1. Neom to be the beacon of Bin Salman’s reform
Two years have passed since the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, announced his Neom city project worth $500 billion, and it now seems to be finally coming to life as construction begins. The Neom city is set to represent a beacon of Bin Salman’s secular reforms, as it will try to act as a modern Western megacity, a source of income not from oil, the ultimate advertisement to please the international scene. But its also here where the risks to the 33-year-old prince’s grand plan for his country are writ large. Neom is the boldest pillar of a social and economic transformation that so far has seen at least as many delays as successes. Indeed, the question since the prince announced the vast development at an extravaganza in 2017 has been whether it can become a reality. It now seems that it will become a reality, but complications during construction that could halt the project should not be excluded.
2. Reforms could ironically hurt business
Despite many of Bin Salman’s reforms, including the upcoming Neom city being economic sources of development, in an attempt to increase business while diversifying from oil, these actions in addition to the crown prince’s regional aggression and violation of human rights, have led to a planned boycott of Mecca and Hajj trips, led by religious scholars. Saudi Arabia is known to make a large quantity of money from the Hajj period, and an interruption of this would take a noticeable blow at Saudi’s economy, hurting their business ambitions in the process, as investors would see this as a sign of instability.
3. Bin Salman has put himself in danger
Bin Salman has been playing a dangerous game with his recent reforms, going against the country’s conservative leaders and clerics, as his treatment of former conservative cleric Awda has come under fire and shifted public opinion against him. Some forecasts even predict demonstrations similar to the 2011 Arab spring if he is given the death penalty, but such an event is unlikely. Regardless, if Bin Salman intends to continue his reforms, he needs to find a way to please his conservative opposition, rather than using force, which is hurting his popularity at home, as well as international relations.
4. Persistence on reforms
Despite the wide-spread criticism of Bin Salman’s secular reforms by the conservative majority in the country, the Crown Prince has continued to increase their scale. In addition to the beginning of construction of the Neom city which was mentioned earlier, Saudi Arabia is reportedly planning to relax laws that require male permission for women to travel abroad. The move will ease the infamous male guardianship system in the country under which women need permission from men to marry, travel, and even leave jail. This follows from Salman’s law passed to allow women to drive last year. This move is set to be another breakthrough and move away from previous Saudi traditions, that may gain him an even wider following from the women within the nation, but widespread opposition as well.
5. Are the secular reforms a distraction?
MBS’s secular reforms have seemed to have an intention to cloud other political moves and events Riyadh is taking, which is effectively the silencing of any dissent towards the government. This was vividly shown by the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This deviation does not seem to have worked as the world was outraged by the assassination, and until now it is hurting Saudi Arabia’s international ties, even with the US, as the US senate recently nearly passed a vote which would block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The vote was vetoed by Trump. Mohammed Bin Salman seems to be unphased by the internal and external reaction to his reforms in the past years and appears determined to make the biggest one yet, the NEOM city project, a success.