Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, the kingdom’s charismatic future leader, seduced the world with his vision for a new, modern nation.
Vast wealth and the promise of dramatic change make for cautious optimism concerning Saudi Arabia, the chief executive…442 Views | the publication reaches you by | Saudi Arabia Today
Women can attend soccer games. Last September, MbS announced a bold promise to overturn the country’s ban on women driving, a change that is set to go into effect on June 24.
Then, late on Friday, it all came crashing down: Reports emerged that the women activists who pressed for the policy change had been arrested and imprisoned. As of this morning, 13 are reported to have been arrested; most are women.
Apart from the driving issue, they have campaigned against so-called guardianship rules which require Saudi women to receive permission from a male relative before making many life decisions, like traveling.
One of those detained was Loujain al-Hathloul, who was photographed at the 2016 One Young World Summit with none other than Meghan Markle, who married Britain’s Prince Harry on Saturday.
What is happening in the kingdom? MbS may want to discourage any popular protests seeking additional social or political changes.
(Over the weekend, one American official told me that the arrests reflected the prince’s personal style, even if his name was not publicly linked to them.)
His reforms were always likely to provoke opposition from within Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated, hierarchical society, which follows a strict interpretation of Islam. The apparent need to arrest women activists suggests that MbS is having to rethink his grand plans.
In Saudi Arabia, MbS is sometimes likened to Saddam Hussein, the executed former dictator of Iraq. Most often, they’re referring to the “good” Saddam, who, as vice president, was a driving force for modernization in the 1970s.
That Saddam, though ruthless, was respected. Only later, in the 1980s and 1990s, did he come to engender widespread fear. I have spoken to Saudis who fear MbS will turn out the same way.
One anecdote about MbS that seemingly every ambassador in Riyadh tells is the “bullet story.” When MbS was 22 (roughly 10 years ago), he wanted to build a business career. On one occasion, he needed a Saudi judge to sign off on a deal. But there was a problem with the contract, so the judge declined. MbS, the story goes, pulled a bullet out of his pocket and put it on the man’s desk. “You will sign or this is for you,” he said. The man signed the contract, but complained to then-King Abdullah, who banned MbS from the royal court.
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