Mohammed Bin Salman and the Paradox of Social Reforms and Repressions in Saudi Arabia

Updated: May 26

Hriti Parekh

Research Intern, Internationalism Research


Over a long time, Saudi Arabia was known for two things: oil and Islam. The former was collected under the sands of the kingdom in such vast amounts that it had turned the ruling dynasty, the Al Saud, into one of the wealthiest dynasties in the world, granting the land that bore their name, a geostrategic significance, that would otherwise have been absent. The vast oil wealth had shaped the Saudi economy, bringing considerable wealth to an elite class of princes and businessmen. Most people either stayed home or earned wages from government jobs which paid well and needed little effort.

The official Islam of the kingdom was not any Islam, but Wahhabism, the ultraconservative and intolerant interpretation that was woven into the kingdom’s history. It taught the faithful to be wary of non-Muslim “infidels,” saw murderers and drug dealers beheaded in public squares, and deprived women of basic rights. The kingdom was much more rigid than most other Islamic communities but its position as the protector of the holiest places of Islam, in Mecca and Medina, gave it a special impact over the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. A comparatively obscure and junior prince before his father's accession to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman (known by his initials MBS) soon became the face of Saudi Arabia's attempts to change the country's economy. He launched Vision 2030 in April 2016, an ambitious government roadmap to economic and developmental growth aimed at reducing the country's dependence on oil.

Reforms or Repressions?

In the years since Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power, many headline-grabbing social reforms — concerts, movie theatres, a lift to the ban on women driving — were incorporated into the ultraconservative monarchy. At an October 2017 investment meeting, Prince Mohammed described the reforms that were happening as a transition to a more open society :

"We are simply going back to what we have been following — a moderate Islam that is open to the world and to all religions," he said.

But at the same time, he had also been heavily criticised for pursuing a war in neighbouring Yemen that had caused a humanitarian catastrophe, starting a diplomatic dispute with Qatar that has divided the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), escalating a crackdown on dissenting voices. There were even calls for him to be replaced as crown prince after the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the government, was killed by Saudi intelligence agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Behind the glamour and pomp of Prince Mohammed’s newfound fame abroad and advancements for Saudi women and youth, however, lay a darker reality, as the Saudi authorities moved to sideline anyone who would stand in the way of his political ascension. In the summer of 2017, at the time of his elevation to Crown Prince, officials purged retired police and intelligence officers and secretly reorganized the country's justice and defence system, the key instruments of Saudi control, and put them directly under the command of the royal court. The authorities then conducted a wave of detention drives, targeting hundreds of opponents and possible opponents of Saudi government policies, with the security forces firmly under the royal court’s supervision.

Detaining people for a nonviolent critique of the government's policy or support for human rights is not a recent trend in Saudi Arabia, but what rendered the waves of detention noteworthy and distinct since 2017 is the sheer amount of people arrested in a brief span of time as well as the implementation of modern authoritarian measures not seen under previous Saudi leadership. Authoritarian measures included long term detentions and extorting financial assets of detainees in exchange of their release. Mohammed bin Salman also had the ultimate responsibility for the abusive tactics of Saudi Arabia in its military intervention in Yemen. The coalition headed by Saudi Arabia, which launched combat operations against Houthi forces in Yemen, enforced an aerial and maritime embargo and blocked the movement of life-saving commodities, exacerbating the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

However, the authoritarian dimension of MBS' domestic record was not granted the foreign attention it required until October 2018, when the brutal killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, shook global opinion and contributed to a wider analysis of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. There was significant global media coverage of Khashoggi 's assassination, particularly when it became apparent that his murder was committed by Saudi state agents. Accompanying this was widespread criticism of Saudi violence. Dozens of business leaders and officials departed from the Future Investment Initiative Forum as well.

Saudi authorities lifted the ban on women driving, only weeks after the arrests of the country's leading women’s rights advocates in June 2018. Saudi Arabia declared in late July 2019 that Saudi women over 21 would be allowed to receive passports without a male relative 's permission, record their children's births and benefit from new safeguards against sexism in jobs. In early August, Saudi Arabia announced further regulatory changes that would allow women over 21 to travel freely abroad without a male guardian 's permission.

The Way Forward

Despite substantial strides for women, continuing unconstitutional and violent actions against critics and activists since mid-2017 and complete lack of transparency indicate that Saudi Arabia's rule of law remains poor and can be weakened by the country's political leadership, at will. Criticism of the king or crown prince "in a way that disreputes Islam or justice" would result in a punishment of five to ten years in prison and remains a criminal offence under Saudi Arabia 's 2017 counter-terrorism law.

In order to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is truly reforming, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should introduce new reforms to ensure that Saudi citizens enjoy basic human rights, including freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, as well as an independent judiciary and due process of law. The authorities can signal this commitment immediately by releasing from detention all detainees detained arbitrarily or on charges based solely on their peaceful ideas or expression, dropping all charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes against dissidents on trial and providing accountability for perpetrators of abuses such as torture or arbitrary punishments.

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