Washington is Oblivious to the Importance of Saudi Reforms

Go to Riyadh. That’s the top recommendation I’ve been giving U.S. officials after my November 2022 trip to Saudi Arabia with a delegation sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, where I work.

Why? Because amid the dysfunction of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the domestic transformation currently underway in the country is one of the most important but underappreciated developments of the past decade, with profound implications for the Middle East and beyond. Most Americans at every level—in the Biden administration, the U.S. Congress, the media, and certainly the public—are strikingly unaware of the vast scope and scale of Saudi reforms and the tremendous stake the United States has in the country’s success.

The Saudi economy is being overhauled and diversified away from its singular dependence on oil. Billions of dollars are being spent to create new industries and the jobs that go with them nearly from scratch, including tourism, transportation, and renewable energy. Millions of Saudi women are being empowered and granted newfound rights to drive, work, and travel; while women are by no means fully equal citizens yet, this development is literally changing the face of Saudi society. Culture—once almost totally absent from public spaces because it was considered blasphemous to Islam—is being nurtured and embraced. Cinemas, art shows, rock concerts, ravestheme parks, and even opera festivals are popping up across the country.

Radical Wahhabism—the austere, misogynistic, intolerant, and anti-Western religious doctrine that controlled the kingdom for decades—is steadily being replaced by efforts to inculcate and propagate a more tolerant and moderate version of Islam. School textbooks are being scrubbed of their most hate-filled content—from sanctioning the second-class status of women to demonizing Jews and Shiites to endorsing capital punishment for homosexuality. The state-backed export of jihad ideology has ended in favor of a message urging Muslims around the world to respect the norms and laws of the countries where they live.

Yet most Americans are oblivious to these changes. The reason is obvious enough. Saudi reform efforts—collectively known as Vision 2030—are the brainchild of the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And for most Americans, Mohammed bin Salman is synonymous with a list of shocking, high-profile acts of political repression, human rights abuses, and downright brutality. Exhibit A, of course, is the grisly 2018 dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based columnist for the Washington Post, by a Saudi hit team that was assessed by the U.S. intelligence community, based on strong circumstantial evidence, to be operating with Mohammed bin Salman’s approval. In the wake of the murder, most everything else concerning Saudi Arabia has been considered secondary by most U.S. politicians and pundits.

The reaction in the United States is perhaps understandable. But it’s also deeply unfortunate—especially for leaders in the Biden administration and Congress who bear responsibility for national security. By all means, press Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudis on the need to limit the worst excesses of a political system that, after all, remains an absolute monarchy, especially when it comes to the all-too-frequent mistreatment of dual U.S.-Saudi nationals. Don’t back away from the role that human rights and democratic values have long played in U.S. foreign policy. Just don’t let it blind you to the unprecedented and historic process of economic, social, cultural, and religious liberalization that is transforming one of the world’s most important midsized powers. It’s a transformation that promises to benefit not just tens of millions of Saudis (especially the more than 60 percent of the population under age 35) but also Middle East security and U.S. national interests more broadly.

The future of Saudi Arabia is hugely important to the United States. It’s a member of the G-20. It’s the world’s largest exporter of oil, which—as Russia’s war in Ukraine has reminded us—is still the international economy’s most precious commodity. As the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest mosques, it carries great weight with many of the world’s 50 majority-Muslim countries. Going on 80 years, it’s been the United States’ most important strategic partner in the Persian Gulf—albeit oftentimes a problematic one, as highlighted by events like the 1973 Arab oil boycott and the kingdom’s historical role in financing extremism. The Saudis have provided critical support to counter common adversaries, including the Soviet Union, Iran, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. If Saudi Arabia’s recent flirtations with Israel lead to normalized relations, then it could transform the geopolitics of the Middle East and significantly bolster regional efforts to contain and constrain Iranian aggression.

It’s certainly true that Mohammed bin Salman has done nothing to mitigate his country’s long history of autocratic rule. On the contrary, as evidenced by the Khashoggi murder, he’s escalated efforts to snuff out all signs of political dissent, however mild and unthreatening—often in dark and disturbing ways. Women may now be behind the steering wheel, but the brave female activists who originally championed the cause find themselves imprisoned and reportedly tortured. A 72-year-old U.S. citizen who wrote some mildly critical tweets of Saudi policy from his home in Florida was recently arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison while he was visiting family in Riyadh. The list goes on.

