By Roger Cohen
June 21, 2018
A commercial street in Riyadh in February. CreditOliver Weiken/Picture Alliance, via Getty Images
A few weeks ago, a woman — a prominent media consultant — and her two daughters were shopping at the upscale Kingdom Centre mall here. Her daughters, both in their early 20s, had their heads covered on this shopping trip. Hers was not.
At the approach of members of the Saudi religious police, whose official mission is to promote virtue and prevent vice, she reached for her head scarf. She did not, however, put it on. Enough already, she thought.
“Cover your head!” the agents ordered her.
“Well,” they muttered, “may God protect you.”
With that, the bearded enforcers limped away. They used to descend on stores that sell the shapeless black gowns called Abayas imposed on Saudi women, scoop up those with any adornment — a trace of color, beads — and burn them. No longer: These once-feared upholders of a puritanical Islamic order are now defanged — completely neutered, as the woman put it to me.
On Sunday, Saudi women will start driving, consigning, at last, a conspicuous symbol of such oppression to the scrapheap. These are heady days in the Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as M.B.S., who became heir to the throne in a virtual palace coup a year ago, ousting his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef. He’s a hard-charging 32-year-old disrupter.
President Trump has embraced the prince as his lost Middle Eastern son, a young man who hates Iran, hates political Islam and loves money. It’s a risky bet that a rash upstart can end the Saudi bargain with the devil that contributed to jihadist terrorism around the world. To some degree, the level of violence and instability in the Arab world will depend on the Saudi experiment.
The prince’s apparent aim is to upend just about everything, except the absolute rule exercised since 1932 by the House of Saud, with the help of oil and American power. He wants to liberalize, at least economically and socially, and so demonstrate that Islam, in the nation of its holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, is not a harsh, unbendable rule book based on ancient scripture but is rather compatible with modernity and tolerance.
That’s a bold project. The prince’s father, the 82-year-old King Salman, is “the custodian of the two holy mosques.” Custodianship is a conservative business. Look no further than Egypt’s assassinated Anwar el-Sadat or the toppled shah of Iran to see the fate of tradition-trampling Westernizing leaders of Muslim Middle Eastern states. Saudi Arabia is not any such state. It’s the lodestar.
Perhaps his most radical proposition is the empowerment of women because the genuine liberation — and that’s still in doubt — of half the Saudi population would transform the country and send a clear message of a modernized Islam.
During a week in the capital, Riyadh, and the Red Sea port of Jeddah, I found a dizzying nation where ultrachic malls are full of stores that close five times a day for prayer and modern restaurants are still enmeshed in the regulatory minutiae of segregating men from women. There’s a heavy dose of glitzy Houston and a repressive hint of Pyongyang. People marvelled when the country’s first movie theatres opened this year.
The prince’s makeover could, in theory, change more than Saudi Arabia. Five times a day many of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims turn toward the country in prayer. “When people look at Saudi Arabia, see Mecca and Medina, they want to emulate it,” the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told me in an interview. “When they see openness and moderation and tolerance and innovation, that’s what they want to be.” No other country, he argued, has “that soft power.”
In other words, change Islam in its Saudi nucleus and you change the world. It was not, of course, Saudi moderation that put 15 Saudis on the 9/11 planes. It was the well-funded metastasis of extreme Saudi religious intolerance — its Wahhabi orthodoxy — into forms of murderous Islamist hatred of the apostate West. It was the House of Saud’s unseemly deal with fundamentalist clerical firebrands: Spare us here at home, and we’ll grant you license abroad.
Unshackling women is part of the prince’s effort to show he’s broken with all that. But as the arrests last month of several female activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, suggested, he faces a delicate balancing act. The arrests reek of hypocrisy and fear.
Reactionary forces abound, not least within the sprawling royal family, some of whom Prince Mohammed locked up in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in November, with not a fig leaf of due process, in a display of Shakespearean anti-corruption theatre that was also a shakedown and a ruthless assertion of power.
