The Fragile Future of Reform in Saudi Arabia

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working to change many faces of his kingdom’s society, but some experts wonder whether he can keep a grip on power.

Charles Platiau / Reuters

These are heady times in Saudi Arabia, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pursues a series of changes—including liberalization in some areas, such as allowing women to drive, and crackdowns in others, through detention or imprisonment of activists.

The pace of change, as well as admiring coverage in some precincts of the Western media, has perhaps obscured a crucial question: Can it last? MbS may be the toast of the town now, but he could also become toast, and a trio of Saudi watchers warn that the changes he has put in place could easily be reversed.

“I don’t think this way of doing business will survive,” said Hala Aldosari, a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies who works on women’s rights. She made the comments Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “He antagonized a lot of people. His legitimacy is now more external than internal. He does not have the support of the people.”

Karen Young, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, echoed Aldosari’s analysis. “What I hear from Saudis is this is a year and a half looking forward that’s extremely delicate,” she said. “There’s great wanting for something to work, and the UAE feels the same way … but it’s a critical moment right now.”

The young crown prince has done a good job of cultivating foreign allies, especially the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, the panelists said, but his position internally remains tenuous—a danger that MbS has sometimes played up when justifying his legal crackdowns to outsiders. He warns of conservative religious backlash, but there’s also a risk posed by rivals within the Saudi royal family.

Perhaps a bigger danger, however, is economics. Saudi Arabia faces a glut of youth who see constrained opportunities, and low oil prices in recent years have hurt the state’s coffers. If MbS can’t deliver economically, it will imperil his hold on power, the panelists warned.

Even the heralded loosening of women’s right to drive, which took effect this week, is driven by that concern, said Young. “It’s really an economic rationale for the women’s opening. The reason you might want women to drive and to work [is] they’re your best hope at creating a two-income family.”

Activists have viewed the decreased restrictions on women as a bittersweet moment, since many of those who advocated most forcefully for women to drive are imprisoned or living in exile. In addition, Aldosari noted that while the government can change driving laws, women remain subject to strict guardianship laws, meaning that the reality of reform for any individual woman depends on the assent of her male family members.

Despite misgivings about the real depth of reform and rule of law, Malik Dahlan, a professor of law and public policy at Queen Mary University in London, said he is rooting for change to stick.

“I’m not embracing Tom Friedman’s perspective,” Dahlan said with a smile, referring to one particularly effusive take on the crown prince. Nonetheless, he said, “It would be apocalyptically risky for MbS to fail in his reforms. No one can afford it today.”