Saudi Arabia is living through a critical time. Oil prices are at an all-time low and the economy is still very dependent on oil revenues. Debt is increasing. Is the kingdom still stable?
Al-Rasheed: The country faces two challenges: the first is the cycle of oil revenues, the rise and fall of oil prices that has been going on for half a century. The second is COVID-19. Most likely, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will become king after the death of King Salman. But he is going to live in fear because he has failed to get the consensus of the royal family. MbS rules them by force: over the last three years, various princes have been in and out of detention. In addition, MbS lacks the support of both Saudi Arabia's financial and traditional elites that have always in the past supported the state and its government. This will create ambiguity at the very top level and could cause a power vacuum.
A narrative of positive change has been evident in international media since the rise of MbS. The country is opening up to tourists, concerts and cinemas have been reintroduced. Most prominently, of course, is the issue of women driving: in 2017 the government finally granted women the right to drive.
In order to understand this, we need to go back to 2011 when the Arab world began demanding political change. Since then, King Salman and MbS have been trying to change Saudi Arabia's image. MbS in particular was seen as a solution to this challenge. He is young and appears to be promoting liberal reforms, but in reality, he has launched a counter-revolution. Obviously, he had to do what appeals to the West. This is where the demands put forward by Saudi women and men – women driving or more employment of women – come in. MbS has done exactly what Saudis were fighting for. The contradiction is: while introducing the reforms, he put the activists who called for them in prison.
Does MbS empower women?
Al-Rasheed: No, the regime uses women as symbols of modernity. By appointing women, it does not empower them. MbS has put women in positions that are extremely visible in order to show how progressive the regime is. Look at Reema bint Bandar, the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Why is there a princess in Washington, while Loujain al-Hathloul, a young Saudi activist, is still in prison? Appointment is not empowerment. Moreover, there are still serious issues that need to be addressed, such as the right to freedom of political expression.