I am not a fan of the House of Saud.
I have written in Arabic many articles criticizing this family, but I have to admit now that Mohammad Bin Salman looks like a real reformer.
I suggested before many reforms that Saudi Arabia should make. It happens that MbS is doing most of those reforms.
He is changing his country’s economy from a communist-like economy, where citizens get everything at the government’s expense and pay no taxes, into a more efficient economy. This kind of reform is not easy. When people are used to living in a communist economy it is difficult to take them out of it. People like living ‘for free’ and they hate it when somebody tries to make them pay for the things they get.
Bashar Assad of Syria was not able in his entire reign to do the economic reforms which MbS has done in 1 year. Assad was always fearful of enraging the Alwaites, his most loyal subjects.
The Alawites in Syria (for historical reasons) are very leftist. Many of them seem to be plain communists. Assad was never able to convince his Alawite power base to accept real economic reform. Until this day, Assad still refuses privatization categorically. He still teaches students in Syrian schools that privatization and free trade are Western imperialist conspiracies.
When Assad was forced into doing some reforms (because otherwise he would have gone bankrupt), he would just lie to his Alawite supporters about those reforms. He would deny to them that he was doing reform and he would reassure them that Syria would remain a socialist country.
MbS is very open with his people. He is telling them plainly what he wants to do. He is telling them, for example, that he is going to privatize Aramco, the most valuable company in the possession of the Saudi government. Assad could not in million years say something like that to his Alawite people.
MbS is also reforming the educational system, which is very important in a country like Saudi Arabia. I have long argued that the best way to get people out of extremism, racism, and bigotry is by improving the quality of education. Currently the quality of education in Saudi Arabia (and in most Arab countries) is very poor.
MbS is also doing some ‘cultural reform.’ I once wrote that if MbS wanted to convince us that he was a real reformer, he should abolish the Hay’a, the ‘religious police.’ Because such a reform would be very difficult to do in Saudi Arabia, I suggested that MbS should start by assigning the regular police of doing the same tasks which the religious police did, and later he should abolish those tasks all together. It happens that MbS did just that. He has transferred the powers of the religious police to the regular police, so now the religious police no longer has official powers.
One thing that I have long criticized in Saudi Arabia is the xenophobia. The Saudis do not accept any immigrants at all in their country. Even if you are born there and spend all of your life there, they will not grant you citizenship, and not even a permanent resident status. Now MbS says he is going to introduce a ‘Green Card’ on the American model.
Cultural reform is another arena at which Assad sucks badly (to be frank, Assad sucks at everything). On the eve of the uprising in Syria Assad was still banning the use of any language other than Arabic. For example, it was not possible to use an English name for your business or product in Syria. It was not even possible to use a Kurdish name, although Syria had millions of native Kurdish speakers. The worst of everything was the ban of foreign languages in education. Even the private universities (which Assad counted as one of his greatest accomplishments, because before him there were no private universities) were banned from using any languages other than Arabic in education.
In a small and poor country like Syria, the ban of foreign languages creates major obstacles for business, trade, tourism, and more than anything for education and culture. Anybody who visited Lebanon and Syria would have noticed that education and culture in Syria lied far behind Lebanon, although Lebanon was neither bigger nor richer than Syria. The reason for that was the stupid ban on foreign languages in Syria, which Assad was never able to lift.
Assad’s Alawite circles viewed foreign education and culture as threats. They thought that the use of foreign languages in Syria (particularly English) would enable the ‘imperialist West’ to infiltrate Syria and destabilize it. For most people in the world this must sound crazy, but Assad and his circles truly believed it.
Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go in reforms, but it is good that MbS is doing some real reforms. He is not like Assad who for 10 years talked about reform but did very little of actual reform. Assad’s reforms were really insignificant given how bad the country was during his reign (allowing private banks and universities? Wow. This is really something.)