by Derek Davison
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s arrival in the United States has coincided with a very carefully managed public relations blitz intended to portray him as a visionary leader shepherding Saudi Arabia into a new era of social liberalization and economic change. His fawning 60 Minutes infomercial this past Sunday was perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. Americans are being told, by their leading pundits and their government, that the future Saudi king is a bold reformer with his country’s—and the world’s—best interests at heart.
But scratching the surface of Mohammad bin Salman’s reforms—be it the social changes he’s spearheaded or his ambitious Vision 2030 economic reform—reveals that the crown prince’s boosters are only focusing on one side of the overall story. For every highly publicized reform he’s instituted, like allowing women to drive (a reform that doesn’t actually address the deeper mistreatment of Saudi women), Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) has taken the country in the opposite direction in other ways, like his severe crackdown on free speech and his brutal suppression of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority—to say nothing of the myriad atrocities he’s perpetrated in Yemen. The prince’s economic vision likewise blends flashy elements, like robot citizens and entire new cities, with the introduction of neoliberal austerity measures that will hurt the Saudi people (who are already struggling with high unemployment) but that receive relatively scant attention.
On Wednesday, the Project on Middle East Democracy hosted a panel to talk about MbS’s reforms, particularly their top-down approach and their potential trouble spots. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi argued that while he thinks that MbS does believe Saudi Arabian society must be reformed, the prince has no intention of engaging the Saudi people or addressing fundamental human rights concerns in the process:
I appreciate what he’s doing. He’s pushing for reform, freeing us from radicalism. That’s why he’s being received warmly in America. Since 9/11, every American president and secretary of state has been encouraging the Saudis to do this, but Mohammad bin Salman is just doing it. The Americans are celebrating the idea that this is good for America, it’s good for the world, but it’s also good for Saudi Arabia. So he’s being celebrated for that.
But at the same time, this is not a spontaneous movement. It’s all planned, and I think he believes in clearing the field for his reforms. He doesn’t want any competition, any counter-opinions, any criticism. So he’s almost shut down everybody, and he’s moving ahead with his reform. When he arrested intellectuals last September, it was meant to silence everybody. The purge on corruption was planned to make everyone dependent on his mercy. If he succeeds, he will succeed alone. If not, maybe he will include the Saudi people in his reforms. I wish he could do that today, but right now he has all the power and the international community is not pressuring him on human rights.
Saudi activist Hala Aldosari was more critical than Khashoggi about the nature of MbS’s reforms, which she argues are driven by purely economic and public relations needs but are intended to leave more fundamental challenges untouched:
The top-down approach doesn’t respond to the needs of the Saudi people. That’s why you see selected reforms aimed at certain purposes, but not necessarily towards developing human capital or investing in people, or women, at large. Opening opportunities in the economy and allowing women to drive might be part of the economic reform, but women are still placed under more restrictive atmospheres at home. We don’t have reforms happening in family law, or in the laws protecting them from violence. Women are still subject to charges of disobedience and absence from the home. How many women can benefit from these new opportunities if they live at home with oppressive families or oppressive guardians? These reforms are not targeting the root causes of restrictions on women, but are selected to portray certain types of reforms that can be promoted in international media.
On the economic front, MbS’s most recent project has involved a supposed crackdown on corruption inside the kingdom. Under the auspices of a brand new anti-corruption committee, the Saudi government rounded up dozens of royal princes and wealthy Saudis and detained them at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. The New York Times reported recently that at least some of those who were detained were tortured, with one detainee even allegedly having been killed in custody. Most of the detainees have since procured their freedom by forfeiting part of their wealth to the kingdom—in total, $100 billion in assets have reportedly been turned over. Speculation has run rampant that the “anti-corruption” purge was in reality a scheme to bolster the Saudi treasury and/or a pretext for marginalizing a number of Saudi princes who could have been rivals to MbS as he prepares to succeed his father as king.
To MbS supporters, Middle East analyst Kristian Ulrichsen argued, this purge reflected a populist triumph, a challenge to the wealthy Saudi elite whose corruption is seen as stifling the Saudi economy for ordinary people. But international investors, whose support is essential to Vision 2030, likely received a much different message:
[The purge] ran up against attempts by Mohammad bin Salman to portray a very different message to international investors, whom he had hosted just 10 days previously at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh. There, he talked up a period of transformational change in Saudi Arabia as a way to attract inward investment. And for many investors who would have gone to Saudi Arabia for the first time for the Future Investment Initiative, they would have seen a very different Saudi Arabia than perhaps they would have imagined in their stereotyped vision. But they would have suddenly had those stereotypes reinforced by the nature of the crackdown, the fact that it was done without due process, using a hastily established, new anti-corruption committee that appeared to be above and beyond the law and not subject to any transparency or accountability. The timing was striking, to say the least. And it illustrated the challenge MbS will have trying to communicate with these two groups simultaneously.
Ulrichsen believes that the prince may be overhyping his economic plans. That, combined with his top-down approach to change, creates the potential for backlash (something that MbS has already experienced) if the changes fail to meet expectations and if their benefits, as he put it, “are limited to a single segment of society.” He added:
I think Vision 2030 is best understood as a vision, as a statement of intent and aspiration. Perhaps if only five or 10 percent of that vision is accomplished, Mohammad bin Salman’s supporters will say they’ve come a long way from where they began. But that’s not how he’s selling that vision, at least internationally and especially on his roadshow through the U.S. and London. He’s raising expectations to riskily high levels. If in two, three, five years nothing significant has really changed for the prospects of individual people looking to get ahead, they may begin to question whether Mohammad bin Salman is really the revolutionary he claims to be. We’ve seen a lot of his supporters here in Washington buying into that revolutionary, Arab Spring-like figure-of-change image, embracing his top-down approach without pausing to think about the extent to which there is a bottom-up counterpart. At some point there will have to be a reconciliation between these two approaches, or else there could be a backlash.
The reception that MbS’s austerity receives in Saudi Arabia may be partly shaped by the reception his military spending gets in Washington. His meeting with President Donald Trump on Tuesday was punctuated by a particularly uncomfortable exchange in which Trump went into detail about the $12.5 billion in new U.S. weapons the prince agreed to buy and then said to the prince, “that’s peanuts for you.” Ulrichsen suggested that the scene would not play well in Saudi Arabia:
I think if I were watching yesterday’s press conference with Donald Trump, I would have been quite dismayed to have seen a U.S. president treat his Saudi counterpart as if he were just a source of opportunities for the U.S. Some of the president’s tenor and demeanor was quite remarkable.
Khashoggi agreed that Trump’s performance was not helpful for the crown prince:
President Trump is wrong when he says that money is “peanuts” to us. Saudi Arabia has a serious poverty problem—money is not “peanuts” to us. To spend billions of dollars on military equipment is a serious thing. Today the Saudi Shura Council is talking about 35 or 40 percent unemployment—the official figure is 12 percent. So as much as Donald Trump is concerned about providing jobs for Americans, Mohammad bin Salman should be concerned about providing jobs for Saudis.
Photo: Hala Aldosari (POMED via Flickr)