When Mohammed bin Salman was first made Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the West rejoiced. It looked as if, finally, a young reformer with 21st century values was taking the reins of the state. After he allowed women to finally drive, the West hoped the Saudis would free jailed journalists, meaningfully engage with Europe and America like Israel does, and maybe even end their involvement in the Yemen war. In short, it was hoped that Saudi Arabia was beginning its journey into liberal society.
From Jared Kushner and Boris Johnson to Middle East think tanks and commentators, many bought in to the optimism. As Nick Robinson said on the Today programme this week - ‘A lot of people in the West have put an awful lot of store by MBS. They viewed him as a potential long term liberaliser, as someone who will make Saudi Arabia a safer place, both internally, but more crucially externally.’
Well, they were wrong. Nothing has more rudely awakened the Fukuyaman dream, that all states would embrace the liberal order, as much as the death of Jamal Khashoggi. But the execution of this journalist hasn’t come out of nowhere. Those who are surprised by the cruelty of Riyadh under a reformer needed only to look a little further east. In China, reform and openness made Mao’s successors more, not less, defensive.
Deng Xiaoping, the intelligent pragmatic successor to Mao, opened China up to foreign trade and investment, killed state owned industries which were largely zombies, encouraged domestic businesses, and even relaxed emigration laws. He set China on a market economy journey that would, within decades, even see it join the WTO. At the time, the West hoped that further marketisation would turf out the Commies.
But this was wishful thinking. From the very beginning, it was Deng the reformer who brought in the one child policy and who gave the orders for the traumatic suppression of the Tiananmen protest. Today in China, the iron grip is still tight. All news sources are still state directed, social media is censored, and internet access restricted. Ethnic minorities like the Muslim Uighurs are made to follow Beijing’s values – or else be detained. Democratic Hong Kong continues to be reeled closer to Beijing’s influence, despite the promise of ‘one country two systems’. Under Xi Jinping, the country’s political progress reversed decades when he abolished presidential term limits.
Against Western instincts, liberal noises do not equate liberal democracy. Why not? In China, the country's growing wealth actually justified communist rule. How could the party’s mission be side-tracked by a few protesting students in Tiananmen, or so-called religious autonomy in Tibet, when it was delivering miraculous economic growth and lifting almost a billion people out of poverty? The reformers would pay the price of death to protect their progress. And the populace largely agree – dressed in their imported clothes, on full stomachs, they opine that, yes, life is better now (most globetrotting, designer-chasing middle aged Chinese grew up in absolute poverty). They also carefully watch the West’s democratic turmoil. Chuckling, Chinese visitors say to me ‘Democracy is good? So explain Brexit.’
Riyadh is following the same dictator’s handbook. The signs were all there. Even before Khashoggi’s death, Saudi Arabia had thrown a diplomatic tantrum, all because of a tweet from Canada’s foreign ministry in support of jailed blogger Raif Badawi. In response, it decided to freeze all trade investment, flights, and even recall its students from Canadian universities.
This time last year, Riyadh allegedly abducted the Prime Minister of Lebanon and forced him to resign. The last I checked, the war in Yemen is still taking hundreds of lives a day. And back home, MBS is sucking his rivals dry as he centralises power; women’s rights activists continue to be arrested; and by some measures, human rights violations are worse than ever.
The thing is, although the West wishes otherwise, liberalism can be cherry-picked. A country is perfectly able to take some liberal reforms but remain utterly distinct from Western values. China is the perfect prototype – its leaders have taken the best parts of free markets to grow the economy. In the process, the leadership’s mandate is strengthened, as the people choose riches over freedom. Similarly, Riyadh will not be getting closer to the West just because the young crown prince believes women can drive. Instead, he has embarked on the same path as Beijing.