“I believe Islam is hijacked,” Prince Mohammed told me and several other New York Times journalists during a visit in late March. Ideas gush from him in great cascades, but not a Saudi mea culpa for having inspired or underwritten some of the hijackers. The prince alluded to the mingling of men and women in the time of the prophet. So why not now? He wants to return Saudi Arabia to “normality,” a favorite term in the kingdom these days, as contrasted with what are called “30 lost years,” the time of the aberrations that helped produced Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
A Candide-like faith that the barnstorming prince will deliver the best of all possible worlds seems pervasive. Yet, Prince Mohammed also propagates the kind of fear that makes a woman prepared to defy the religious police afraid to give her name. Allow women to drive, but don’t allow the brave women who pushed for this to claim credit. Embrace the internet, but not to the point of allowing it to be used to criticize the royal family. Permit Victoria’s Secret, but desexualize the mannequins and make sure the lingerie is in muted shades of pastel. Push for openness, but centralize the power of the House of Saud.
It could still be that M.B.S. is the great Make Believe Show. But something is moving. Cynicism is too facile. “I get annoyed with the West telling us the changes are cosmetic,” Hoda Abdulrahman al-Helaissi, one of the first female members of the Shura Council, an advisory body to the king, told me. “We are changing at the rate of a high-speed train, not of a rocket. Young people, and 70 percent of the population is under 30, don’t want to live as we lived. The prince understood we have to pull the tooth from the mouth!”
Prince Mohammed is everywhere, even when, as in recent weeks, he scales back his public appearances. I went to see Mohammed al-Tuwaijri, the economy minister, to find out how the heir to the throne operates. He told me he’d met six times with the crown prince the previous week. M.B.S. fires rat-tat-tat questions at him: What do you need from me? What do you think of that crowd-management software for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca? How do we make things happen? One meeting took place at 4 a.m.
Things are happening, all right. A new Jeddah airport opened last month. The Riyadh subway will begin operation next year. Saudi Aramco, the state-run oil giant, is to be partly privatized. Ground has just been broken near Riyadh on a vast, multibillion-dollar “entertainment city” that will include a Six Flags theme park and create 50,000 Saudi jobs, the minister said.
Stadiums are being retrofitted to accommodate women. A new bankruptcy law — “We had no bankruptcy law! We need to protect investors!” — was adopted. “Saudization” is the buzzword denoting the drive to tackle 34 percent youth unemployment by training Saudis to replace foreigners, of whom there are some 12.6 million in a total population of 33.4 million. (Employers are not all happy because Saudis tend to work less and demand more.)
“We are shocking the system,” Tuwaijri told me. Shock’s a word you hear a lot. The Saudi economy, still heavily dependent on oil, needed a jolt. Too many people were feeding at the hydrocarbon trough. The progressive empowerment of women is also an economic necessity. Families can no longer live on one salary.
Instead of husbands ferrying their wives around, women will be able to drive from A to B. Saudisation of the work force is also feminization. “Our preference ultimately is no difference between men and women in terms of involvement and seniority in the economy,” the minister said.
Tamader al-Rammah, the vice minister of labour and the most senior woman in the government, shared her irritation at stereotyping during a recent World Bank meeting in Washington. “People were asking me, ‘Does you husband mind?’ Or, ‘Did you get permission?’” Back home, she’d just been in a small town in the north, where she found young women, some with their faces covered, some not, doing all the sales jobs in a mall. “Not long ago it would have been men,” she said. “We’re breaking the stereotypes.”
Rulers over 80, a Saudi norm, may be wise, but they are not risk-takers. Now, with the crown prince, gradualism is gone. It’s all “Vision 2030,” his slogan, and K.P.I.s (key performance indicators) on a forced march to a less oil-dependent country of mass tourism, empowered women, renewable energy, theme parks and the rest.
Believe it if you will. This is the Saudi Arabia the crown prince sought to sell during a three-week American road show that ended in April. From Trump to Richard Branson, from Jeff Bezos to Oprah Winfrey, he peddled his message of reinvention and urged American investors to join the party.
Can he pull off the rebranding? “M.B.S. does not pretend to be a liberal, and he has the full coercive power of the state behind him,” Ali Shihabi, a Saudi author, told me. “Still, he has to balance things. Even if conservatives are not a majority, they can be a very disruptive minority.”
For now there’s an almost eerie silence. That’s partly fear. Prince Mohammed throws opponents in jail — and it’s not always the Ritz. Dozens of pro-democracy activists were rounded up in September.
