The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the second largest of the Arab countries and the world's largest producer and exporter of oil, is often called “backward thinking” due to its anti-women’s rights laws, enforcement of Islamic fundamentalism, and overwhelming economic dependency on oil.
But this may be changing with the Kingdom’s new leadership. Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, otherwise known as MBS, has been making headlines. Only 32 years old, MBS is widely recognized as the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia since King Abdulaziz bin Saud, the man who founded the nation in 1932. Perhaps even more revolutionary is that MBS is so powerful despite being the crown prince. The current king, his father, is still technically in power but has been largely behind the scenes in the last couple of years. All eyes, American in particular, are on Saudi Arabia as the US looks to make allies in the middle east, abate tensions in the region and look at next steps in the future.
Visionary in his thinking and rash in his decisions, it is perhaps not surprising that MBS is currently the frontrunner for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year Reader Poll.
Here are the things you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s MBS, his vision for the country and why he is so controversial:
1. “The Purge”
Three weeks ago Mohammed Bin Salman surprised the world by detaining dozens of senior officials in a so called “anti-corruption campaign.” Among those arrested were 11 princes including billionaire and tycoon Al Waleed Bin Talal, an investor in many large companies including Uber competitor Lyft and the Four Seasons.
By many in the international community, this move was seen as a consolidation of power within the country’s government. The danger with supreme power, especially in the Middle East, is that failed dictatorship is often partnered with even more corruption. The way he has detained many of his political opposition points to one of his biggest flaws: rashness in his decision making. His lack of political rivals can ultimately pave way for more dangerous decisions.
For younger Saudi citizens, however, MBS’s campaign against corruption is seen as a step forward in his efforts to move the country’s economy away from its overwhelming dependence on oil. Nationally, much of his plans for a “more moderate Islamist future” is welcome. MBS now has the power to completely overhaul, or at least heavily reform, much of the nation’s social structure and economic plans - a much needed step that would help secure the Saudi Arabian future.
2. The New Dubai?
Welcome to sun, sea and smart robots. In front of you lies the sparkling coastal line of the Red Sea. One of Egypt’s top beach destinations, Hurghada, is only a bridge away. Everything here is high tech and automated - from self-driving cars to robotic concierges and waiters, this city is the ultimate renewable energy hub connecting three continents and countless cultures. For the first time ever on Saudi soil, men and women can mix freely in public and you can actually go to a movie theater! Here, robots are more abundant than people and get citizenship unlike non-Saudi’s.
Welcome to NEOM city, Saudi’s answer to Dubai and the country’s solution to steering its current economic system away from its oil dependency. MBS says that the answer to skeptics who argue that the gulf has enough hubs lies in looking to the future. With strong backers like Blackstone Group LP and SoftBank, MBS’s vision of Dubai’s competition may very well come true.
3. Saudi women can now drive (finally!)
On September 27th 2017, the Saudi government issued a decree, credited to MBS, that finally allowed women to drive. Although Saudi women make up a disproportionate percentage of the workforce, they were not able to drive themselves anywhere! This decree came after a long battle, including women who have even served jail time for trying to protest the law by driving around the streets of the kingdom. For women in the country, and around the world, this decree is a step in the right direction for a country which has long oppressed women. Women right’s activists in the region expressed thankfulness for the decree.
Amnesty International’s Philip Luther said that the decree was “just one step in the right direction” further explaining that the international community must see all of Saudi’s discriminatory laws swept away before fully praising the kingdom. Not everyone in Saudi Arabia was happy with the news; the decision sparked backlash from Sharia scholars who argued the removal of hte law subverted Islam. As such, how easy it will be to abolish other gender discriminatory laws in the kingdom remains to be seen; however, this symbolic move will undoubtedly be seen in history as a key turning point for the country.
4. Foreign Battles
For a 32 year old, MBS is fighting a lot of battles. Although his domestic disagreements have had significant effects, the most controversial and impactful moves MBS has made lie within his foreign policy.
As of today, Saudi Arabia is the leader of an arab coalition in Yemen, the co-head of a boycott of neighbor Qatar and in a war of words with Iran which has ignited tensions with Lebanon as well. MBS’s foreign policy has the ability to further destroy or unite the region
and as such the entire world should carefully be watching his moves in the coming years.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have historically been political rivals. The majorities in these two countries practice two different branches of Islam, Shia and Sunni Islam. Today, Shia Iran distrusts Sunni Saudi Arabia, because it believes Saudi Arabia’s religious prominence in the region has fueled terrorist groups like ISIS. Conversely, Saudi Arabia distrusts Iran because it believes Iran is constantly trying to expand its influence across the region, often competing with Saudi Arabia as a major power in the area. The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are more political than anything else and are at the root of almost all of the conflicts in the region including many of the proxy wars we see in the region today.
MBS's decision to lead an arab coalition into Yemen to fight anti-government Houthi rebels has increased tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia with the Yemeni people stuck in a humanitarian crisis in the middle. According to unicef, 1000 children die every week from preventable diseases while 2.2 million children suffer from malnutrition.
The BBC reported that the blockade imposed by the Saudi led coalition has left 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. U.N. agencies urged the Saudi-led military coalition to lift its blockade of Yemen, warning that “untold thousands” would die if it stayed in place.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain all cut ties with Qatar on June 5th after accusing Qatar of fueling terrorism and turmoil in the region. The Qatari boycott was meant to oust Iran from its influence in Qatar but instead it has only soured the relationship between Qatar and other Arab countries creating a state of conflict.
One of the states caught in the crossfire between Iran and Saudi is Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al Hariri was on a trip to Saudi Arabia when he announced his resignation as prime minister. Leader Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a Shia movement who are strong allies with Iran and believe Saudi is fueling terrorism, then voiced his belief that Saudi Arabia was forcing this resignation. On November 10th, Saudi Arabia told it’s citizens to leave Lebanon after accusing Iran of “direct military aggression”, saying it supplied a missile which was fired at Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, from Yemen on Saturday. A recent announcement by Prime Minister Saad al Hariri's to rescind his resignation has raised further suspicions within the international community.
5. A friendship with Donald Trump
Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May and offered his support of MBS’s foreign policy. Political analysts say that many of the recent decisions made by MBS have been fueled by Donald Trump’s support. While even Trump’s state department has been cautious about congratulating MBS after some of his rash decisions, Donald trump has not, instead offering his praise to MBS by phone or tweet. . Although it is beneficial for Saudi Arabia and the US to have a strong political relationship, Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni crisis as well as other regional rifts should not be ignored as there are some serious human rights issues which the US should hold Saudi Arabia accountable for.
Although crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s ambition and vision for a progressive Saudi Arabia is admirable, his tendency to make rash decisions without listening to opposing perspectives is dangerous. The US and other foreign powers must support MBS’s efforts to modernize his country without failing to recognize the human rights violation he has caused.
image source: stepfeed.com