Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or “MBS” as he is often called), in the latest step in his sweeping program of reforms, recently lifted a decades-old ban on movie houses. Arguing that Westerners ought not dismiss the importance of this decision, Sohrab Ahmari explains how it fits into Mohammed’s overall plan for his country:
MBS is rewriting the Saudi social contract [by removing restrictions on movie theaters, the presence of women at soccer games, and so forth]. For decades, the kingdom [mollified] its people with generous lifetime entitlements, in exchange for which Saudis traded in most of their citizenship rights. That arrangement worked for a time, but it is increasingly unsustainable, especially with oil prices hovering at $50 a barrel and unlikely to climb anytime soon.
It was this looming economic crisis that spurred MBS to act. Granting young Saudis greater personal freedoms, the thinking goes, will encourage them to see themselves as citizens rather than subjects and welfare-state dependents. In parallel to this social opening, the kingdom under MBS aims to expand the private share of the gross domestic product, boost women’s participation in the labor market, and scrap a number of subsidies and benefits. These are politically challenging economic reforms. MBS is wisely adding spoonsful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
Second, MBS’s liberalizing reforms will help secure his own position. . . . [T]he crown prince is creating a permanent constituency of women and young people who are determined to see him succeed. Here is a prince, from their own age cohort, who makes bold promises and delivers. Other princes and princelings within the House of Saud will now be that much more reticent to challenge MBS for fear of incurring the wrath of these young people. This is populism, Saudi-style. . . .
Riyadh still has far to go. One important area, so far left untouched by MBS, is the status of religious minorities. The crown prince can put Iran, [which likes to sell itself as more enlightened than Saudi Arabia], to shame, and further bolster his regime’s legitimacy, by ending the restrictions and petty persecution targeting the kingdom’s Shiite minority. Extending a hand to the Shiites and appointing them to positions of responsibility within the government would help alleviate the community’s sense of grievance and inoculate Shiites against Iranian anti-Saudi propaganda. Similarly, it is long past time to permit non-Muslim believers to practice their faith openly in the kingdom.