Around this time of the year in 2010, a Tunisian fruit vendor’s self-immolation triggered a tsunami of uprisings that soon engulfed much of the Middle East and North Africa. The results were catastrophic. The so-called Arab Spring empowered political Islamists, left four Arab states in various stages of disintegration, and enabled the Iranian regime’s march across the region. Seven years later, a new spring is afoot, and this one has a much better chance of bringing real reform and prosperity to the Arabs.
I’m speaking of Muhammad bin Salman’s efforts to transform the hidebound Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into a modern nation-state. If the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince, widely known as MBS, can pull this off, he will prove to be one of the pivotal Mideast figures of our time, akin to Iran’s Reza Shah and Turkey’s Kemal Mustafa Ataturk in the last century.
The latest sign of the crown prince’s audacity came over the weekend when Saudi security forces detained more than 60 former ministers, royals, and business figures in an anti-corruption push that also aims to neutralize internal rivals to MBS’s power. Those detained–including Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a potential contender for the throne, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s richest men–haven’t been formally charged or accorded any due process.
Also over the weekend, Lebanon’s Saudi-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned while visiting Riyadh. That move suggests that the Saudis are no longer willing to accept the Hezbollah- and Iranian-dominated status quo in Lebanon. It will almost certainly result in the collapse of the Lebanese government. In a separate incident, Saudi air defense intercepted a missile launched at an airport in Riyadh by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Riyadh on Monday denounced the firing of the missile as a “blatant act of military aggression.”
Washington’s liberal foreign-policy establishment sees an ambitious would-be autocrat overreaching at home and abroad. But the Saudi leadership was never going to sit still in response to Tehran’s growing hegemony, a threat that was abetted by the Obama administration’s nuclear diplomacy and failure to check Iranian aggression across the geopolitical board. Feeling abandoned by Washington, and with their own system’s weaknesses bearing down on them, the Saudis were due for a big shakeup.
MBS’s project makes sense against this backdrop. His reform vision is by no means democratic. But it is populist, nationalist, and shorn of illusions. Which is to say, it is deeply attuned to the needs of the Arabs today and the worldwide spirit of the age.
Start with populism. By targeting graft, MBS is vindicating average Saudis, who stewed as they watched the well-connected cash in on public money. By granting women the right to drive and loosening social restrictions that made the kingdom one of the worst places to be young, MBS is creating a constituency that is invested in his success. Saudis won’t shed tears for princes locked up in the Riyadh Ritz.
Then there is nationalism. By liberalizing the economy and seeking revenue beyond oil, MBS is shoring up the national foundations of Saudi power–crucial in the confrontation with Tehran. With oil prices depressed, Riyadh can no longer afford to run a colossal welfare state. Weaning Saudis off petro-entitlements is likely to foster a healthier, more accountable sense of belonging and citizenship than the kingdom has afforded citizens since its founding. More philosophically, MBS views the nation-state form as an enduring mechanism for confronting 21st-century challenges. MBS is thus one among a rising group of like-minded world leaders, including Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Finally, MBS’s reform vision is realistic. As the likes of Bernard Lewis warned and subsequent events showed, Arab society isn’t configured to representative democracy as we in the West understand it. With the precious exception of Tunisia, Arab “democracy” has yielded Islamism, state failure, and civil war. Top-down change, driven by a popular figure like MBS, promises a less perilous path to reform and prosperity for the Saudis and their neighborhood. The U.S. should embrace this vision–and lend a hand.