Saudia Arabia's Crown Prince Seems Poised To Shake Up His Kingdom. But Will He?

“I'm not Gandhi or Mandela."

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is touring the United States this week, and there's a good chance you'll see and hear his name in the news. If recent history is any indication, the stories produced by bin Salman's cross-country tour will be overwhelmingly positive. "MBS," as he's known, is using his rising status in Saudi Arabia to suggest moderate reforms in a country that, since 1979, has been dominated by extreme conservatism. 

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The question many onlookers in Saudi Arabia and across the globe are now asking is: can we trust him? Bin Salman has already inherited a swathe of power from his 82-year-old father, King Salman, and his influence on the king is starting to be seen. In September, King Salman signed a decree that finally granted women in Saudi Arabia the right to drive.  Saudi Arabia was the last country to prohibit a woman's right to operate a vehicle.

The news about women getting the right to drive was hailed online, but it was just one of many significant reforms since bin Salman was named crown prince in June.

He's largely curbed the power of the so-called "religious police," which enforces dress code laws by arresting women who are not sufficiently covered up. He's introducing cinema and music back into a country where it once thrived and he has helped expand the rights of women to join the military or start their own businesses or simply attend a sporting event. 

In a series of expansive interviews with CBS' 60 Minutes, bin Salman made splashy headlines for other proclamations that haven't been heard from Saudi leaders in decades. He described women as being equal to men when responding to a question from host Norah O'Donnell, a significant moment when you consider women are still required to have male guardians in Saudi Arabia. And, while discussing sharia law, he said the only thing that's explicit is that women and men must both dress in respectful clothing. But he did not commit to enforcing some of the most common garments in Saudi Arabia.

"This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover," bin Salman said. "The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear."

Within hours, Reuters was running with the headline, "Saudi women should have choice whether to wear abaya robe: crown prince."

Perhaps most importantly, the 32-year-old has done nothing to stop the rising tide of social media and technology that is exposing Saudis to culture and news from Europe and the Americas.  On the contrary, bin Salman is frequently seen with his head in his iPad and has praised the development and spread of technology throughout Saudi Arabia.  A majority of the country are citizens under the age of 30 and, as 60 Minutes put it, in their crown prince Saudi citizens see a "kindred spirit" who "represents the vast majority of the Saudi people."

The crown prince has pitched all this change as a return to pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, where moderate Islam and tolerance were the norms.

But questions about bin Salman persist. Perhaps most curious is how he ended up the crown prince in the first place. Bin Salman had to earn King Salman's trust over his uncles, brothers and cousins before being named an heir to the throne. 

In his interview with 60 Minutes, he was pressed on reports that he has organized the arrest of dozens of people who criticized the Saudi government in the last year. Bin Salman sidestepped those questions by saying he was trying to publicize the reasons for those arrests as fast as the government could. Asked about reports that he spent half a billion dollars on a yacht, bin Salman — who has frequently espoused his government's new era of transparency — said he did not want to draw attention to or discuss his personal life. He dismissed the large expense by reminding people he is the same as he was 10 or 20 years ago, a rich person who is the member of a rich ruling family.

"I'm not Gandhi or Mandela," he said. 

On that assessment, critics and bin Salman would agree. In one of the most well-reported stories about bin Salman, it was alleged that the crown prince invited hundreds of businessmen, government workers, and at least 11 princes to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. Once they arrived, he allegedly accused them all of stealing from the state and held them captive until they agreed to pay back the money they owed to the Saudi government. Bin Salman could only describe what he did as "extremely necessary" on 60 Minutes and "in accordance with existing and published laws," not denying any specifics of what was reported. When he was asked about the outcome of the Ritz-Carlton fiasco, bin Salman said the government recovered more than $100 billion, but that wasn't its goal. Instead, he claimed it was to send a message that anyone engaging in corruption will "face the law."

Other stories have been far more tragic. Saudi Arabia's controversial decision to launch a military campaign in Yemen included airstrikes and a temporary blockade on humanitarian aid. A Plus reported in December on the thousands of civilians in Yemen who have died because of the airstrikes and blockade, a reality bin Salman said was "very painful." But immediately, he blamed Yemen and Iranian forces for using the humanitarian situation "to their advantage to draw sympathy."

Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, argued in a CNBC column that bin Salman is selling himself as a reformer but acting a lot like a warmonger.

"MBS comes to Washington with the rhetoric of a domestic reformer, but under his arm, he clutches the shopping-list of a war-monger that includes the acquisition of nuclear reactors," Moosa wrote. "He bought huge amounts of arms in Britain and now comes to meet with President Donald Trump, who is likely to sell him dual-use capability nuclear-reactors which will give him an ego-boost as the loyal U.S. ally in the region."

Ultimately, bin Salman will be judged not just by his words — which are historically significant — but by his follow-through. Moderate reforms in Saudi Arabia would be greeted happily by the international community, but they could be overshadowed by increased violence in the region or unethical government rule. Or, worst case scenario, those reforms may never evolve past the public promises that are earning him such positive reviews.

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