In January, I went with my editor in chief from The Economist to Saudi Arabia to meet Mohammed bin Salman, a young, previously little-publicized royal, known to his courtiers as MbS. Upon his aging father Salman’s coronation in January 2015, he rose to become deputy crown prince, minister of defense, and de facto ruler, Nicolas Pelham writes for The New York Review of Books.
Having proven his conservative and repressive capabilities in his early days in office, Pelham writes, MbS has since “tacked leftward” and hinted at a modernizing reform agenda:
Popular sentiment mattered less when Saudi Arabia could distribute payments from its oil revenues with abandon to relieve its citizens’ frustrations. But in an age of low oil prices and bloated budget deficits, the Saudis might have to broaden their popular base if they are to persuade their people to foot the bill. As long as Saudis pay no income tax, they have no right to representation, Mohammed bin Salman insists. But if he is to realize what he says are his two policy objectives—transforming the kingdom from a single-resource state into a productive economy and securing regional support to stymie Iran’s advance west—MbS will need to reach out beyond the Wahhabi core of the hinterland to the country’s many diverse sects on its productive edges.
Few Shias, Sufis, or secular Saudis want the kingdom to collapse, least of all to ISIS zealots. MbS’s vision of a new social contract suggests that he understands the benefits of a more inclusive society, even if he stops short of fully engaging his kingdom’s multiple parts. There is still a chance that future books about the kingdom might not be so dark, but MbS will need more than words if he is to convince his heterogeneous population that the Saudis are rulers for all their people, not just themselves and the Wahhabis.