MBS Is Changing Saudi Arabia. Is It Worth It?

Zach Richards, Assistant Forum Editor

From 2013-2017, my family lived in Saudi Arabia. For four years I called this country home, but it wasn’t until my family moved that I was able to truly understand how different Saudi Arabia was from anywhere I had ever lived before. In the six years since I’ve left, I’ve reflected on the time I’ve spent there, and taken the time to learn about what Saudi Arabia looks like now. 

In those six years, Saudi Arabia has undergone serious changes: women, who have long been only passengers in vehicles, have gained the right to drive; the black, full-body abayas that my mother and sister once had to don when leaving the house are now absent on foreigners; movie theaters, which were long banned, are now a favorite past-time of many Saudis. 

Many of these reforms have been at the behest of Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially known as MBS, the 37-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. His Vision 2030 plan seeks to propel Saudi Arabia into the future as a strong Arab state with a robust economy and a modern society. 

In an effort to modernize the country, MBS has also vastly curtailed the power of the traditional Saudi religious authority, such as the Wahhabi clerics, a part of the religious establishment, and the mutaween, the religious police in charge of maintaining social order. The mutaween have previously been responsible for beating Saudi women for their informal attire, but are now only allowed to give warnings. Although I have had limited contact with the religious authorities when I lived in Saudi Arabia, I have been ordered to leave a mall for wearing shorts before.

MBS’s reforms seek to return Saudi Arabia to an era before the 1979 Iranian Revolution that led to a rise in terrorism and ultra-conservatism throughout the Middle East. In this sense, the Crown Prince seems to have his own “Make Saudi Great Again” vision. Critics of the government have argued that Saudi Arabia needs to look forward – not backward – if it is to truly progress, however. 

One of these critics, notable Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was infamously murdered by agents of the Saudi government in 2018 for his criticism of MBS. Khashoggi’s death sent a message around the world: the inability to freely criticize the Saudi government would be the price the country would have to pay for MBS’s reforms. 

In the six years of his de-facto rule, MBS has proven himself to be progressive, iconoclastic, and violent. Although not yet King (the 87-year-old King Salman is the official ruler of Saudi Arabia), the Crown Prince has cemented himself as the future of Saudi Arabia. As a foreigner with an appreciation for the country that helped raise me, I applaud MBS for his social reforms, but the Crown Prince must not stop here. These reforms must be only the beginning, and the United States must hold MBS accountable for his political violence. For now, I think it’s best to keep the fist bumps to a minimum.