Mohammed bin Salman is the agent of Saudi Arabia’s change, not custodian of its past
As a young Saudi woman living in London, I desperately want Saudi Arabia to adapt to the modern world. That’s why I’ve found much to support in the agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – and wanted his visit to Britain which has ended Friday to succeed.
That may sound odd: wanting modernity and backing a future absolute monarch. But Mohammad bin Salman is the agent of Saudi Arabia’s change, not the custodian of its past.
As a reformer, he is tackling what is least good about Saudi Arabia – and is taking criticism for it from ultra-conservatives. If people want Saudi Arabia to reform, I believe that they should look to bolster and encourage its top reformer.
I came to Britain in 2009 to pursue my higher education. My studies and those of thousands like me were paid for by the Saudi Government as part of modernizing the Kingdom. Mohammed bin Salman is in that tradition and the most ambitious modernizer we have had. In 2016, he established a reform plan – Vision 2030 – so ambitious that many wrote it off as a fantasy. Yet so far, it is coming to pass.
Take women’s rights. Just last week, the military opened its doors to women recruits. We no longer require a “guardian” for government services; from June we will be allowed to drive; and a fifth of our legislature is made up of women.
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More women graduate from university than men. The head of the Saudi stock exchange, the official spokesperson of the Saudi Embassy in Washington and the CEO of one of our largest financial companies are all women. This change is not over – in fact, it is speeding up.
Vision 2030 is not all about women. It covers everything from government services to cinemas (opening this month for the first time in nearly 40 years). But take another area for which Saudi Arabia has long been criticized: extremism, a subject on which I recently wrote a report for the Henry Jackson Society.
Saudi citizens’ involvement in 9/11 was a shock to Saudi Arabia and to its leaders and prompted major change. Riyadh was targeted too: in waves of terror attacks throughout the early 2000s at the hands of al-Qaeda and again in recent years at the hands of ISIS. From 2012 to 2016, Saudi Arabia suffered 253 individual attacks.
The Kingdom has expended vast quantities of blood and treasure in defeating terrorism and has worked with UK and US intelligence agencies to foil plots in the West. But under Mohammed bin Salman, the story of counter-terrorism is changing from one solely focused on immediate security to one focused on long-term ideology.
If the UK wants a moderate, modern Saudi Arabia open to the world, then Mohammed bin Salman is the man who can make that happenNajah Al-Otaibi
Religion has not escaped his modernizing agenda, and he has promised to return Islam in the Kingdom to “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions … We won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.” Efforts are already being made to achieve this.
The power of the religious police has been substantially curtailed; 10,000 unsuitable imams have been sacked; and the Council of Senior Scholars – the leading religious body in the Kingdom –has been reshuffled to include moderate voices. In 2016, Mohammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa, a former Minister of Justice, was appointed Head of the Muslim World League, a body that has in the past been accused of spreading extremist literature around the world.
Al-Issa is himself a reformer, as he demonstrated in recent statements on women not needing to wear the abaya, or condemning Holocaust denial. There is still some way for Saudi Arabia to go. There are legitimate concerns about human rights in the Kingdom.
But no country can change overnight. If the UK wants a moderate, modern Saudi Arabia open to the world, then Mohammed bin Salman is the man who can make that happen. He has the vision, the drive and the work ethic.
Ministers are being held to account for what they achieve, and those who underperform are fired. The recent crackdown on corruption – reaching senior levels of the Royal Family – was intended to signal that no-one is above the law.
A reformed Saudi Arabia is in the West’s interests too. Mohammad bin Salman’s efforts will bolster the Kingdom’s security. Reforming the dominant narratives within the home of Islam will have a knock-on effect around the world. Britain has expertise that Saudi Arabia can use in its efforts. She should continue to provide that expertise – not least because Saudi Arabia’s security is the UK’s security too.
Najah Alotaibi is a researcher and journalist specializing in international relations and diplomacy, as well as ongoing sociopolitical affairs in Middle East. She was among the winners of the "Every Human Has Rights" media awards, which marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Alotaibi’s articles and columns have appeared in The World Today magazine (produced by the Chatham House); the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics (an initiative of the Tony Blair Foundation), London ban-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and the Saudi Gazette, among others. Alotaibi is also working on a doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia on the role of soft power in Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. Alotaibi holds a Master’s degree in International Journalism from London City University, You can follow her on Twitter here: @najahalosaimi.