MBS: Reformer or Performer?

Is Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince really the progressive modernizer the West thinks he is?

Emma Loeber
7 min readMay 12, 2023

History of Islam and Saudi Arabia

When discussing the relationship between political Islam and the nation state, especially the modern developments of reform in how Islamic law is implemented by nation states, Saudi Arabia is a prominent case. This is because of the nation’s new de facto leader, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, widely known as MBS.

The relationship between church and state (din and dawla) is a massively contested issue in Muslim majority states. In Islamic history there wasn’t always a dawla, or state. There was a caliphate system, which had religion ingrained, and thus the idea of nation states when they were introduced alongside colonialism were associated with the invasion of the West and seen in a negative light. The issue of nation states in the Muslim world gained considerable traction with scholars after 1923 with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which marked the end of the Islamic caliphate system.

Also at that time, Wahhabism (a way to interpret Islam that is generally very strict) spread throughout the Muslim world. It had previously been limited to Saudi Arabia, and gave considerable authority to the royal al Saud family to pronounce fatwas. Wahhabism spread outside of Saudi Arabia thanks in part to the country’s increasing power and wealth due to its oil based economy, as demonstrated during the 1973 oil crisis.

After the 1970s political Islam experienced several revolutions, and jihadism came to be associated with Islamism, with one of its main goals being the defeat of the United States and the establishment of what it considered proper Islamic states. Many Muslim states in the 1990s and 2000s implemented their version of Sharia law, including Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia was an ally of the United States, and thus condemned by most Jihadists and other Islamists. But in 2017 MBS came to power and was the first (albeit de facto) al Saud ruler to reject the ideas of Wahhabism and some of its conservative policies, although he has continued the authoritarian ruling style of his predecessors. This raises the question, what impact has MBS (Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud) had on Saudi Arabia since he became its leader? It appears that he has started modernizing the country, but has done so for reasons of economic success and his own interests- and through authoritarianism and state sanctioned violence.

The Crown Prince: Savior or Failure?

The founding of Saudi Arabia is intertwined with the al Saud family adopting and supporting the Wahhabi religious beliefs. Every al Saud ruler since Muhammad bin Saud has supported it. MBS, not stopped by his father but not outright backed by him either, has significantly diminished the influence of Wahhabism in the country, especially the role it plays in guiding governance. He had his father, King Salman, decree that the country’s founding wasn’t connected to Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and had actually happened several years earlier. MBS himself also reduced the funding the government provided to Wahhabi imams and scholars. Most significantly for the citizens of Saudi Arabia, he doesn’t create his policies according to Wahhabi beliefs. This is a major change because Wahhabism has a very conservative interpretation of Islam and what Islamic law should be that shaped Saudi Arabia into a very culturally traditional state.

Mohammed bin Salman in 2019. From the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

When MBS gained power in 2017, the laws of the country reflected those strict values. And as will be discussed shortly, MBS has made many legal changes that go against those conservative traditions. However, as with the motivations for those reforms, many have questioned whether MBS has distanced the country from Wahhabism for religious reasons, or because he was trying to consolidate his power. A report by Rice University in 2019 stated that, “… the Saudi government has largely ignored clerics that represent the core of the religious establishment, instead pursuing individuals who have a history of criticizing government policies…”. So the reasoning behind MBS’s actions in changing the nature of religion in Saudi Arabia appear to be primarily motivated by his own interests. Many believe the same to be true of his much celebrated social reforms.

Since 2017, MBS has changed the laws and way of life in Saudi Arabia in several ways as part of his attempt to modernize the country. This attempt appears to be motivated less by his beliefs in equality and social justice and more out of his belief that modernization is the path for Saudi Arabia to be more successful in a globalized economy.

For example, in 2017 the long-standing ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia was lifted due to MBS’s influence. He was lauded by journalists and Western leaders as a champion of women’s rights and the modernizing savior of his country. However, as will be mentioned later, at the same time that he was reducing the restrictions on women’s freedoms he was personally approving the murders and imprisonments of dissidents to his rule, even unrelated to the issue of women’s rights. And he gave little to no indication that he was motivated to lift the ban for reasons of freedom and rights. What he was openly working towards was a way for Saudi Arabia to engage better in the Westernized economy. Islamic politics scholar Stephanie Lacroix explained MBS’s inner thoughts on the matter.

