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  • The Prince
  • Tarek Masoud (bio)
MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman. By Ben Hubbard. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2020. 384 pp.

Is there any less promising terrain for the emergence of liberal, democratic government than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Debates rage over the precise alchemy that transforms dictatorships into democracies, but whatever one's preferred ingredient, Saudi Arabia is almost sure to be bereft of it. The country's history is entirely authoritarian, its people denied even the barest hint of political participation. The Kingdom's performance on the Polity IV Index—a common measure of a country's degree of democracy—is impressive in its dismal consistency: Saudi Arabia has earned the lowest possible score every year since 1946 (the first year for which data are available), a feat unmatched even by tyrannies such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Hafez al-Assad's Syria, or Kim Il Sung's North Korea.1

Culturally, Saudi Arabia is tribal, patriarchal, and religiously conservative—characteristics ideally suited to the maintenance of absolute monarchy. Autocracy is even encoded into the Saudi economic formula, in which the ruling elite draws liquid from the ground, sells it to foreigners, and uses the resulting windfall to buy off would-be dissenters and to acquire implements of violence to deploy against those who cannot be bought. If all that were not enough, the Kingdom's peculiarly premodern form of government has been sustained by a geopolitical bargain with the world's most powerful democracies, which offer protection and support in exchange for uninterrupted access to the elixir that flows beneath the sands.

Given the obstacles arrayed against it, how might the political emancipation of Saudis ever be achieved? If this question had been posed prior to 2 October 2018, one could have been forgiven for pointing to Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old heir to his country's throne and, as the New York Times's Ben Hubbard reports in his penetrating new biography, the [End Page 172] real power behind it. When the crown prince—known in the West by his initials, MBS—burst onto the scene, he seemed to many (including the author of these lines) to be the deliverer that the Kingdom had long needed. No one, of course, thought that the man was a democrat, but he presented himself—and was presented to us by the likes of the Washington Post's David Ignatius and the New York Times's Thomas Friedman—as a modernizer in the tradition of Japan's Emperor Meiji and Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In this telling, MBS was a farsighted leader who recognized the need to liberate his country from both its addiction to oil and the shackles of old-time religion. To read MBS's "Vision 2030"—the national economic and social roadmap he put forward in 2016 (with the help of a passel of high-priced McKinsey consultants)—was to catch a glimpse of a Saudi Arabia that might one day be a candidate, if not for democracy, then for more participatory, inclusive governance than it had hitherto enjoyed. In addition to promising "a vibrant society," "a thriving economy," and "a tolerant country," MBS pledged to "adopt wide-ranging transparency and accountability reforms," and to "be transparent and open about our failures as well as our successes."2 This was not language one was accustomed to hearing from the leaders of that most absolute of absolute monarchies.

With the talk came action. The same month that Vision 2030 was announced, a law was passed weakening Saudi Arabia's feared Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—a force of religious zealots primarily responsible for shuttering shops during prayer times, harassing women whose appearance they deemed improper, and generally cowing people into conformity with their cramped conception of the faith. "With a single royal decree," Hubbard writes, "MBS had defanged the clerics, clearing the way for vast changes they most certainly would have opposed" (p. 63). Nowhere was the prince's commitment to "unlinking the clerics from the monarchy" (p. 279) more evident than in his efforts to challenge the country's clerically sanctioned edifice...