Writing in these pages last month, I described Muhammad bin Salman’s reform agenda in Saudi Arabia as “the real Arab Spring.” The 32-year-old Saudi crown prince, widely known as MBS, seeks to dramatically transform the ultra-conservative kingdom, I argued. But he is pursuing change in a top-down, authoritarian manner that is better-attuned to the character and needs of his people. His methods are less likely to yield the chaos and state failure that resulted from the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 through 2012.
Now comes more evidence that MBS is serious about liberalization. On Monday, Saudi authorities lifted the 35-year ban on commercial movie theaters in the kingdom. Americans encountering the news might be tempted to laugh it off: “Saudi Arabia takes a bold step into 1905!” But for Saudis with few outlets for fun, dating, and socialization, the return of movie night is no small matter. The announcement follows MBS’s decision to give women the right to drive and attend soccer games. No longer will being young and female in Saudi be synonymous with suffocating boredom.
There are other benefits associated with these changes. First, by empowering young people, MBS is rewriting the Saudi social contract. For decades, the kingdom buffeted its people with generous lifetime entitlements, in exchange for which Saudis traded in most of their citizenship rights. That arrangement worked for a time, but it is increasingly unsustainable, especially with oil prices hovering at $50 a barrel and unlikely to climb anytime soon.
It was this looming economic crisis that spurred MBS to act. Granting young Saudis greater personal freedoms, the thinking goes, will encourage them to see themselves as citizens rather than subjects and welfare-state dependents. In parallel to this social opening, the kingdom under MBS aims to expand the private share of gross domestic product, boost women’s participation in the labor market, and scrap a number of subsidies and benefits. These are politically challenging economic reforms. MBS is wisely adding spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down.
Second, MBS’s liberalizing reforms will help secure his own position. As I argued in November, the crown prince is creating a permanent constituency of women and young people who are determined to see him succeed. Here is a prince from their own age cohort, who makes bold promises and delivers. Other princes and princelings within the House of Saud will now be that much more reticent to challenge MBS for fear of incurring the wrath of these young people. This is populism, Saudi-style.
Finally, there is the salutary PR effect. Riyadh’s regional arch-rival, the Islamic Republic of Iran, can no longer paint itself as a beacon of progress next to hidebound Saudi Arabia. For years, Tehran tried to win regional hearts and minds by showcasing its sham elections and Iranian women’s freedom to drive. But Saudi women can now drive, too. And they are even ahead of their Iranian counterparts, in that they are permitted into soccer stadiums.
Riyadh still has far to go. One important area, so far left untouched by MBS, is the status of religious minorities. The crown prince can put Tehran to shame, and further bolster his regime’s legitimacy, by ending the restrictions and petty persecution targeting the kingdom’s Shiite minority. Extending a hand to the Shiites and appointing them to positions of responsibility within government would help alleviate the community’s sense of grievance and inoculate Shiites against Iranian anti-Saudi propaganda. Similarly, it is long past time to permit non-Muslim believers to practice their faith openly in the kingdom.
Taking such steps within an authoritarian framework won’t win Muhammad bin Salman plaudits from the West’s universalist human-rights brigade. But they will secure his status as the pivotal Arab figure of the first half of the 21st century.