A Saudi woman drives her car REEM BAESHEN/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s Perilous Pivot

Saudi Arabia needs comprehensive political and economic reforms if it is to have prosperity and security in the twenty-first century. But it remains to be seen if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman can deliver the necessary change without also turning his country into a personal dictatorship, or leading it into a devastating war.

JERUSALEM – “The most dangerous moment for a bad government,” the nineteenth-century French statesman and historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “is usually when it begins to reform itself.” Reform, after all, implies that traditional norms and institutions may have already been discredited, but that alternative structures have yet to be firmly established.

Tocqueville’s classic example was the regime of Louis XVI, whose attempts at reform quickly led to the French Revolution, and to his own execution in 1793. Another example is Mikhail Gorbachev’s effort to reform the Soviet Union in the 1980s. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed and Gorbachev was out of power. Today, something similar could very well happen to the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS), as he takes steps to modernize his country.

Saudi Arabia has long maintained (relative) internal stability by spreading its enormous oil wealth among its subjects, and by imposing on Saudi society fundamentalist Islamic doctrines based on the austere Wahhabi tradition. After the Kingdom’s founding in 1932, many Saudis enjoyed unprecedentedly high standards of living, and hundreds of members of the Saudi royal family were transformed from desert sheikhs into enormously rich members of the international moneyed elite. Various sons of the regime’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, succeeded each other as rulers a kingdom that, following Arab tradition, bore the name of its founding and ruling dynasty (another is the current Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan).

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