Saudi Arabia under the rule of Mohammad bin Salman

Under the de facto leadership of Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia, dubbed the "undisputed leader of the Middle East," has amassed the greatest economy in the Middle East, exceeding $1 trillion.

Under the de facto leadership of Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia, dubbed the “undisputed leader of the Middle East,” has amassed the greatest economy in the Middle East, exceeding $1 trillion.  However, the Kingdom’s prosperity seems to be a mere façade, for the trajectory it is headed toward is entrenched in MBS’s controversial practices, and policies. MBS seems to be altering the map of the Kingdom, figuratively speaking as the hub of Islam, and home to the most sacred, and holiest sites, is seen to be taking a departure from long-standing traditions, and diverging from what many call the “true essence of Islam.” MBS sought to forge alliances that inflicted betrayal upon much of the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East Not only that but an analysis of the recent developments, and internal shifts has led many to point fingers at “MBS’s dark, tangled web” of politics, and his “ominous human rights record.” The Kingdom may be headed towards a renaissance, but at what cost? If it is headed towards a renaissance at all.

Since assuming power in 2015 as Saudi’s Defense Minister, and currently as the Prime Minister, Crown Prince, Bin Salman has raised eyebrows, altering ethical standards to execute his audacious plans. MBS-led Saudi, home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina – is shifting from the long-standing Wahabbi teachings, and moving towards a more “current interpretation” of the Quran. The idea of relying only on well-established Hadith leaves only 10% of these being consistent with the Quran, leading to the potential elimination of grounded Islamic laws like stoning, amputating thieves, and punishments for apostasy and homosexuality. This departure from centuries-old norms has stirred controversy in the Islamic world, but it is worth noticing that those who might have regarded these changes as blasphemous in the past are either quiet on the matter, or showing support. Could the silence or support be interpreted as a result of the fear instilled by the Crown Prince, who is known for imprisoning or even executing those who dare to question his decisions? Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and vocal critic of MBS’s policies met a tragic end at the Saudi consulate in Turkey during his self-imposed exile. Writing for the Washington Post in 2017, he had expressed fears of arrest due to dissent against the Prince. In October 2018, Saudi operatives, on a mission to take him back to Saudi, killed him at the consulate, as part of a “rogue operation.” With the whereabouts of his body unknown and desperate attempts at covering up the story, the case created a lot of international media frenzy including narratives of dismemberment, implicating the Crown Prince. A UN official found “credible evidence” for an investigation, against the Prince recommending that sanctions be imposed. Finally, Saudi stepped forward to claim responsibility for the murder, and the operatives put on trial argued that they were “state employees and could not object to the orders of their superiors.”

Adding another unsettling dimension to MBS’s rule in Saudi, an article from September 2023 reported Saudi trying to “normalize relations with Israel,” propelled by the efforts of the Biden administration. Given the years of conflict between Israel, and Palestine – and the beginning of the genocide in Gaza in October 2023, Saudi-Israel ties to a large extent “betray Palestine,” as stated in an Al Jazeera article. Many call Saudi the leader of the Islamic world, but given the Prince’s reckless ambitions for the kingdom, this is unsurprising, as he may be aiming for an alliance against its archrival, Iran. Not to mention, it is under MBS’s rule that an alcohol shop opened up in Saudi Arabia in mid-January, with frequent concerts taking place here and there, with a literal genocide unraveling against Muslims in Gaza – a matter Saudi has done nothing about. Masjid-e-Nabwi, one of the most sacred, and holiest places to Muslims is on its way to becoming a tourist spot, with tourists dressed up indecently to a large extent, encapsulating a whole lot of disrespect, and lack of regard for Islam.

Saudi Arabia has been subject to a controversial rule under Bin Salman, with the country deviating from morally grounded principles, and evading responsibility as the only Arab country capable of standing up to anti-Islam ideals. Garnering the largest economy in the Middle East, and introducing a few reforms in favor of women, is nearly not enough, especially when a country this large is going against the very principles it was built upon, all under the rule of MBS. Imprisoning, or worse, all those who point fingers at the audaciously crafted policy of the Prince, to silence opposition is a cunning tactic deployed by vehemently cruel leaders, history has proven. There are repercussions of certain actions – what may work for Saudi’s economy may spill over into the rest of the Arab world, and to some extent it already has, and cause irreversible damage. A case in point is the Israel-Palestine conflict. With the concept of ethical governance being almost non-existent, one may question if the Crown Prince is best suited to rule a country like Arabia. The frequent emphasis on the Prince being a de facto ruler in my article is to enunciate the apprehension and debate subject to the legitimacy of his rule in the Kingdom. And, so I ask, is Saudi Arabia on the trajectory of Renaissance or Dystopia?

Ayesha Mirza
Ayesha Mirza
Governance and Public policy scholar at NUST and affiliated with the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).