Saudi Woman Driver MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s Revolution From Above

After becoming the heir apparent to the Saudi throne earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has quickly consolidated his power and begun to usher in a period of radical change. But as he overhauls the country's domestic and foreign policies, he is also heightening the risk of another conflict in the Middle East.

BERLIN – Seven years after the Arab Spring unleashed a wave of revolutionary fervor across most of the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia is finally catching up, albeit in its own unique way. A younger generation is demanding that the arch-conservative Kingdom modernize, and it is being led not by revolutionaries in the streets, but by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the country’s 32-year-old crown prince and heir apparent.

In terms of population and geography, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest Arab countries, and its staggering oil wealth has made it an indispensable strategic partner for the West, and particularly for the US. But, as a country caught between the Islamic Middle Ages and Western modernity, it has always abided extreme contradictions. State-of-the-art infrastructure and American-style shopping malls have come to Mecca and Medina, home to Islam’s most important holy sites.

But, even to this day, Saudi Arabia is home to an anti-Western tribal society, ruled by one family, the House of Saud, as an absolute monarchy since the country’s founding in 1932. Its moral and legal codes appear medieval to most outsiders. And it adheres to the extreme reactionary version of Islam known as Wahhabism, a Salafist doctrine that influences many of today’s most radical Islamist groups.