boosting “Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques” (of Mecca and Medina).
There is no sign that the holder of that office, or his high-profile son and heir, are considering diluting their own powers as a new era dawns. Saudi watchers can, for the time being, be forgiven for taking the long view of the kingdom’s modernization – and looking beyond the spin to see some more substantial results.