The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS), has been getting great reviews from the media in the West for his plans to modernize his kingdom. At age 33 he's announced schemes to diversify the economy and open his country to new international investment. This week an eccentric law finally disappeared and women for the first time are allowed to drive cars.
But it will require much more if this absolute monarchy ever softens its worldwide reputation for close control of its citizens. It was not a happy sign that even as the government under MBS pondered changing the driving law, police arrested women who were demonstrating for precisely that change. The point, apparently, was that the decision was made by members of the royal family (for which everyone should be grateful), and certainly not as a result of rioting in the streets.
MBS finds himself managing one of the world's least popular countries. It's best known for the harshness of its Shariah law and for the fierce Wahhabi doctrine it has helped spread across the planet, convincing many Muslims (including many jihadis) that it's the only authentic form of Islam. MBS has livened things up in Riyadh and other cities. Music is now played in public, and cinemas have opened. The dreaded religious police seem to be fading away.
Now women are hoping for another change -- in the Saudi Arabian tradition of guardianship that emphasizes the superior status of men over women. The lives of women and girls are totally managed by male guardians, most often their fathers or brothers. Men tell them what they are allowed to do and make sure that they do it. The men have made no great fuss about this responsibility. It's just one more rule handed down through the mists of the past.
Women, however, want change. In a recent survey by The New York Times, a young woman was asked about the progress of Saudi women toward independence. She answered that guardianship is a big obstacle to them. "I cannot go out of the house unless my older brother gives me permission," she said. "I cannot go to the market -- even to the hospital. If a woman ventures out, her guardian could report her to the authorities as a runaway. I am 29 years old." In a practice that astonishes and appals visitors from almost everywhere, females of all ages are treated as nine-year-olds, or as prisoners permanently under house arrest.
MBS is expected to become the king of Saudi Arabia when his father dies. Meanwhile he's serving as manager of just about every enterprise in the kingdom. The most expensive, and the cruellest, is the Saudi-led war against the Iran-backed Houthis, the Shia Muslim insurgents who have for three years been fighting the government of Yemen, Saudi Arabia's neighbour to the south.
The motto of the Houthis reads, "God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam." They are fierce, mean and clever warriors, but so are their enemies. This could be the right moment for MBS to reveal a talent for peacemaking, but he prefers to deploy more aircraft and rockets. As the war proceeds, threatening Yemen's main port, the UN predicts a greater lack of food and widespread hunger.
In the public imagination, MBS will be best known for allowing women to drive. When he was proposing it, Islamic clergymen thought him unwise, a young man urging a radical change that was too liberal for Saudi society. My favourite among the reluctant clerics was one who made the argument that "letting women to drive would lead to immorality and a lack of virgins." Call him an old fogey, but there's a fellow who can forecast a social shortage well before it appears.