Saudis Are Hoping Mohammed bin Salman Will Drain the Swamp

A road trip among ordinary Saudis revealed high hopes, and hardly any worries, about the country's new political era.

By Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Lebanon's Christian Maronite patriarch on Nov. 14 in Riyadh. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Lebanon's Christian Maronite patriarch on Nov. 14 in Riyadh. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

We must be doing 80 miles per hour on a rutted road outside the northwestern Saudi town of Ula. It is late and I am tired, but I’ve got one eye on the road and one eye on the dashboard indicator light signaling that the Chevy Tahoe in which I am traveling has low tire pressure. What would happen if this thing rolled over? Do I remember how to say, “I’m allergic to aspirin” in Arabic?

Abu Najib — our driver, whose name, like all of those in this article, has been changed — does not seem concerned. He just keeps weaving from one side of the road to the other, avoiding ruts and bumps. When we met 25 minutes ago, he offered a lame handshake and seemed unnaturally shy for a guy built like a tank. I break the ice when he quietly asks me my name and I deadpan, “Mohammed bin Salman.” He laughs, and for the next two days, Abu Najib, his buddy Mohammed, and I are in a running dialogue.

I am on a road trip through Saudi Arabia with six Americans that will take us to Jeddah, Ula, Hail, Riyadh, and Dammam before it is all over. Along for the ride with me are two retired professors, a publisher, a former pharmaceutical executive who also was once a successful local politician, a real estate developer, and a retired financial services executive. The organizer of their tour asked to me to come along to lecture and answer questions about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. I am also conducting almost two weeks of what I admit is taxi driver research, but since — with some notable exceptions — so much commentary on Saudi Arabia is based on rumor, or an elaborate game of telephone in which some ostensibly valuable piece of information is distorted as it makes its way from Riyadh to a think tanker in Washington, I don’t feel so bad about it. There isn’t a prince, member of the chamber of commerce, ambassador, retired military officer, professor, or Western journalist on my agenda. Instead, my interlocutors are people like Abu Najib and Mohammed. Average Saudis; the powerless.

The first thing that strikes me is the difference between the way the press, the Washington foreign policy “blob,” and the Twitterati are processing Saudi news and the way Saudis are doing so. As best as I can tell from the dodgy Wi-Fi in my tent nestled within the craggy hills of Ula, there seems to be a lot of clothing rending in Washington over the fact that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has ordered the incarceration of dozens of princes, businessmen, and current and former officials in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel for alleged corruption; forced Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign; and called the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport an “[Iranian] act of war.”

I am sure I missed a fair number of articles, but from what I have been able to download, I gather that Mohammed bin Salman impetuously undertook a coup and a kidnapping that will no doubt lead to a Saudi-Iranian proxy war that could shake the entire region.

These dramatic events are potentially destabilizing, but the Saudis I’ve met are far more optimistic about the future than those commenting from the outside. The response to my inquiries about Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to consolidate his power — part of which is his recent, ostentatious move against the allegedly corrupt — was overwhelmingly positive. Abu Najib told me that in tossing the likes of business tycoon Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, former Riyadh governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah, and Binladin Group chairman Bakr bin Laden in the gilded cage that the Ritz has become, the crown prince was “doing what he had to do.” By this he meant that in order for the crown prince to succeed in his efforts to transform Saudi Arabia — which Abu Najib supports — the people standing in the way of that project must not be allowed to succeed.

When I relayed that many Western analysts have grown concerned that Mohammed bin Salman was unnecessarily creating tension and turmoil in the country, he shrugged and declared, “I am not worried.”

It may be that Abu Najib was more apprehensive than he was letting on. He’d known me for a total of 16 hours. I was just a foreigner with a funny Arabic accent passing through on a boondoggle. Fair enough — but was every Saudi I met fronting for the overly inquisitive Westerner?

Mohammed bin Salman’s recent moves are “actually bigger than him,” Sa’ud, a 26-year-old graduate student who moonlights as a sous chef in an upscale Jeddah hotel, told me. “We must have a war on corruption. This is good.”

On the broader issues of social liberalization that are also associated with the crown prince, Sa’ud told me that he wants to live in a country where people can live their lives as they please, “Muslim and non-Muslim.” I haven’t heard that before, but it is consistent with the wave of anecdotes that have flooded the Beltway in recent years. Saudi millennials — like Mohammed bin Salman — are impatiently agitating for change. As we part, Sa’ud tells me that Western analysts have it backwards: Instability would be caused by a failure to pursue reform, not because of it.

Everyone I met told me that young Saudis are simply no longer willing to comply with the social restrictions for which Saudi Arabia is infamous. They see the way the rest of the world lives and they want that, too. That is why people cheered — and Mohammed bin Salman garnered tremendous goodwill — when he took away the power of the religious police. Saudi Arabia does not deserve credit for being the last place on earth where women were granted the right to drive, but the Saudi women I met were nevertheless deeply appreciative of Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to allow them to get behind the wheel. Families with multiple women in the household will no longer need to juggle a driver and, importantly, it will give women great economic opportunities and control over their own lives.