But outside the political realm, it’s also true that the crown prince is expanding the space for individual Saudis to exercise a degree of personal freedom unprecedented in their history. Less than a decade ago, my main impressions on visiting the kingdom were of a sullen, bleak, and xenophobic populace of unproductive subjects, living off unearned government largesse, foreign labor, and a steady diet of religious intolerance. Fast forward several years, and there’s a palpable sense in Riyadh of dynamism, energy, and future possibility. The private sector is expanding; young people—especially women—are entering the workplace in record numbers, starting businesses, and being held accountable for their performance. The country is opening itself to the rest of the world in terms of tourists, commerce, and cultural influence in ways never before seen.

I spent a major chunk of nearly 15 years in government railing against Saudi Arabia’s sinister and duplicitous role, both financially and ideologically, in creating the ecosystem of anti-Western jihadism that spawned al Qaeda and the Islamic State. If you had walked into my White House office after 9/11 and asked me what was the single most important thing the Saudis could do to advance U.S. national security, I would have said without hesitation that they should stop the export of their hate-filled and tyrannical religious doctrine to Muslim communities around the world. That religious doctrine and the vast sums Saudi institutions and wealthy individuals spent to promote it were helping to get thousands of Americans and other people killed.

Over the past five years, Mohammed bin Salman has done exactly that. He’s incarcerated radical clerics preaching violence. Extremist madrassas, both at home and abroad, have been defunded. Any Saudi support to foreign mosques and organizations must now be approved by host governments. It’s a transformative development that even one of the kingdom’s harshest U.S. critics, Sen. Chris Murphy, recently acknowledged. But most U.S. officials appear incapable of recognizing this shift, much less its tremendously beneficial impact on U.S. national interests. That’s particularly unfortunate given that the Saudi crackdown on extremism has also been accompanied by one of the world’s most ambitious programs of domestic reform as well as an historic new willingness to support the normalization of relations with Israel. Add it all up, and it makes the growing chorus of voices that appear single-mindedly focused on shunning, punishing, and (however inadvertently) driving the Saudis into the arms of Washington’s most dangerous great-power adversaries not just shortsighted but harmful.

During my two most recent visits to Saudi Arabia, I’ve had some version of the following conversation with at least 20 young women professionals. I raised the Khashoggi murder. They admitted it was terrible and cast a pall of shame on their country. They said it should never have happened and must never happen again. But then they warned, politely, that if U.S. politicians persisted in defining their country of 36 million people by its single worst day—ignoring the historic opportunities now available to them to live lives of purpose, accomplishment, and fulfillment that their mothers and grandmothers could never have dreamed of—then the United States is going to have a real problem with millions of Saudi women going forward. If a group of young Saudi women entrepreneurs, scientists, and researchers who represent the best hope for the future of Saudi Arabia and the U.S.-Saudi relationship can grasp the virtue of balancing the bad against the good, so should those responsible for U.S. national security.

The reform of Saudi Arabia may be the most important and hopeful transformation of any Muslim society since former Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk built a modern, secular, pro-Western country on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Historians 100 years from now may well look back on Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping campaign of reform and liberalization as one of the most significant geopolitical inflection points of the early 21st century. For all of Saudi Arabia’s faults and shortcomings, the United States has every interest in engaging, influencing, and shaping that process of historic change rather than shunning and abandoning it to be shaped by those much less friendly to U.S. interests.

U.S. President Joe Biden is fond of reminding his critics that they shouldn’t compare him to the Almighty but rather to the alternative. It’s good advice that he should insist on applying to Saudi Arabia as well. There, we already know where the alternative ultimately ends: in the smoking ruins of 9/11. With some luck and sustained U.S. engagement, what’s emerging in Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia today holds out hope for something that could be infinitely better.

But don’t take my word for it. Go to Riyadh, and see for yourself.

John Hannah is the Randi and Charles Wax Senior Fellow at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America and was a national security adviser to vice president Dick Cheney.

Originally published in Foreign Policy.

This op-ed was made possible by the generous support of the Gettler Family Foundation and a portion of the research was conducted on the Benjamin Gettler International Policy Trip.