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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s quiet transformation

Mohammed bin Salman: an unsung liberaliser? Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty

For most in the West, says John Hannah in Foreign Policy, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is synonymous with “shocking, high-profile acts of political repression, human rights abuses, and downright brutality”. That’s understandable, but it misses the bigger picture: MBS is overseeing a transformation that is “one of the most important but under-appreciated developments of the past decade”. Millions of Saudi women are being granted new rights to drive, work and travel. Culture, once “almost totally absent from public spaces because it was considered blasphemous to Islam”, is thriving. Cinemas, art shows, rock concerts, raves, theme parks, and even opera festivals are popping up across the country.

Most importantly, radical Wahhabism – the “austere, misogynistic, intolerant, and anti-Western religious doctrine that controlled the kingdom for decades” – is being replaced by a more “tolerant and moderate” version of Islam. I spent nearly 15 years in the US government railing against Saudi Arabia’s “sinister and duplicitous role” in fostering and funding jihadism. But in the past five years, MBS has reversed all that, jailing clerics who preach violence and defunding extremist schools both at home and abroad. Textbooks are being scrubbed of their most “hate-filled” content, from “sanctioning the second-class status of women” to “demonising Jews and Shiites” and “endorsing capital punishment for homosexuality”. It makes sense that many Westerners are still queasy about Riyadh. But there’s no denying that what’s happening in Saudi Arabia is “infinitely better” than what it’s replacing.