Sa’ud is clearly not as concerned as the policy community that the crown prince might be pushing the delicate balance that maintained stability in Saudi Arabia since the 1930s to the breaking point. He welcomes it.

It is not just the millennials, however. A middle-aged professional — a member of the elite, but only by way of education, which the Saudi state paid for through scholarships — exclaimed to me that the recent wave of detentions is the “best thing that ever happened.”

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former longtime ambassador to the United States, once remarked that if the royals siphoned off tens of billions in the process of building the country, it was well worth the price. Saudis do not agree — they have grown sick and tired of state resources disappearing into the pockets of royal and non-royal government officials.

It is not as if the Saudis I met have trouble making ends meet — though there are plenty of poor Saudis. Instead, they resent the fact that the resources of the country have been used to make elites fabulously wealthy while the country has so many needs, especially in areas like education, health, and welfare. The average Saudis I met are essentially asking: How many more billions does Prince Al-Waleed actually need?

“Where are the new books? Where are the new books?” my interlocutor, the middle-aged professional, asked, by way of example. In the past, the government announced a $21 billion investment in education reform, but nothing happened except that the officials responsible for implementing change and updating curricula got wealthier.

The corrupt Saudi status quo made it possible for Bandar to buy a town in Great Britain — with ill-gotten gains from an arms deal — and previously own one of the largest properties in Aspen. But Saudis’ palpable outrage at that fact often led them to overlook that Mohammed bin Salman is a product of the same system they have come to loathe. I regret that I was too polite to ask Saudis if they were placing too much faith in Mohammed bin Salman. He recently purchased a $550 million yacht — where did such a young man come up with that kind of cash? The crown prince’s vanity purchase seems to stem from the same mentality as Bandar’s profligate spending, but the ordinary Saudis I met have placed enormous faith in Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to forge a system that is fair, transparent, and progressive. That is a very tall order in Saudi Arabia.

If the crown prince fails to deliver, the voices of skepticism in the kingdom could grow louder. The people I met along the way strongly support Mohammed bin Salman, but that’s not to say they didn’t have reservations.

Of all the folks I met, I spent the most time with Nabil, drawn to his wit, warmth, and perspective. Nabil served as the local guide for the group I was shepherding through Saudi Arabia. He is pushing 60 and is thus far outside the crown prince’s core constituency of 18 to 35 year olds — but Nabil is enjoying the changes that he said are already making Saudi Arabia a better, more open place. Of Mohammed bin Salman’s show of force against the previously powerful and untouchable, Nabil related matter-of-factly: “They must have done something wrong.”

By rounding up these high-profile miscreants, Nabil said, Mohammed bin Salman “is giving voice to the powerless.” That simple phrase seems to be at the core of the crown prince’s appeal: He’s draining the swamp, Saudi style. How do you say “Lock them up!” in Arabic?

But as much as he appreciates what Mohammed bin Salman is trying to do, Nabil wondered about the ability of the crown prince to manage his ever-expanding portfolio: “He is in charge of everything. One person cannot do so much.” And he expressed concerns about the saber rattling with Iran and the Saudi quagmire in Yemen, asking me rhetorically, “Shouldn’t we want to have peace with our neighbors?”

Two other Saudis — a shopkeeper (who is also of Yemeni background) and a small businessman — expressed similar sentiments, one going so far as to call Yemen “a black stain.” Still the Yemen disaster hasn’t diminished Mohammed bin Salman in the minds of my interlocutors.

As my time with Nabil winded down, I asked him if he has spent much time outside Saudi Arabia. He said he wants to see the world, but for now he is staying put because “I want to enjoy the changes in Saudi Arabia that for a long time I had hoped would come.”

A few days after the Ritz was turned into a jail, Reuters reported that the detentions were a palace coup of sorts undertaken after Mohammed bin Salman learned that members of the royal family and others were opposed to his inevitable elevation to the throne. The story prompted one observer to tweet that these revelations should make Washington analysts who claimed that Mohammed bin Salman was rooting out corruption look stupid. It seems obvious that the crown prince is consolidating his personal political power, but the snarky commentator seems as divorced from reality as the Beltway hacks he or she is denouncing.

The Saudis I encountered are not stupid. They understand that Mohammed bin Salman is consolidating his power, but they have faith based on the changes that he has previously undertaken — primarily regarding the religious police — that his intentions are good. One interlocutor, a teacher, informed me that Mohammed bin Salman has a good heart, thus he did not think it was possible that the crown prince was interested in maintaining a corrupt system with new players who happen to be close to him.

The trouble will come if he cannot deliver. For the moment, however, for the Saudis — at least the ones I have met — it is all about corruption and social liberalization. And in the crown prince, people believe they finally have the man who is going to make that happen even if he has to grab all the power to do it.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook