RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—In asserting himself over Saudi Arabia, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is imposing a trade-off that appeals to many fellow young Saudis.
The prince, in essence, is broadening social liberties in exchange for closing off the limited political freedoms that existed in the Saudi kingdom.
That is an approach that has worked for other Gulf monarchies, most notably the United Arab Emirates. There, no hint of political dissent is tolerated but social and religious rules are relatively relaxed. Women enjoy many rights denied to them in Saudi Arabia. An abundance of entertainment and shopping options keeps potential troublemakers busy.
Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most conservative societies, strictly enforces a stringent interpretation of Islamic religious rules. But the kingdom had allowed a degree of political openness. Until this year, dissidents, both of a liberal and conservative bent, felt relatively free to speak to foreign journalists, sometimes criticizing important government policies. Senior clerics made their often-controversial opinions public on social media, as did senior members of the House of Saud. Nothing of the kind was possible in the U.A.E., Qatar or Oman.
That era has ended now, with Prince Mohammed’s recent moves to consolidate power ahead of succeeding his father, King Salman.
Prince Mohammed rounded up many liberal and conservative dissidents, as well as clerics and some princes, in a wave of arrests in September that followed the deposing of his predecessor as crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, in June.
Then came the unprecedented Nov. 4 purge, with simultaneous detentions of senior princes, officials and key members of the kingdom’s business community as part of a corruption investigation.
With this campaign reaching hundreds of members of the kingdom’s elite, few Saudis these days dare to criticize the new regime, even in private.
“The detentions have created a climate of fear, so as to prevent people from discussing what is going on in the country,” said Saudi academic Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.
Prince Mohammed’s supporters argue that such a forceful approach is needed to break up the power of religious conservatives, and to transform the kingdom when its economy is unable to keep up with the growing youth population.
“He is steamrolling deep structural change that has to be done very quickly, and there is no time to develop a consensus,” said Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank that works closely with the Saudi government. “It’s a small price to pay to do the deep surgery that should have been done in the last 20-30 years. He has the right conception of what Saudi Arabia should become, and you need a benevolent dictatorship to do that.”
In the most visible structural change pushed through by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom has finally decided to allow women to drive. The powers of the religious police have been curbed, the segregation of sexes is no longer enforced as rigidly as before, and the government is staging concerts and performances that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
There is even a new General Entertainment Authority, to make sure everyone has their share of fun.
All of that is popular among Saudi Arabia’s youth, the majority of the kingdom’s population. Few ordinary young Saudis lament—and many cheer—the woes of the old elites.
In their lives, after all, the new social freedoms are much more meaningful than the shrinking political space.
“It’s a lot easier to get on stage now, and people are more and more open,” said Saleh Almubaddel, a guitarist in a two-man band that played some 10 gigs in public this year.
Before, we used to play just to men, and now we play to men and women together.”
The reforms have elicited—so far, at least—surprisingly little backlash from Saudi religious conservatives whose influence was long cited by the House of Saud as a reason to keep everything static.
“You’ll always have people who complain, but it’s not as many as we expected,” said Faisal al Sudairy, deputy manager of Dirab Park, on the outskirts of Riyadh, which features an auto-racing strip and a concert space.
“Three-four years ago we thought we’d see some sort of resistance, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “The community isn’t as conservative as we thought.”
On a recent night, the park was buzzing with young Saudis browsing food trucks and knickknack stalls. Young women walked with their heads uncovered as Western techno music blared from a tent offering mobile-phone plans.
“What is happening now is very tangible changes, ones that affect your day-to-day life,” said Omar Hussein, a 31-year-old Saudi YouTube celebrity who now stars in a Saudi TV show. “But the young generation is not so patient. People have a lot of high expectations.”
Mr. Hussein was one of hundreds of young Saudis who attended last week’s Misk Forum, a glitzy conference sponsored by Prince Mohammed, who hosted Bill Gates for the opening dinner. Western guests and Saudis mingled in high-tech workshops as futuristic jargon about the “knowledge economy” was beamed onto screens of the venue, Riyadh’s Four Seasons hotel.
Billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, who is the venue’s principal owner and Prince Mohammed’s cousin, didn’t attend. He was across town, like many other prominent Saudis an involuntary guest of the Ritz Carlton, a luxury hotel that early this month became an improvised detention facility.