Saudi Arabia Isn’t What It Used to Be

January 23, 2023 | John Hannah
About the author: John Hannah is senior counselor at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Surveying the major changes that the Saudi kingdom has been undergoing in the past few years, John Hannah urges American policymakers to find ways to support the country’s progress. Instead, he writes, they have become too fixated on specific misdeeds to appreciate what’s happening:

By all means, press Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the Saudis on the need to limit the worst excesses of a political system that, after all, remains an absolute monarchy, especially when it comes to the all-too-frequent mistreatment of dual U.S.-Saudi nationals. Don’t back away from the role that human rights and democratic values have long played in U.S. foreign policy. Just don’t let it blind you to the unprecedented and historic process of economic, social, cultural, and religious liberalization that is transforming one of the world’s most important midsized powers. It’s a transformation that promises to benefit not just tens of millions of Saudis (especially the more than 60 percent of the population under age thirty-five) but also Middle East security and U.S. national interests more broadly.

Less than a decade ago, my main impressions on visiting the kingdom were of a sullen, bleak, and xenophobic populace of unproductive subjects, living off unearned government largesse, foreign labor, and a steady diet of religious intolerance. Fast forward several years, and there’s a palpable sense in Riyadh of dynamism, energy, and future possibility. The private sector is expanding; young people—especially women—are entering the workplace in record numbers, starting businesses, and being held accountable for their performance. The country is opening itself to the rest of the world in terms of tourists, commerce, and cultural influence in ways never before seen.

Over the past five years, Mohammad bin Salman has . . . incarcerated radical clerics preaching violence. Extremist madrassas, both at home and abroad, have been defunded. Any Saudi support to foreign mosques and organizations must now be approved by host governments.

[T]he Saudi crackdown on extremism has also been accompanied by one of the world’s most ambitious programs of domestic reform as well as a historic new willingness to support the normalization of relations with Israel. Add it all up, and it makes the growing chorus of voices that appear single-mindedly focused on shunning, punishing, and (however inadvertently) driving the Saudis into the arms of Washington’s most dangerous great-power adversaries not just shortsighted but harmful.

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