In Saudi Arabia, MBS, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed forth relatively liberal reform that is transforming the country. But the recent crackdown on his opponents might disrupt his plans for a modernized Saudi economy.

With his father becoming increasingly less capable to rule, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, has begun to take the reins of the country’s economy and government.

His new, and forward-looking agenda stands in contrast to much of the conservative Wahhabist sentiment coming out of the country in the last decades. While MBS is doing his best to create a new Saudi Arabia in the world’s eyes, his efforts may result in more instability in the region.

Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia

During early November, MBS set forth legislation that will give Saudi women the right to drive in 2018. This huge step in Saudi policy will give women a newfound ability to become independent, both socially and financially.

Over a year and a half ago, MBS launched a new “Vision 2030” plan for Saudi Arabia. By 2030, MBS hopes to create a Saudi Arabia that is no longer dependent on oil revenues, and thus, less elastic to changes in oil prices, and has a more diversified economy. Recently, with the fallout of low oil prices, unemployment rose above 12% in the first quarter of 2017 and will likely keep rising. An essential part of MBS’s plan is to wean Saudi Arabia off its reliance on foreign workers—of which there are currently 11 million—and to ensure that more Saudis are employed. Since MBS introduced Vision 2030 in 2016, the Saudi economy has added 433,000 new jobs; however, most of these employment opportunities have been filled by foreigners.

In part, the push for women’s right to drive may not be as much a push for liberal reform as it is an economic move.

By allowing women to drive, the number of drivers Saudi families employ will fall, most of whom are foreigners that send their wages out of the country. 

Additionally, giving women the right to drive will result in more female employment and thus, Saudi families will have larger disposable income that will help set the economy in motion

MbS’s relatively liberal policies seem to have the greater grounding in improving the economy than they do in pushing forward true reform.

Regardless of MbS intentions, his programmes stand in stark contrast to those of the conservatives that maintain control of much of the country.

Traditionally the position of Crown Prince has primarily been allotted to older members of the Saudi royal family, such as MBS’s father, Salman, who became Crown Prince at 76 and King at 79.

Attempting to consolidate his power from the older, conservative elites, MBS arrested 11 princes and over 200 members of the Saudi elite in early November. Although it is likely that at least a small part of MBS’s crackdown is based in trying to curb the corruption that has plagued Saudi Arabia and in turn, to attract greater economic investment in the country, the move has spooked many investors in a country that is hoping to expand its economy.

With the possibility looming that King Salman may resign in the next few days, as MBS moves forward, he will have to toe the fine line between increasing economic growth in Saudi Arabia and protecting his own precarious rule. One misstep in MBS’s domestic policy decisions—where he exerts too much power or too little power—and the country, and possibly an entire region that depends on Saudi strength, may become even more unstable.

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Yale Young Global Scholar, Hadley Copeland focuses on the North America, Middle East, and Europe.

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