Saudi Arabia: Great Reformation or Public Relations Ploy?

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud following the signing by President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia of the Joint Strategic Vision Statement for the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, during ceremonies, Saturday, May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo Shealah Craighead)

Elizabeth Wells examines the recent reforms the new Saudi leader has implemented in the conservative kingdom.

The de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, has widely been praised as a revolutionary for opening up one of the most conservative kingdoms in the world. While he has not yet been named King, it is widely understood that he is now calling the shots.

Among these reforms are allowing women the right to drive and attend sporting events, lifting a 35-year -old cinema ban, supposedly cracking down on corruption, and promoting a more moderate form of Islam.

All of these fall into his broader economic reform plan, Vision 2030, which is designed to minimise the country’s dependence on oil by diversifying the economy. The kingdom’s economy has suffered greatly from lowering oil prices over the past few years and is in a desperate need of revitalisation.

His recent visits to the USA, the UK, and France have mainly been about attracting foreign investment into the country, as well as a public relations tour. As Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, told Al Jazeera, “Saudi Arabia has an image problem,” an image problem the young leader seems to be handling quite well.

He received a glowing welcome by USA President Donald Trump, Hollywood elites, and media moguls. Before his arrival in the USA, 60 minutes aired a flattering interview presenting the Crown Prince as a great reformist:

“Known by his initials ‘M-B-S,’ his reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary. He is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema and cracking down on corruption, in a land with 15,000 princes, but selling Saudi Arabia won’t be easy. In his first interview with an American television network, he was eager to discuss his country’s promise and its troubled reputation head-on,” Norah O’ Donnell introduces him.

In reality, his social reforms have been relatively minor. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the last country in the world to grant women the right to drive. Freedom House, an NGO watchdog organization that tracks freedom and democracy around the world, categorised the country as one of the least free countries in the world in terms of both political rights and civil liberties. Under the so-called “guardianship laws,” women still need a male’s permission to obtain a passport and travel outside the country. Homosexuality is still illegal. Political dissent is violently repressed. And it is leading the coalition bombing and blockading Yemen, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises.

All things considered, providing women with more rights and opportunities is fundamentally good. Integrating women into the economy and society empowers them and allows them an identity of their own apart from their relations to men. It opens the doors for further liberalisation, and an improvement in quality of life.