The Two Faces of Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia’s prodigal son returns to Washington this week, beginning a tour through the United States apparently aimed at drumming up investment in the country. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is young with big ideas: he wants to reform Saudi society and wean the Saudi economy off oil. He also wants to build up Saudi as a foreign policy player – with or without the United States – and cement Saudi dominance in the Gulf.

It’s small wonder then that profiles and articles about the prince typically either laud him as a great reformer or simply criticize his foreign policy blunders. The truth is an accurate portrayal of Mohammed bin Salman must include both. And policymakers and businesses should be wary of the potential pitfalls of his proposed reforms, even as they hope for their success.  

The Crown Prince’s social reforms are a welcome step in the right direction, though they will be difficult to complete. Thus far, there has been a crackdown on the religious police, robbing them of much of their power over morality issues. Cinemas have been permitted to screen movies for the first time in decades. Women can now attend sporting events, and legal changes are in progress that will allow them to drive.

Likewise, the innovative economic reforms that MBS has proposed – notably using an IPO of Aramco stock to shift the government’s primary income source away from oil and towards investment gains, paired with an attempt to reform the domestic economy and attract inward investment – could potentially reshape and improve the state of the Saudi economy.

There is no doubt that U.S. policymakers should welcome these changes and encourage Saudi Arabia to continue down this path.

Unfortunately, on the flip side, the assertiveness shown by MBS at home has been matched by an extremely bellicose foreign policy. The young prince’s foreign policy overreach has already helped to create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Saudi blockade of Qatar has been spectacularly ineffectual and has hardened into stalemate.  

Worse, both incidents reflect the prince’s worst quality: his hardline stance on Iran and his willingness to see Iranian tentacles behind every crisis, no matter how unrealistic this view is. In his interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes, for example, he blames Shi’ite Iran for the rise of Al Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups and for the civil war in Yemen. His fixation on Iran risks destabilizing the Middle East still further. 

Nor are the bad parts of MBS’ record limited to foreign policy. He has cracked down heavily on corruption inside Saudi Arabia, a seemingly praiseworthy campaign that in reality saw him imprison other prominent royals and businessmen in the Ritz Carlton hotel until they agreed to sign over many of their assets to the state. And the prince has ruthlessly centralized power into his own hands, shifting Saudi Arabia from a relatively consensual system of government within the royal family, to a system of one-man rule closer to that of Egypt or Syria.

Policymakers – and indeed, businesses and potential investors – should also be wary of the flaws and potential problems in MBS’ ambitious reform plans. Reform is a slow process, and thus far, there have been no moves to fix some of the worst injustices in the Saudi system, notably the guardianship system for women and ongoing repression of Saudi Shi’ites.

Economic reform is certainly not guaranteed to work either; as with many other oil-rich states, Saudi Arabia will find it brutally hard to wean itself off of oil. Some of the biggest developments in the reform plan thus far are fantastical. The proposed high technology city of Neom sounds impressive till one questions why tech companies would choose to relocate to somewhere with Saudi Arabia’s poor climate, workforce, legal and regulatory systems.

Meanwhile, the much-touted IPO of Aramco will only be able to happen on Western exchanges if substantial changes are made to Aramco’s record-keeping, transparency and perhaps even ownership structure.

And none of this is to mention the issue that combines business and national security concerns in one tight package: civilian nuclear power. Though MBS is seeking U.S. cooperation in building civilian nuclear plants ostensibly to reduce Saudi dependence on domestic oil production, he is also open about the fact that he sees civilian nuclear energy and enrichment capabilities as a potential path to a Saudi nuclear weapon.

For all these reasons, policymakers and investors should be wary of profiles which portray Mohammed bin Salman as either a great reformer, or a callow youth. His proposed reforms for Saudi society are in many ways far-sighted; they carry the potential to fix many of the country’s underlying structural and social problems and should be encouraged.

But at the same time, we can’t overlook his many mistakes and poor choices in domestic and foreign policy, nor ignore the risks inherent in his ongoing reform plans. Being an apparently genuine reformer doesn’t absolve MBS of his aggressive foreign policy steps or domestic authoritarian tendencies.

A complete picture of the young prince’s record suggests caution on the part of investors – and pushback on foreign policy and domestic crackdowns by policymakers – remains by far the best choice.