The delicate balance of the US-Saudi relationship

The delicate balance of the US-Saudi relationship
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Change is in the air in Saudi Arabia. Women wander the streets freely, some with their hair loosely covered by a scarf, others with no head covering at all. Last month, the curtain went up on a showing of “Black Panther” — the first movie to open in the country in 35 years. Gone are the mutawa, the feared religious police, with their bearded hordes of young men who zealously patrolled public spaces to ensure appropriate behavior.

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Billboards depicting the joint visages of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, beam down upon pedestrians and street traffic. But make no mistake: this is Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia. The 32 year-old royal’s reform plans – known in policy circles as Vision 2030 – have injected an unprecedented degree of vitality into the country. It’s a breath of fresh air, after decades of austere, octogenarian rulers who seemed content to allow Saudi Arabia to languish. Yet, it is too soon for MBS, as he is known, to take a victory lap.

On the economic front, the kingdom has undertaken rapid regulatory changes to boost economic growth. It has trimmed subsidies, enacted taxation with a value added tax and a “sin tax,” and increased electricity tariffs. Riyadh deepened its capital markets by increasing foreign ownership limits and launching a parallel market for smaller enterprises. Full foreign ownership is now permitted in certain sectors, such as education and healthcare. A bankruptcy law was approved in February.

On the societal front, the kingdom clipped the wings of its once-feared religious police, removing the body’s ability to arrest, detain, or pursue people. A burgeoning, government-sponsored entertainment sector is under creation, reversing the ban on cinemas and concerts. Women were allowed into sports stadiums earlier this year, and this summer, will be allowed into the driver’s seat, with several driving schools for women sprouting up in the desert kingdom.

Mohammed bin Salman has expressly laid out his desire to return to moderate Islam and rid society of its fundamentalist elements. If he’s willing to back up his words with deeds, this would mean the end of Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabi Islam, a virulent strain of the religion that has been responsible for the radicalization of Muslims the world over for nearly four decades.

At Etidal, the recently launched center for combating extremist ideology, droves of young Saudis crunch through volumes of social medial data to identify extremists and to deploy strategies that will repel extremist recruitment. Their effort appears genuine, if not overly ambitious.

Senior military figures, meanwhile, are working on a Saudi-led initiative to bring together a coalition of Muslim countries to fight radical Islam. Their colleagues at the Defense Operations Center — a consortium made up of the interior, foreign affairs, and defense ministries, as well as other government entities — are laboring to professionalize their military operations in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is fighting a war against the Houthis, an Iranian proxy group. Officers are eager to share data about their humanitarian operations and aid delivery in Yemen and even seemed eager to address the criticism surrounding the ongoing civilian deaths as a result of their campaign.

For all the signs of revitalization, there are still signs of the old Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman, during his landmark interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, prevaricated when asked about Wahhabism. The young royal audaciously claimed, “There is no Wahhabism.” The head of a major Muslim charity also balks when asked to address the policies of the past – the way that Saudi Arabia exported radicalization. Refusing to speak specifically about his contribution to the rise of extremist groups across the region, he insists instead that reform is now in progress.

However, none of this resonates with Middle East watchers who have any sense of history. To fully embrace moderate Islam, the kingdom must be transparent about where it went astray. Moreover, Riyadh must follow up with transparent proof that its radical funding streams are drying up abroad.

In the Saudi military, officers are much more forthcoming about their mistakes in Yemen. But that alone does not absolve Riyadh. The Saudi-led coalition recently bombed a wedding party in Hajjah province, demonstrating yet again that the targeting process is failing.

Finally, if the goal is to create a new Saudi society that shares an alliance with the United States based on common values, more advances for Saudi women are needed. Women continue to live under a male guardianship system, which requires a father or a son or brother for even basic things such as travelling abroad, getting married, or obtaining a passport. Authorities have begun to relax the guardianship system, with women no longer needing their guardians’ permissions for things like getting surgery, entering university, or taking a job. But more needs to be done to move beyond this outmoded system.

To be fair, what the 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman has accomplished in the past few short years would likely have taken two or three decades under his predecessors. He is certainly no democrat, but he is the kind of leader Saudi Arabia has been waiting for.

For those who are growing impatient with the pace of reform, it is important to remember that reform itself can be destabilizing in a place like Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s radicals may already be chaffing under the new system. Even liberals, now that they can sense the possibilities from reform, may be growing impatient.

Given how important Saudi Arabia remains to American foreign policy in the Middle East, Washington would be wise to continue to press Riyadh for reform, while taking into account the delicate balance needed to keep the country from plunging into chaos. Our goal should be to push for more progress, but also to remember that the Middle East rarely responds well to change.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Varsha Koduvayur is a research analyst. They visited Saudi Arabia recently on a research trip.