There are two schools of thought on his prospects. I’ll call the first the perfect-timing faction. It argues that M.B.S. caught a wave that had been building for some time. A largely uncensored internet, Saudis’ intense involvement in social media, a youth bulge, women’s education, frequent travel and post-9/11 self-scrutiny had all paved the way for a revolutionary upstart to fast-forward a chafing society. The Trump administration has given him the free rein he needs through uncritical support.
Thamer al-Sabhan, the minister for Persian Gulf affairs, receiving me at his airy Riyadh home, declared the prince “the hope of the kingdom and Muslims in general,” before bringing in his 16-year-old daughter, Alanoud. With great composure, in good English, she described her thrill at “having more chances,” at being able “to express ourselves without being judged, especially as women.” She smiled and said, “M.B.S. is a great role model for young people.”
The second school is the pride-before-a-fall faction. They see a rash leader, as corrupt as those he’s accused of corruption, embarked on the helter-skelter pursuit of modernization as he reinforces rule by royal decree, cutting subsidies even as he acquired a French chateau for several hundred million dollars. “M.B.S. is erratic, irrational and immature,” Samer Shehata, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, told me. “Is he really the man who can reconcile Saudi Arabia with the modern world?”
At a restaurant, over rice and lamb, I met with a man in his 30s, a former journalist who’s taken himself off Twitter and decided to go abroad for a few years to sit out what he sees as an unpredictable, troubling moment. What sort of transformation, he asked me, includes no political change and shuts the door on more freedom? In what kind of society are you a national security risk if you question the bungled war in Yemen? Saudi society, he mused, never challenges the government — as a public, press or parliament. Nor, it seems, will it any time soon.
In a transition to democracy, the core question is often the degree to which civilian leaders can bring the military under control. But democracy is a nonstarter in Saudi Arabia. In the hybrid Saudi transition, the question is how far the Wahhabi religious conservatism that created security problems around the world, and made Saudi Arabia a very repressive place, can be curtailed on the way to “normality.” Judged on that basis, I’d say Prince Mohammed’s chances of success are good for two reasons: He has amassed tremendous power, and tens of millions of restive young Saudis back him.
Tuwaijri, the economy minister, told me: “I can confirm we had 30 wasted years” as a result of “corruption” and being “hijacked by ideologies, by wrong ideas, jihadists and extremists. And lots of people were sitting in the middle saying: ‘I don’t know. My life is O.K. Why should I bother?’ Now we are saying there’s more to life than this, please join us.”
That sounded much more like a needed Saudi mea culpa.
A huge CNN screen behind the minister churned through stock prices, Trump and tumult. It’s a reactionary moment in world affairs, yet maybe, just maybe, Saudi Arabia can inch in the other direction under the crown prince. Tuwaijri said: “I'm not sure if the pace is sustainable. But 90 percent of the time he's cool.” The minister paused before adding, “And he's ready to change his mind.”
Before visiting Saudi Arabia, I spent several days in Qatar, the gas-rich Saudi neighbor blockaded by Riyadh for a year and accused of every perfidy: support of Iran, sponsoring terrorism, subversion of gulf states and funding a TV network, Al Jazeera, that gives voice to opinions Saudi Arabia does not like. On this subject, Prince Mohammed, initially roared on by Trump, has shown zero flexibility, leaving a major inter-Arab political crisis to fester.
Qatar, whose 300,000 citizens enjoy one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world, will host the World Cup in 2022. It’s been comfortable with women drivers for many years. It’s home to the vast Al Udeid United States military base: The presence of more than 10,000 Americans precludes any military temptation the Saudis may have.
Could the Saudi prince, Qataris wonder, be suffering from a touch of pique and envy? Certainly, he has shown recklessness, both here and in Yemen, where the military coalition Saudi Arabia leads has been placed on a United Nations “list of shame” for the killing and maiming of children.
I went to see Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, and found him coolly defiant on M.B.S.: “He cannot strip away the dress of terrorism” that Saudi Arabia “was wearing for more than 40 years now and just put it on Qatar like this.” For the Saudis, he insisted, “terrorism is not the act of terror. Terrorism is you are disagreeing with me.”
The thrust was clear: To heck with Big Brother’s demands to shut down Al Jazeera and cut off all relations with Iran!
