|Crown Prince with US Secretary of Defense Mattis|
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has caused a stir with a speech saying Saudi Arabia plans to become more moderate in its Islam and open to the world. This follows soon after the announcement that women will now be allowed to drive.
Having only rather recently left, after five years in Saudi Arabia, my own insights might be of value.
My immediate reaction is to remember Perestroika. This is reminiscent of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union back in the Eighties, and comes from the same point of origin: the money is running out. Understanding that the current model is now unsustainable, with the drop in the price of oil, the Saudi government is seeking some alternative, and clothing it as reform in hopes of getting popular support behind it.
It makes sense, too, to open to the world. Keeping the doors shut has cost Saudi Arabia a lot of money, and was supportable only while subsidized by oil. For example, Saudi has great tourist potential. The United Arab Emirates has been doing pretty well from tourism. But Saudi Arabia has waived this income by making it almost impossible to get a tourist visa, in the interests of preserving the purity of its Muslim culture. I have no doubt much else could be done to make the Saudi system conform better to the rest of the world, in order to encourage other industries and economic diversification. Dubai has done well without oil. Bahrain has done well. Much of their success was built on doing for Saudi Arabia what Saudi Arabia would not do.
I can also attest to a craving among young Saudis to relax current social restrictions and be more like everywhere else. Young Saudis are about the same in their thinking as young people everywhere; there is no real cultural difference any longer to preserve. The Internet has seen to that.
On the other hand, although those on the left may hate to hear it, the truth is that Saudi Arabia has been a more pleasant and secure place to live, under the current regime, than just about anywhere else in the Middle East, the Gulf Emirates excluded. The government is bureaucratic and autocratic, but not repressive. Compare recent life in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, or Iran.
Actually, I am not sure what the left thinks of Saudi Arabia any more. Saudi Arabia used to be their go-to example of a “repressive” regime. But that was up to about six months ago, when they all decided they liked radical Islam. Shades of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
But the Saudis never were either Hitler or Stalin. The Saudi government has been both held together and kept honest by the alliance with Muslim clerics. Without this check, other governments in the region have done far worse. Cutting that cord is risky.