Mohammed Bin Salman and the Guise of the Reformer

Emma Faverio

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) was supposed to be the Middle Eastern reformer the West had been waiting for. Since his power grab in 2017, the Western media has depicted Salman as the young and charismatic figure who would finally modernise Saudi Arabia; some journalists even went so far as to define his regime in terms of a ‘top-down Arab Spring’. These hopes, however, crumbled overnight on October 2nd as news of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance broke out. Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist and long-time political advisor, was reportedly tortured and killed in the Saudi Arabian consulate of Turkey after criticising the royal family. Words such as ‘authoritarian’ and ‘repressive’ newly branded MBS as the international community refused to ignore this brash disregard for human rights. The abrupt shift in Salman’s perception by the Western media portrayed the Khashoggi affair as an anomaly in the otherwise progressive regime of MBS; yet whether this truly aligns with the reality of the recent changes made in Saudi Arabia is debatable.

In the wider context of sweeping socio-economic reforms, international media has largely focused on one aspect of MBS’s rule to legitimise his image as a reformer: his decision to lift the ban on women driving. This event has been described as a monumental victory for human rights in Saudi Arabia and has been hailed as an ‘important step in the right direction’. Other changes enacted by MBS, such as curbing the power of the religious police, reinforce the idea of a ruler counteracting the traditional conservatism that oppresses his society. However, by failing to put the legitimisation of women drivers into the context of the Saud political agenda, a one-dimensional snapshot of the situation appears. Without a deeper analysis, it becomes easy to bypass how allowing women to drive may in fact allude to a repressive regime in disguise.

The motives behind Salman’s decision to let women take the wheel are significant and have more to do with gaining economic and political traction than advancing human rights. It would be true to state that the Crown Prince is attempting to loosen the tight religious code Saudi Arabian society has been bound to, but whether the motivations are humanitarian is disputable. At the foundation of Saudi Arabia lies a historic pact between the royal family and the religious institution of the Wahhabi clerics, whereby the House of Saud gains religious authority if they enforce the strict religious policies advocated by the Wahhabis. By distancing himself from traditional Islamic groups, Salman is gaining more political freedoms for the House of Saud.

The importance for MBS to act independently cannot be understated when we look at how the international arena impacts local economic reforms. Vision 2030 is the crowning jewel of Mohammed Bin Salman’s proposed plans to change the face of Saudi Arabia; it is an extensive blueprint aimed at developing public sector services in order to diversify the Saudi economy and make the country less dependent on oil. Foreign investments and expertise are crucial in making sure that Vision 2030 becomes a reality. This is not lost on MBS who has used his social reforms as a publicity stunt to attract Western investors, such as US oil firm Aramco. These considerations make the decision to allow women to drive nothing more than a political calculation by Salman. The impact this has on social progress is immense, as the royal family’s lack of true consideration for human rights is reflected onto society. The paradox between this decree passing and the many women activists currently detained due to their campaigning for this very change, proves that the Saudi government only tolerates progress when it is beneficial to them. Although the removal of the ban on women’s driving is only a fragment of Salman’s reign, it is emblematic of the failed Western idolisation of a reformer who never existed.

Presently, the Western media’s new aversion to Salman following the Khashoggi affair has affected both international politicians and investors, with prominent figures such as Donal Trump publicly condemning the Saudi Arabian government’s actions. Yet, as the analysis of the decision to let women drive attests to, MBS’s time in power has been marred with numerous human rights violations – from arresting local activists and journalists to detaining dozens of Saudi officials and businessmen in an anti-corruption crackdown. Although some of these instances remain more nuanced affairs, others stand out in stark contrast as clear atrocities. The civil war in Yemen looms out as a prime example. The bloody conflict has been continuous since 2018 and has been exacerbated due to it becoming a proxy war for Saudi Arabia and Iran. Reports from the ground are appalling; three quarters of the population are in need of humanitarian aid and the UN warns that the country is on the verge of ‘the worst famine seen anywhere in 100 years’. The Saudi Arabian intervention in the civil war has been direct and significant under Salman, who has overseen the war first as Minister of Defence and now as Crown Prince. Numerous unregulated acts of aggression by the Saud family have been defined as war crimes, including a blockade of aid to the civilian population and the targeting of civilians during air raids.

As the war in Yemen rages on, the silence on behalf of the international media resounds in stark contrast to the outrage after Khashoggi’s death. Could this be due to the West’s own involvement in the Yemeni conflict? To criticise Salman’s position in Yemen would also demand a confrontation of the US and UK arms deal that make said aggression possible. Or perhaps it could be due to the implicit media bias of the West? Whilst the war in Yemen affects the poorest demographic of the Middle East, Jamal Khashoggi was a respected member of many elite circles in Washington. Neither, however, is sufficient in explaining why the international community clung on to the fictitious idea of Mohammed Bin Salman ‘the reformer’ for so long. Hopefully, this tragic episode can finally shine a light on the human rights abuses under Mohammed Bin Salman and demand that the West does not become his accomplice.

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