“The right for women to drive… has traditionally been seen as a red line for many in the religious establishment — yet, MBS sees it as a necessary condition to integrate Saudis, men and women, into the labor market. He also understands that these types of measures are widely popular in the West and likely to earn him precious support at a time when he [is] still consolidating his position. MBS seems fascinated by the social model adopted in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where conservative values co-exist with an open and globalization-friendly society — a model generally praised in the West.”

MBS did approve a law that increased the freedom of women- but he did so because it was in his interests, rather than out of any liberal leanings. He approved several other laws at around the same time that also increased women’s standing in the country, including reducing more male guardianship requirements for women, opening movie theaters, and working to increase women’s participation in the workforce as part of his Vision 2030.

Women’s increased freedom and participation in the workforce serves MBS in several ways. It means an expanded labor pool for the country; it makes relations and trade with Western countries who condemned the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia easier; and it boosts MBS’s personal image in Western media and politics. Ultimately, becoming an advocate of freedom and equality in the historically conservative Saudi Arabia gives MBS the perfect foothold into world politics in a globalized economy that necessitates he keep up with Western values. It does not, however, mean that human rights and social reforms are truly a priority for him as a leader. They are only so as long as they remain in his interests. And even now, some human rights are not.

MBS’s efforts to maintain his power haven’t just included social reforms. They have also included brutally cracking down on dissidents in his country and silencing any opposition to his rule. Even the much celebrated female driving reform wasn’t without its dark underbelly. As the 2019 Rice University report put it,

“MBS wishes to attract international investment, but he needs to change Saudi Arabia’s image, especially after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Therefore, he is interested in improving Saudi Arabia’s international reputation without fundamentally altering the structures that maintain control by the House of Saud. He demonstrated this by arresting several female activists that pushed for the right to drive: although he implemented their demands, some of them remain imprisoned, as evidence that public displays of activism will be met with retaliation… Gender equality is one of the areas where Saudi Arabia’s reputation is especially poor, and the prohibition against female drivers was publicly visible.”

As has already been established, MBS wasn’t motivated by goodwill when he gave women the right to drive. He wanted international credibility and economic access. He will only go so far to promote and/or protect human rights, and the line ends when it stops being in his self interest- especially if it threatens his hold over the state. He imprisoned female activists because they threatened the national order at the same time that he granted their demands because they boosted his image.

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in particular was a black mark on MBS’s record near the beginning of his rule because it garnered widespread international attention and condemnation, and although MBS denies he knew the murder was going to happen, it is generally understood due to a CIA report that he approved the brutal assassination and dismemberment himself. Saudi Arabia and MBS suffered immense damage to international reputation as it came to light that the new ruler was approving state sanctioned violence against dissidents. Thus, the social reforms MBS enacted in the next few months and years were his way of repairing his tarnished reputation, especially with the West. But, as seen with his indefinite arrest of female activists fighting for the ability to drive, his reforms continue to be made in tandem with oppression of anyone in opposition to him.

While MBS has gone a long way in approving his image, still being lauded by some as the progressive savior of his country, his brutal methods and authoritarianism are still a barrier in the way of his connection with the international community. For example, President Joe Biden of the United States insists that he deal only with King Salman, despite MBS being the de facto ruler. Biden’s refusal to work with MBS is reportedly due to his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, proving the substantial damage done to MBS’s reputation.

This shows that while MBS has enacted several reforms toward the modernization of Saudi Arabia, he is not truly committed to that cause- he will only do so as long as it serves his purposes, and his social reforms will always be the surface above a depth of state violence and oppression. And if social reforms and modernization do cease to be to his benefit, what kind of ruler will he be? It seems that his habit of authoritarianism and state violence will always win out.



Emma Loeber

International Relations student providing commentary and information on controversial topics through facts and knowledge.