In response, Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, was equally defiant. I asked him in Riyadh why Saudi Arabia — along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — had imposed the blockade. “Hate!” he said. “Interfering in our affairs, paying money to terrorists.” He urged Qatar “to move from denial to introspection,” adding that “until they change, we’re not going to talk to them.”
The Qatar blockade was imposed on June 5, 2017, two weeks after Trump’s love-fest in Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip as president. Trump exulted on Twitter: This was a blow to “radical ideology.” The president has since tried to row back his elation, and he hosted Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar at the White House in April. The fact is that neither Saudi Arabia nor Qatar is innocent when it comes to having funded Islamist extremism.
Trump, at heart, has no interest in the details. His uncritical embrace of Saudi Arabia reflects a radical gut-driven, money-tinged reorientation of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
President Barack Obama had tried to capitalize on America’s reduced dependence on Saudi oil to strike a middle path in the great Sunni-Shiite, Saudi-Iranian confrontation playing out from Syria to Yemen. He engaged sufficiently with Shiite Iran to reach the nuclear accord Trump has now nixed, and opened a continuous dialogue with Tehran.
This infuriated Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. It terrified them. In Trump they saw opportunity, plying him with flattery and blandishments. He has duly shredded Obama’s attempted Saudi-Iranian rebalancing.
The problem is Iran is a big, resource-rich country. Qatar and Iran share the world’s biggest gas field. As Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, told me, Qatar has “legitimate reason to have a relationship with Iran.” In fact, it has no choice.
But for Trump, and Prince Mohammed, any tie with Iran is heinous. Several times from Saudi ministers I heard Iran compared to Hitler’s Nazi regime. The crown prince himself uses the analogy. This is pure Iran Derangement Syndrome. Iran is a repressive country with a hideous human rights record (just like Saudi Arabia) and an expansionist agenda in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. It needs to be confronted, with great firmness and creative diplomacy. It will not, however, surrender to Trump’s braggadocio or Prince Mohammed’s absolute demands, which play into the hands of Iranian hard-liners.
Another element of Middle Eastern reality is the existence of a political Islam that is not synonymous with terrorism. When the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt’s free election in 2012, the Obama administration tried to work with the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who now languishes in jail, ailing, in solitary confinement. Obama’s acceptance of Morsi, too, appalled the Saudis and Emiratis, who view the Brotherhood as terrorists. With Obama, how could anyone “not come to the conclusion that you want the Muslim Brotherhood to take over the region,” Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, told me.
So, as the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, told me over lunch in Washington, a big push went into backing the counterrevolution — that is, along with Saudi Arabia, plying tens of billions of dollars into backing the movement that ousted Morsi and installing as president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose repression of the Brotherhood has been brutal.
Otaiba is now tight with the Trump administration, including the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. So tight, Otaiba knew of Rex W. Tillerson’s ouster as secretary of state and his replacement with Mike Pompeo three months before it happened.
A European ambassador told me he went to a dinner party in Washington in December and complained to Kushner that it had proved difficult to organize a meeting for his foreign minister with then-Secretary Tillerson. Otaiba chimed in, “Things will be much better when Mike’s installed.” That happened in March. Otaiba told me in a later email that he had no recollection of this.
For Otaiba, Qatar is a Brotherhood mouthpiece. In a way he’s right. “I’m not here defending the Muslim Brotherhood,” Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, told me. “But our point of view is that anyone who is willing to participate in a political process, a democratic process, above the surface, in a transparent way — give them a chance there and don’t push him below the surface and let him commit crimes.”
This is the fundamental disagreement with Prince Mohammed, the basic Middle Eastern schism. He is betting that he can crush the Brotherhood and its sympathizers in Qatar, as well as crush Iran and its sympathizers in Yemen.
Three years after it began, the Yemen war continues unabated, with widespread starvation, cholera, thousands dead, accounts of indiscriminate Saudi bombing of hospitals and schools, Houthi missiles being fired into Saudi Arabian towns, and spreading misery.
Most Saudis view it as a war of necessity; Prince Mohammed could not accept a surrogate of Hezbollah, itself an Iran surrogate, on his southern border. That’s a legitimate strategic objective. But absolutism in foreign policy tends to be self-defeating.
