RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style.
Unlike the other Arab Springs – all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia – this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success – but only a fool would not root for it.
To better understand it I flew to Riyadh to interview the crown prince, known as “MBS,” who had not spoken about the extraordinary events here of early November, when his government arrested scores of Saudi princes and businessmen on charges of corruption and threw them into a makeshift gilded jail – the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton – until they agreed to surrender their ill-gotten gains. You don’t see that every day.
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We met at night at his family’s ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja, north of Riyadh. MBS spoke in English, while his brother, Prince Khalid, the new Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and several senior ministers shared different lamb dishes and spiced the conversation. After nearly four hours together, I surrendered at 1:15 a.m. to MBS’ youth, pointing out that I was exactly twice his age. It’s been a long, long time, though, since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country.
We started with the obvious question: What’s happening at the Ritz? And was this his power play to eliminate his family and private sector rivals before his ailing father, King Salman, turns the keys of the kingdom over to him?
It’s “ludicrous,” he said, to suggest that this anti-corruption campaign was a power grab. He pointed out that many prominent members of the Ritz crowd had already publicly pledged allegiance to him and his reforms, and that “a majority of the royal family” is already behind him. This is what happened, he said: “Our country has suffered a lot from corruption from the 1980s until today. The calculation of our experts is that roughly 10 percent of all government spending was siphoned off by corruption each year, from the top levels to the bottom. Over the years the government launched more than one ‘war on corruption’ and they all failed. Why? Because they all started from the bottom up.”
So when his father, who has never been tainted by corruption charges during his nearly five decades as governor of Riyadh, ascended to the throne in 2015 (at a time of falling oil prices), he vowed to put a stop to it all, MBS said:
“My father saw that there is no way we can stay in the G-20 and grow with this level of corruption. In early 2015, one of his first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption – at the top. This team worked for two years until they collected the most accurate information, and then they came up with about 200 names.”
When all the data was ready, the public prosecutor, Saud al-Mojib, took action, MBS said, explaining that each suspected billionaire or prince was arrested and given two choices: “We show them all the files that we have and as soon as they see those about 95 percent agree to a settlement,” which means signing over cash or shares of their business to the Saudi state treasury.
“About 1 percent,” he added, “are able to prove they are clean and their case is dropped right there. About 4 percent say they are not corrupt and with their lawyers want to go to court. Under Saudi law, the public prosecutor is independent. We cannot interfere with his job – the king can dismiss him, but he is driving the process … We have experts making sure no businesses are bankrupted in the process” – to avoid causing unemployment.
“How much money are they recovering?” I asked.
The public prosecutor says it could eventually “be around $100 billion in settlements,” said MBS.
There is no way, he added, to root out all corruption from top to the bottom, “So you have to send a signal, and the signal going forward now is, ‘You will not escape.’ And we are already seeing the impact,” like people writing on social media, “I called my middle man and he doesn’t answer.”
The stakes are high for MBS in this anti-corruption drive. If the public feels that he is truly purging corruption that was sapping the system and doing so in a way that is transparent and makes clear to future Saudi and foreign investors that the rule of law will prevail, it will really instill a lot of new confidence in the system. But if the process ends up feeling arbitrary, bullying and opaque, aimed more at aggregating power for power’s sake and unchecked by any rule of law, it will end up instilling fear that will unnerve Saudi and foreign investors in ways the country can’t afford.
The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country. While foreigners, like me, were inquiring about the legal framework for this operation, the mood among Saudis I spoke with was: “Just turn them all upside down, shake the money out of their pockets and don’t stop shaking them until it’s all out!”
But guess what? This anti-corruption drive is only the second-most unusual and important initiative launched by MBS. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation – whence it diverted in 1979. That is, back to what MBS described to a recent global investment conference here as a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”
I know that year well. I started my career as a reporter in the Middle East in Beirut in 1979, and so much of the region that I have covered since was shaped by the three big events of that year: the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi puritanical extremists – who denounced the Saudi ruling family as corrupt, impious sellouts to Western values; the Iranian Islamic Revolution; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
These three events together freaked out the Saudi ruling family at the time, and prompted it to try to shore up its legitimacy by allowing its Wahhabi clerics to impose a much more austere Islam on the society and by launching a worldwide competition with Iran’s ayatollahs over who could export more fundamentalist Islam. It didn’t help that the U.S. tried to leverage this trend by using Islamic fighters against Russia in Afghanistan. In all, it pushed Islam globally way to the right and helped nurture 9/11.
MBS is on a mission to bring Saudi Islam back to the center. He has not only curbed the authority of the once feared Saudi religious police to berate a woman for not covering every inch of her skin, he has also let women drive. And unlike any Saudi leader before him, he has taken the hard-liners on ideologically. As one U.S.-educated 28-year-old Saudi woman told me: MBS “uses a different language. He says, ‘We are going to destroy extremism.’ He’s not sugarcoating. That is reassuring to me that the change is real.”
Indeed, MBS instructed me: “Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting’ Islam – we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins – and our biggest tools are the Prophet’s practices and [daily life in] Saudi Arabia before 1979.” At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he argued, there were musical theaters, there was mixing between men and women, there was respect for Christians and Jews in Arabia. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman!” So if the Prophet embraced all of this, MBS asked, “Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?”
Then one of his ministers got out his cellphone and shared with me pictures and YouTube videos of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s – women without heads covered, wearing skirts and walking with men in public, as well as concerts and cinemas. It was still a traditional and modest place, but not one where fun had been outlawed, which is what happened after 1979.
If this virus of an anti-pluralistic, misogynistic Islam that came out of Saudi Arabia in 1979 can be reversed by Saudi Arabia, it would drive moderation across the Muslim world and surely be welcomed here where 65 percent of the population is under 30. One middle-age Saudi banker said to me: “My generation was held hostage by 1979. I know now that my kids will not be hostages.”
Saudi Arabia would have a very long way to go before it approached anything like Western standards for free speech and women’s rights. But as someone who has been coming here for almost 30 years, it blew my mind to learn that you can hear Western classical music concerts in Riyadh now, that country singer Toby Keith held a men-only concert here in September, where he even sang with a Saudi, and that Lebanese soprano Hiba Tawaji will be among the first female singers to perform a women-only concert here on Dec. 6. And MBS told me, it was just decided that women will be able to go to stadiums and attend soccer games. The Saudi clerics have completely acquiesced.
So many of these reforms were so long overdue it’s ridiculous. Better late than never, though.
But can MBS and his team see this through? Again, I make no predictions. He has his flaws that he will have to control, insiders here tell me. They include relying on a very tight circle of advisers who don’t always challenge him sufficiently, and a tendency to start too many things that don’t get finished. There’s a whole list. But guess what? Perfect is not on the menu here. Someone had to do this job – wrench Saudi Arabia into the 21st century – and MBS stepped up. I, for one, am rooting for him to succeed in his reform efforts.
And so are a lot of young Saudis. There was something a 30-year-old Saudi woman social entrepreneur said to me that stuck in my ear. “We are privileged to be the generation that has seen the before and the after.” The previous generation of Saudi women, she explained, could never imagine a day when a woman could drive and the coming generation will never be able to imagine a day when a woman couldn’t.
“But I will always remember not being able to drive,” she told me. And the fact that starting in June that will never again be so “gives me so much hope. It proves to me that anything is possible – that this is a time of opportunity. We have seen things change and we are young enough to make the transition.”