Until the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de-facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman had been hailed in the West for his efforts at reforming his country: allowing women to drive, curbing the export of religious fanaticism, attempting to wean his country from its dependency on oil, and even pursuing sub-rosa ties with Israel. Reuel Marc Gerecht notes that the Middle East has a long history of strongmen who tried to modernize their societies, with mixed results:
The modernizing rulers of the Arab Middle East date from the early 19th century, with Mohammad Ali of Egypt, who forcibly indentured the peasants of the Nile valley to farm cash crops, and Ahmad Bey of Tunisia, who in 1846 became the first Muslim ruler to abolish slavery. . . . The allure of such despots has been strong in the West. These pashas were both widely admired in Europe for their efforts to introduce “progress”—more efficient economies, better schools, better armies, elites who spoke European languages—even though their grand ambitions nearly bankrupted their countries. A century later, Baathist, or Renaissance, parties rose and had many Western admirers, too, leading to the surreal situation of a New York Times columnist seeing the secular Saddam Hussein, [who used] rape as a political tool, as an avatar of social rights for women. . . .
The crown prince’s [current] popularity with the young has been undoubtedly a reflection of the Westernization of much of the country’s youth. (That same process of Westernization, conversely, can fortify the appeal of contemporary Islamists, like the Muslim Brothers.) The crown prince could blow this transformative moment by intensifying his police state. Talk to young Saudis and they will quickly tell you how social media have become almost entirely a vehicle of Mohammad bin Salman’s sycophants. What is now a widely held sentiment among the young for more openness, certainly for more fun, could turn into a protest movement against a dictatorship that allows only approved thought. . . .
If Mohammad bin Salman survives, which is still likely, the United States will confront the distressing fact that the Saudi ruler is “modernizing” his country in ways that could well prove tumultuous. There is little to love in the Saudi royal family. There is nothing to like about what has happened since [the Saudi dynasty’s alliance with the Wahhabi sect of Islam] in 1744. But there is something to be said for consensus within a deeply conservative society trying to change. The Muslim Middle East is littered with the wreckage of strong, oh-so-modern men exercising their wills. Saudi Arabia is a potentially explosive laboratory where cautious men need to prevail.