If the prince can indeed change his mind, Qatar and Yemen would be good places to start. Qatar is not going to genuflect to every demand. Yemen is not going to be an Iran-free zone.
“Where would we be if the Yemen war had not taken place?” Helaissi, the Shura member, asked me. “But this has been terrible for our image around the world. I think it’s our Vietnam.”
I went down to Jeddah, the Red Sea Saudi port and gateway for pilgrimages to Mecca. On the corniche, dotted with beaches, flanked by a new bike path, high-rise condos are going up beside luxury hotels. I tried to imagine this pleasant, uncluttered stretch of coast as a kind of Saudi Cancún a decade from now, with busloads of tourists clogging the streets.
It was a stretch. What I saw was a pier with shaded areas down which formless black shapes — that is to say, women — glided with their faces veiled, one woman lifting the black flap over her mouth to insert an ice cream cone; and an official telling a little girl to get off her tricycle.
I turned from the sea, where nobody swam, and looked for somewhere to get a cold drink by the beach. The Starbucks was closed for prayer. I waited in the blistering heat.
When it reopened, I got chatting to Mohammed Jalal, the Egyptian manager. “Nobody likes to live here,” he said. “But you do save money.”
Jalal has been in Saudi Arabia a dozen years. From his vantage point, Prince Mohammed’s transformation push looks like a stop-go process. Women sometimes sit next to men at the outdoor tables — inside, they are confined to the second floor — and nobody had complained. On the other hand, he told me, “We had Western music playing, customers grumbled, and Starbucks shot it down.”
At the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, I asked Saud Bin Saleh Al-Sarhan, the secretary general, and Abdullah bin Khalid Al-Saud, the director of research, how far the Saudi makeover could go. They suggested that where there is disagreement between Islamic scholars change would occur, but where there is unanimity it would not.
Women would go uncovered; store closings for prayer and restaurant gender segregation would end; the crippling system of “guardianship” (already crumbling) that allows men to control the movement and lives of Saudi women would unravel; Medina might be accessible to non-Muslim tourists, Mecca probably not.
However, alcohol, same-sex marriage and going public about homosexuality would never be allowed.
I visited the Riyadh driving school for women, out on a university campus. It has a waiting list of a mere 70,000. Here, some 3,000 registered students go through 30 hours of training, for about $600, or about six times the cost of the course for men. (Saudi authorities insist the quality of the training is higher.)
Shereen Abdulhassan, the founder of a Riyadh hiking team, told me that some years ago she’d given up hope. “I’m still not happy at the price discrimination,” she said. “But I love M.B.S. for trusting society more.” Thousands of Saudi women have already signed up to be drivers for a Middle Eastern ride-hailing company, Careem.
Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, a former associate professor of women’s history at King Saud University, has long campaigned for women’s right to drive. Four hours after the driving announcement in September, she received a call from an official telling her not to exult on social media. She concluded that the government did not want the breakthrough to be seen as a victory for public advocacy.
Her analysis of her country at the cusp struck me as about right. The crown prince is genuine. He’s put his finger on what is keeping Saudi Arabia back. He lacks wisdom, especially on Qatar. There are lots of red lines, new and old, constant censorship, calls to blacklist any “anti-Saudi” media. The centralization of power is alarming. Changes have occurred but have not been framed in law, which makes them vulnerable.
And so? “I am hopeful,” Fassi told me. “Hopeful that 10 years from now we will have a public sphere that is more humane and safe for women, freed of the guardianship’s abuses, and that will be good for the Saudi economy.”
also think that will happen. If it does, Saudi Arabia’s embodiment of a harsh, troublemaking Islam will have collapsed, and that could usher in the post-post-9/11 era. As a sign of his intent, Prince Mohammed should immediately release the female activists recently detained.
I thought of Nada Alarishi, a young finance student I met in Jeddah. She wore no head scarf and an open black robe rather than a conventional Abaya. She told me she planned to open her own coffee shop. No way it would close five times a day for prayer.
Her expression, full of determination and promise, struck me as a manifestation of the young prince’s achievement so far. If Saudi Arabia is indeed to be transformed, and the corrosive grip of fear loosened, it is women who will make that happen.
Roger Cohen has been a columnist for The Times since 2009. His columns appear Wednesday and Saturday. He joined The Times in 1990, and has served as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor.