Fear and wonder,” remarked the fictional Senator Gracchus in Gladiator, “are a powerful combination” when it comes to controlling people. It is perhaps a tad unfair to project such Machiavellian intentions onto Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), as one of the centrepieces of his project to “reform” the Islamic kingdom comes into effect. But the fact remains that despite the publicity and accolades, a fundamental contradiction remains in Saudi politics and society. On Monday, Saudi Arabia issued driving licences to 10 women, a simple and important freedom denied to to women thus far. The move has been rightly welcomed. At the same time, four women’s rights activists continue to languish in the kingdom’s prisons for demanding, among other things, the right to drive.
MbS, since at least November last year, has used fear and wonder to great effect. In an ostensible bid to tackle corruption, he has detained political opponents, including members of the royal family. Under his leadership, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become notably more aggressive, especially with the military intervention in Yemen and the attempted diplomatic isolation of Qatar. But MbS has done enough and more to make the world remark in wonder at his plans to diversify the country’s largely oil-based economy and open up its society: He has initiated religious reform, allowed more room for women in the public space and is trying to make his country a destination for entertainment and technology.
Welcome as the reforms are, they cannot be seen in isolation from the climate of intimidation in a country ruled by a family. The reforms may well be necessary, especially on the economic front, in a world that is more connected than ever. With the right to drive, for example, free mobility to a significant section of consumers is bound to yield dividends. The real question is whether the new freedoms emanate from the benevolence of MbS or a larger principle. For freedoms to be truly sacrosanct, they must be guaranteed in a system of law and democratic jurisprudence rather than top-down decrees.