Saudi Arabia : The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul extinguished Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation in the United States and Europe as a liberalizing reformer of his country. What the West must now do is ask itself why Salman enjoyed such a reputation to begin with. This is not the first time a Saudi leader has presented himself to the world as a liberalizer—and it’s not the first time the world has found itself duped.
The premise of Mohammed bin Salman’s reform effort has been that, prior to 1979—when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established an Islamic theocracy in Iran and Juhayman al-Otaybi seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca—Saudi Arabia was a moderate kingdom that respected the diversity and civil rights of its subjects. In March, CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell asked the crown prince whether the last 40 years represents the “real Saudi Arabia,” and he replied, “I would ask your viewers to use their smartphones to find out. And they can google Saudi Arabia in the ’70s and ’60s, and they will see the real Saudi Arabia easily in the pictures.” In an interview this spring with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Mohammed bin Salman similarly portrayed the Saudi Arabia of the 1960s and ’70s as comparatively liberal—always citing 1979 as the turning point. “Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia. … In the 1960s, women didn’t travel with male guardians,” he said.