“Exceptionalism” was long claimed for America, at least until a president informed us that every nation considers itself exceptional. However that may be, one place now merits that description: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where past, present, and future are entangled as nowhere else; a family, a state, a religion, and an empire variously maneuver for prominence depending on the lens through which the outside world views them. Which is it? What is Saudi Arabia? And how much can it move the political markets of world affairs?
The reign of King Salman of Saudi Arabia (since January 2015) represents a significant watershed in the history of the kingdom’s system of governance as well as in its domestic and foreign policies. These changes reflect the priorities of the king, who is an absolute monarch. The first, and most important, of these is the handing over of de facto rule to a prince of the younger generation: the king’s 32-year-old son and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known in the West by his acronym MBS), who will become the reigning monarch upon his father’s passing.
A mass drugging is how one young Saudi man in Riyadh described to me Mohammad Bin Salman’s Vision 2030, eight months after its ostentatious launch in April 2016. Smoke and mirrors, he meant. Since then, the energetic and youthful Saudi crown prince has surprised his critics by upending a number of his country’s political, economic, and cultural norms. But can he safely deliver more change to an already rapidly changing society? How much tinkering can one do with a fragile polity before it cracks under the pressure?
The arrest of several of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists six weeks before the date when women would be allowed to drive came as a shock to everyone. After news of the detentions spread through informal channels, an official announcement on May 19 referred ambiguously to the detention of individuals seeking “to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom” and erode “national unity” through various activities. Local news outlets quickly vilified the activists – some well-known abroad as peaceful advocates – and branded them “traitors.”
“These astonishing things that have been happening in the Land of the Two Holy Places … if King Abd al-Aziz were to come out of his grave and witness them, he would not believe that this is his kingdom that he worked so hard to establish and unite.” So lamented Abd al-Muhsin al-‘Abbad, an outspoken Wahhabi cleric, in a late 2017 assessment of the social reforms being implemented in Saudi Arabia. The king in question was the founder of the modern realm, Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa‘ud (d. 1953), who is also the father of the present king, Salman, and grandfather of the new crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS).
“Everyone has a plan,” the great American boxer Mike Tyson once quipped, “that is, until you get punched in the face.” Saudi Arabia, as the world knows by now, has a plan. In fact, the Saudi Vision 2030, unveiled in dramatic fashion in April 2016 with a roll-out similar to the launch of a new iPhone, has become one of the most well-known national transformation plans in the world. It has become almost a by-word for the changes dawning in the Kingdom, and the calling card for the reformist credentials of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Though he fancies unpredictability a useful negotiating tool, President Trump has been remarkably consistent about the Middle East. He campaigned against the Iran nuclear deal and in May 2018 withdrew the United States from it. He promised, as most presidential candidates have done, to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Unlike any other successful candidate, he actually did it, also in May 2018.
Saudi Arabia is undergoing a perilous, but essential transformation. Those wishing to safeguard one of the last bastions of Middle East stability should support Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MBS) dramatic socioeconomic reforms and also appreciate the challenges, resistance, and limitations amid which he is forced to operate. As rapid reform risks destabilizing the kingdom’s broad and deeply divided political base, rule by consensus will not work. Only a strong hand can balance Saudi Arabia’s competing constituencies.
Saudi Arabia, a kingdom grounded in a dynastic religious alliance, stands at a crossroads. Some observers and journalists, both Western and Arab, eyeing the new assertive leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (henceforth MbS) and his promised economic and social reforms, have rushed to declare him a ‘reformer’.
Effective US policy toward Saudi Arabia requires familiarity with the intricacies of its history and society, of course. The legacies of the foundation of the state, the traditional collaboration of political and religious leadership and the burdensome privileges of the extended royal family still weigh on the Saudi present, even as new circumstances develop, especially the ambitions of the young generation, eager for the reforms promised by the bold leadership of the Crown Prince.