Reformer or Autocrat? Saudi Prince Is Both

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A growing body of evidence links the suspects identified by Turkey in the disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the Saudi government led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Suspicions about the prince's involvement threaten to strain relations with the U.S., which had embraced his efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia's society and economy and to play a strong regional role in Middle East affairs.

That explains why many prominent Americans eager to strengthen Saudi ties have cast him as a progressive, modernizing reformer. And that’s why it's so significant that influential members of Congress are now talking about him as though he's just another power-hungry autocrat.

Which is he?

When it comes to social change, the prince is unquestionably a major reformer and a largely progressive one.

Women are now allowed to drive and have many more chances to interact with men at work, in school and in public places. Saudi Arabia remains a very conservative country, even by Arab and Muslim standards, but in many ways its mores would be unrecognizable to a traveler who last visited, say, five years ago.

MBS, as the crown prince is known, has dragged Saudi Arabia into the 20th century, but not the 21st. As long as Saudi women suffer the guardianship laws that force them to secure the consent of a close male relative for many basic life decisions, it will remain a suffocating patriarchy. But with women driving and other gender-related transformations, one can sense that those guardianship codes are likely to be modified or eliminated in the foreseeable future.

On religion, too, MBS is spearheading major changes. The crown prince is trying to ensure that government-sanctioned interpretations of Islam are more tolerant, less literal and less extreme than in recent decades. The once-dreaded religious police have been stripped of enforcement powers, and the government is pushing Saudi Islam in a progressive direction.

At the economic level, MBS plainly wants to be a transformative reformer. But he's not there yet. The effort to wean the Saudi economy off its near-total reliance on energy is still largely happening on paper. Two years after the prince raised the idea of selling shares in the state-owned oil producer Aramco to investors, a planned initial public offering seems only to be receding further into the future. The same goes for plans to curtail government handouts.

That's not to say that economic reforms won't take place. The prince sees his social changes, including unleashing the economic power of women, as crucial to securing Saudi Arabia's economic viability by creating a new social compact that turns dependent subjects into productive citizens. So his ambitions to be an economic reformer shouldn't be dismissed.

But politics are a different story. MBS is transforming some aspects of the Saudi political system, but not by liberalizing it. To the contrary, the political changes he's enforcing are concentrating power in the royal court and within his inner circle, restricting the number of decision-makers and cracking down on even mild disagreement.

As a result, many Western commentators have dismissed the idea that MBS should be considered a reformer at all, even suggesting that he has conned Western sympathizers.

But that's the wrong way to think about it. He just doesn't accept the Western notion that political liberalization has to go hand-in-hand with social and economic progress.

The crown prince is aware that reforms have the potential to undermine his power. That's doubtless the lesson he takes from the experience of modernizing 20th-century monarchs like Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shah of Iran, who were violently overthrown after unleashing change in traditional societies that they ultimately could not control.

So while the Western instinct is to see political repression in Saudi Arabia as a threat to the social and economic changes underway, MBS almost certainly sees it as a way to protect his reform project.

This explains why he has arrested the women who campaigned for the right to drive at the very moment he granted that right. The dual message tells conservatives that change is here to stay whether they like it or not, while warning liberals not to get the wrong idea about challenging authority. Even if the government concludes that an activist is right, he or she can still be arrested for complaining.

But the power to have it both ways when it comes to reform is not completely in the prince's hands.

The political crackdown has already spooked foreign investors and created domestic capital flight, and the Khashoggi affair has discouraged economic engagement by the Western private sector.

Maybe MBS thinks that's a temporary problem as it was, for example, for the Communist Party in China as it cracked down on dissent while setting off reforms that produced an economic boom starting in the late 1980s.

The Chinese experiment in centralized control of socioeconomic liberalization continues today. Can a Saudi version succeed? The specter of Jamal Khashoggi is whispering, “no.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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