Editor’s note: This essay is excerpted from the author’s most recent book, The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China, which goes on sale today.
Singapore’s late ruler Lee Kuan Yew has always been a thorn in the side of Western humanists. In the 1960s, Lee took a malarial hellhole and made it by the 1990s one of the most prosperous countries in the world, which ranks at the top of quality-of-life indexes. Lee’s method was an attention to meritocracy, efficiency, and good governance, but no real commitment to democracy. Indeed, Lee’s challenge to the West was that in the developing world democracy was not necessarily the last word in human political development.
For decades Western liberals consoled themselves by assuming that Singapore was an odd exception, a city-state of dynamic overseas Chinese, lacking a hinterland which made governing easy. Now a continental-sized state, Saudi Arabia, which for decades has been known for oppression, terrorism, and brutal treatment of women, is giving Singapore a run for its money.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, known as MBS, is despised by Western liberals much more than Lee Kuan Yew ever was. Lee could be generally harsh, flogging drug dealers, for instance; but liberal media hatred for MBS has a more singular and powerful focus: the murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post opinion writer, Jamal Khashoggi, in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. That act, at least in the eyes of the West, makes the Crown Prince’s regime of technocratic competence and dramatic societal liberalization singularly ironic, to say the least. Yet, Saudis find the Crown Prince’s autocratic style and reformist instincts altogether natural. In their minds, the United States cannot demand both the political ends it wants and also the means to achieve them.
As one young Saudi woman told me, “We have nice buildings, we’re high-tech. But we’re also tribal, we need a strong leader.”
Her point was that particularly in an era of social reforms, a strong central authority is required, otherwise, anarchy threatens. The most famous example of getting this wrong was Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to loosen the reins of central authority during a time of ongoing reforms, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dozens of Saudis I spoke with over the course of several weeks were not in denial about the oppressive policies of their security services and the ghastly mistakes of MBS, notably the murder of Khashoggi. But to a man, and to a woman, they are realists, to the degree they understand that dramatic liberal change in a conservative society requires stabilizing rule at the top.
Rehab Masoud, a former Saudi diplomat and security official, explained to me that rather than the people demanding more freedom from their own government, in Saudi Arabia it has always been the government and a strong leader that has led liberal change from the top, even though conservative elements in the hinterland have often been against it. He used the example of King Faisal in the 1960s opening the first girls’ schools in the countryside, against the advice of religious leaders.
“MBS has Lee Kuan Yew imprinted on both sides of his brain,” someone who meets with him often told me, “especially in his attention to detail and aesthetics when looking over development plans.” People who meet regularly with MBS aren’t in absolute fear of him like people who met with Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, but they say they are intimidated by the depth of his mind and his ability to see flaws in complicated arguments. And MBS, they say, is always in a hurry, impatient for change.
Never has the case for liberal reform in Saudi Arabia been so strong as now.
Saudi Arabia may be a sprawling desert kingdom, but its population is 84.3 percent urban and 70 percent of Saudis are under 35. Alcohol may be forbidden, but there is a lively coffee-bar scene at the spanking-new malls in Riyadh and Jeddah. You won’t get far at any coffee bar arguing about the Western conception of human rights with young Saudis. As one told me:
I can now renew my passport online within minutes, without waiting in a long queue for hours at some government office. That’s a human right. Women, even after a long maternity leave, can still leave work early until their child is two-years-old. That’s a human right. Reducing corruption, even if it means arresting hundreds of princes and imprisoning them in the Ritz Carlton to set an example [as the Crown Prince did], that, too, is a human right.
Sarah Al Tamimi, the young deputy president of a human rights commission, told me:
I was abroad for years and never thought I would move back to Saudi Arabia with all of its restrictions. But now I can socialize with male colleagues and attend music festivals and go on camping trips in the desert. So why stay away?
A middle-aged Saudi minister, Mohammed Al Ash-Shaikh, told me:
The government no longer imposes on you how to dress in public. That is an accommodation to global urban civilization. Isn’t the spirit of democracy giving the vast majority of the people what they want?
Not one of the roughly forty people I interviewed over several weeks in Saudi Arabia thought that any of the plethora of liberal changes now occurring would have been possible without the iron-fisted leadership of Mohammed bin Salman.
Eiman al-Mutairi, the vice minister of commerce and the head of the National Competitiveness Center, told me that, “The word reform doesn’t do justice to what is happening here. We are breaking taboos, one after the other. The percentage of women in the workforce is up to 33 percent in 2022, from 12 percent in 2015. It will go higher.” As for freedom, she and others argued that Saudis are complaining all the time on Twitter about this problem with the government and that only MBS and his security policies are off limits.
Saudis make a distinction between liberty and democracy. Liberty to them means new personal freedoms, which would be endangered by democracy with its electoral process that could be taken advantage of by Muslim fundamentalists. “Look at what happened in Egypt between 2011 and 2013,” one told me. Nevertheless, no one I encountered is worried about a conservative Muslim backlash. A leading intellectual in Jeddah said, “The truth is, the most devout Muslims in Saudi Arabia are being marginalized. They are becoming folkloric, like the Amish.” Unlike the dramatic policy swings of previous decades in Saudi Arabia that unleashed fundamentalism and later cracked down on it, this time the reformers, notably MBS, has “the vast majority of the population with them,” especially the young.
But the liberal reforms going on in Saudi Arabia, I was told, did not constitute secularization, as the society here by very definition was Islamic to the core. To the contrary, the liberation of Saudi women under MBS is a vital part of Vision 2030, which is less a specific plan for development and social change by the government—with the usual mistakes and vanities that the Western media now writes about—than a grand strategy to be adjusted constantly and is subject to backtracking if necessary. The most important aspect of Vision 2030, as with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is that at least it provides the country with a direction, however imperfect. The United States, by contrast, has little direction because it has no domestic consensus, at least as Saudis see it. Liberating women here has been a necessity in order to facilitate entrepreneurship and competitiveness, without which Saudi society will not be able to navigate the post-petroleum age: the object of Vision 2030 in the first place.
Eiman al-Mutairi observed, “Despite all the Middle East wars, despite all the destruction wrought by the Arab Spring, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is still standing. Ever since Abdulaziz Ibn Saud united the tribes in the early part of the twentieth century, we have been stable. So watch us. We will be leading the region.” To be sure, amid the shoals of Marxism, Arab nationalism, and Islamic fundamentalism over the course of the decades, Saudi Arabia has managed half-a-dozen leadership successions without a crisis, including one after the assassination of King Faisal in 1975.
Rehab Masoud added that Saudi Arabia was also a self-correcting meritocracy in its own peculiar way, as when the royal family, observing the incompetence of King Saud, gathered together in 1964 and had him formally removed in favor of Faisal, who would go on to become a wise statesman. Following Faisal’s reign, Khalid, Fahad, and Abdullah were all prudent kings, if not always imaginative. Therefore, Masoud’s argument invites an obvious question: was King Salman’s decision to change the line of succession five years ago in favor of his son Mohammed Bin Salman another example of the royal family self-correcting, this time for a more dynamic and technological age where a younger leader was required? Time will tell. But Western liberals should bear in mind that there is no unity of goodness in this world, and that someone who has done some very bad things can also be a very good ruler.