Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's reforms range from commendable to self-serving. Genuine change in Saudi Arabia might look nothing like what we're seeing today, and could eventually lead to the Kingdom's undoing.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, the Machiavellian villain Iago at one point reveals the sinister method behind his two-faced scheming by declaring ‘when devils will the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows’. 

This line almost perfectly encapsulates the motives behind the recent purge by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS). 

Prior to the purge, MbS had been all over the media promising heavenly shows for the Kingdom, claiming his political ambition was to return the country to ‘moderate Islam’ and build a more open society. All this fits with his economic agenda, coined ‘Vision 2030’, which aims to diversify the Saudi economy and liberate it from its dependence on oil. 

So far it has amounted to the announcement of a Red Sea tourist resort that seems to cater to MbS’s ultra-rich—but liberal—friends, and will ‘allow’ women to wear bikinis, and contains a Six Flags theme park as part of an ‘entertainment complex’ almost as big as Las Vegas. It has long been sarcastically remarked that Al Saud have all but turned the holy city of Mecca into a theme park, so it’s no surprise that MbS’ market-driven, elite vision of the country entails actual theme parks. 

But this is precisely the problem with attempting to understand the very concept of ‘reforms’ within Kingdom and in many ways the entire region – on the one hand, any action that makes Saudi society more egalitarian towards women or other persecuted groups ought to be embraced, but such reforms can only ever be viewed within the constraints of the tyrannical monarchy itself.

In other words, women being ‘allowed’ to wear bikinis in theme parks and luxury resorts in Saudi is an example of precisely where MbS’ reformist vision stops – as has been pointed out by Saudi dissidents, actual reformists in the Kingdom have been violently repressed. MbS and the Saudi establishment won’t ever co-exist with those who call for genuine societal reform. 

Reform or self preservation?

Over the past few months, Saudi has instituted several new repressive policies that have bolstered its already vicious security state to crackdown on dissent. Moreover, under MbS’ behind-the-scenes reign, the execution rate of Shia and other political dissidents being executed has risen enormously. This isn’t about egalitarianism in any true sense, but rather self-preservation. 

And this brings us to the recent power and wealth grab carried out by MbS against some of his fellow princes, as well as politicians and business figures, on alleged charges of corruption. It’s perfectly true that corruption within the Kingdom is a huge problem, but it’s a problem that exists far beyond the 11 princes and more than a dozen businessmen and politicians that MbS rounded up and detained (at least 200 in total). Indeed, it’s a problem that is inherent to the whole monarchy itself, including that part of Saudi’s vast monarchy that supports MbS. 

Corruption was merely a pretext for what was a purge of those figures that were seen to be insufficiently supportive of MbS and his attempts to ensure that once he’s given the throne, he’ll have consolidated more power than any king since Abdelaziz (Ibn Saud). If MbS was to meaningfully tackle corruption within the Saudi monarchy and political elite, he’d have to arrest almost every member of the royal family, including himself and his father, the current King. 

While to the outside world those purged by MbS were accused of corruption, a narrative that was championed by Donald Trump, the justification to the domestic audience has been quite different. To Saudi citizens, the arrested have been accused of, to quote exiled Saudi dissident Jamal Kashoggi, ‘being recipients of Qatari money and part of grand Qatari-backed conspiracy’.

It’s of course hardly a coincidence that this narrative is the same as that used by the Sisi regime to smash democracy in Egypt, something it did with huge monetary backing from Saudi and the UAE.

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, was similarly accused and convicted of the absurd charges of spying for Qatar, while members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party have all been slandered as agents of a foreign plot, led by none other than Qatar. 

Is it fear that drives the Crown Prince?

Within the context of the upheaval of the Arab spring, Al Saud’s main priority has been to protect itself not from Iran, which it would have you believe is its antithetical arch-nemesis, but from something it sees as far more dangerous to itself and its interests – democracy. 

This gets to the heart of the political logic of MbS. It is not common knowledge that Saudi faces what might be described as a demographic problem.

Saudi has managed to stave off large-scale protests and thus huge crackdowns in the country due to the relative wealth of its population and its astute ability to exploit sectarianism and the real and imagined threat of Iran. 

But while commentators too often over-emphasise the threat posed to ‘stability’ in Saudi from the Shia-majority East of the country, the real threat, as Saudi sees it, comes from most Saudi citizens who are simply normal Sunni Muslims and not part of the relatively small elite that adhere to the de facto state religion of Wahhabism. 

While most Saudis support the monarchy, there was an unprecedented outpouring of support for Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood during the coup. The kind of Islamism endorsed by the Brotherhood is one that fuses Islamism with democracy – one that, like Saudi Arabia itself, seeks to represent a vision of Islam that could be embraced on a popular level. 

Due to its vast support for Sisi, Saudi was faced with protests and denunciations by influential religious figures within the country - 31% of Saudis hold favourable views of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the Kingdom designating it as a ‘terrorist organisation’ . 

This is precisely why Saudi has gone out of its way to stop democratic Islamist forces in the region, and why columnists in the Saudi media, shortly before the most recent purge, demanded the ‘eradication’ of ‘Islamists’.  It might be an oddity for one of the world’s few Islamic theocracies to seek to eradicate ‘Islamists’, but it makes sense if you understand that Saudi fears groups like the Brotherhood not because they’re ‘terrorists’ or ‘extremists’, but rather because they promote democracy.

This is also why MbS has been the leading figure behind the blockade of Qatar, which is perceived to support groups like the Brotherhood. 

If Saudi was to ever face economic hardship, based on falling oil prices, increased competition and energy insecurity, the kind of uprising that typified the Arab spring could engulf the Kingdom.   

MbS seeks to bolster the economy with his ‘Vision 2030’ programme of reform, which will necessarily lead to, in his own words, ‘an open society that lures investors’, which means tackling the hardline Wahhabi religious establishment, but he also knows that a truly ‘open society’ would mean challenges to the true problem within Saudi Arabia – the monarchy itself. 

In other words, for every bit of alleged progress that MbS oversees, you can expect more authoritarianism in other areas of society. 

Therefore, MbS is being given free rein to become potentially the most powerful Saudi king in history. It’s a gamble that Saudi feels it must take, but it’s one that could backfire and lead to unprecedented turmoil for one of the region’s great bulwarks of tyranny. 

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