The last time I visited Saudi Arabia was in February 2017. Changes were occurring. “Baby steps,” as one savvy young Saudi woman told me, adding: “There is at least an acknowledgement that we need to evolve.”
Four months later, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud appointed his favorite son, Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince. The monarch, now 86, soon made MBS, as he’s known, de facto ruler. Since then, the baby steps have become leaps and bounds.
Most visible: In 2018, the prohibition on Saudi women driving cars was lifted. Today, it’s common to see women behind the wheel—stuck in Riyadh traffic alongside men but, also like men, on their way to work.
On The Boulevard—an outdoor mall in Riyadh featuring elegant restaurants, high-end stores, fitness centers, hotels, fountains and sculptures—veiled and unveiled women peacefully coexist and both mingle freely with members of the opposite sex. There are no “morality police” as there are in Iran. “To cover or not is now a matter of free choice,” one Saudi woman told me.
Many of the briefers at the government ministries I visit are women—smart, educated and confident.
Most significant from an American national security perspective: Saudi Arabia now opposes terrorism, jihadism and other manifestations of “violent extremism.”
Years ago, of course, this was not the case. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the siege of Mecca that same year by what have been termed ultra-Wahhabis, Saudi policy aimed to demonstrate a commitment to destroying the Judeo-Christian West.
The Muslim World League (MWL), underwritten by the royal family, funded madrassas in Pakistan that trained boys for “martyrdom.” Radical imams were assigned to mosques around the world.
Saudi policy changed following Al-Qaeda’s attack on America 21 years ago this month, and its attacks on the kingdom in 2003 and 2004. As one prominent Saudi candidly (though privately) told me: “We created a Frankenstein monster. It went after you and then it went after us.”
Today, the MWL promotes a tolerant reading of Islam and opposition to “political Islam” of any stripe.
Two years ago, its secretary-general, Muhammad al-Issa, led a delegation of senior Muslim scholars and clerics from 28 countries to Auschwitz.
Saudi Arabia has not joined the Abraham Accords, the historic peace agreement between Israel and a growing list of its Arab neighbors. But no Arab leader would have signed without the tacit approval of MBS.
Saudis are acutely aware that Iran’s rulers pose an existential threat both to Israelis and Saudis, that Israel has the strongest military in the region and isn’t about to “pivot” away—as they fear the United States will. “Like us, the Israelis have nowhere else to go,” one Saudi official noted.
Establishing formal diplomatic relations with Israel—informal relations already flourish—will require that several ducks line up. For one, whoever is in the White House at the time will benefit. That’s a gift MBS will not be eager to give President Biden unless relations between the two improve.
For another, MBS would like to see progress toward a Palestinian-Israeli settlement. That said, Saudi officials with whom I spoke understand that Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, will never make peace with Israel. Nor will Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. As for 87-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, even if he wanted to cut a deal, he’s too weak to do so.
The framework for the economic and social transformation MBS is attempting to realize goes under the name of Vision 2030. MBS is determined that Saudi Arabia become economically diverse and dynamic, rather than depending on fossil fuels in perpetuity. He wants to attract investors, businesspeople, tourists, scientists and scholars.
Achieving that goal was unlikely so long as women were excluded from meaningful participation in Saudi society. Achieving that goal will remain unlikely if, every time foreigners hear “Allahu al Akbar,” they tense for an explosion.
The jewel in the crown of Saudi development ambitions is Neom, a futuristic city on Sindalah island in the Red Sea scheduled to open next year. Renderings show men and women in bathing suits. Wine and cocktails reportedly will be permitted.
One additional feature in MBS’s vision is worth stressing. Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, famously said “Patriotism is paganism.” In other words, it’s sinful for Muslims to love their country. They must be willing to sacrifice their homelands for the power and glory of Islam—as interpreted by him.
MBS, by contrast, is encouraging love of and dedication to Saudi Arabia. Based on polls and other data, it appears that young people in particular—two-thirds of Saudis are under 35—are not just receptive but enthusiastic. They see nation-building at home as a great and worthwhile project. They see no conflict with faith.
To accomplish all this within the timeframe MBS has set will be challenging. There are fewer than 3001 Arabian nights between now and 2030.
I’ve left the thorniest topic for last. MBS is a reformer—not a democratizer. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was—to paraphrase an eighteenth century French diplomat—worse than a crime; it was a blunder. Does anyone believe that the Saudi dissident was more influential as a contributor to The Washington Post than he is as a martyr?
MBS is 37. He intends, when he’s as old as his father is now, to be reigning over a powerful, influential and modern nation. Has he learned that such an end-state will not come about if he’s seen as belonging to the same club as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ali Khamenei? It won’t take half a century of Arabian nights to find out.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.