Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman: Reformer and hard-liner

He is known as "MBS" or "Mr. Everything." As the king's favorite son, he is in line to take power in Saudi Arabia. However, the role Mohammed bin Salman plays in Riyadh has two sides.

For big-name global business advisors like McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group, the Saudi capital of Riyadh is the place to be: Rich, shiny and dynamic. Conservative and undemocratic, too, but those values take a backseat to business.

The consultants have put together a concept called "Vision 2030" for the Saudi leadership: How can the kingdom modernize and break its dependence on oil production? How can the state-run oil company, Aramco, be privatized? Most of all, where are the new sources of revenue and jobs for the Saudi people?

At just 32 years old, Mohammed bin Salman is the driving force behind the project, which he is using to help shape his image as a reformer.

King Salman named Mohammed bin Salman crown prince in June

The power of MBS

Mohammed bin Salman, known in Riyadh by his initials, MBS, has been consolidating power to an extent not well known until June 20 of this year. That is when 81-year-old King Salman, whose health is deteriorating, placed him in line for the throne, supplanting the king's nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef.

The influence Mohammed bin Salman now wields can be both frightening and impressive. His political career began as governor of Riyadh, and he later served as his father's special advisor. He became Chief of the Court in 2012, assuming the rank of minister. When his father became king, Mohammed bin Salman was appointed defense minister, the youngest in the world and a position he still holds.

Occupying multiple posts at once, German newspaper Die Zeit once called him "extremely corrupt, greedy and arrogant." He has stoked the ongoing feud with Iran, saying the regime in Tehran "will not change overnight." International criticism of his own country's extremely conservative Islamic ideology, Wahhabism, does not faze the crown prince. Iran supports the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom Saudi Arabia would gladly like to see gone.

Saudi Arabia's military campaign in Yemen has been criticized for human rights violations

Waging war in Yemen

Yemen is another important front for Mohammed bin Salman. With US support, Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in the neighboring country two years ago in a bid to defeat the Houthi rebels, a Shiite group. But instead of bringing the conflict to a close, Saudi Arabia's military campaign has contributed to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises that looks to have no end in sight.

"No one wants this war to continue," Mohammed bin Salman told the state broadcaster, Al Arabiya, in May. If there has been a chance to end the war, however, the Saudi government and its defense minister have not taken it. Human Rights Watch has documented Saudi war crimes and indiscriminate airstrikes. Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), expressed concern in the Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper that Mohammed bin Salman's "aggressive foreign policy aggravates regional conflict."

Freedom remains a dream

Slow to reform: Women were only recently granted the right to drive in Saudi Arabia

Despite his many posts, Mohammed bin Salman has minimal international experience. His education is limited to a bachelor's degree in Islamic Law from King Saud University. His private life is less well known, only that he is married with four children.

Under his authority, women have recently been allowed to drive – a historic decision, though Saudi Arabia remains a country ruled by an extremely oppressive government.

Related Subjects

Women still require permission from a male family member to study or travel. Human rights remain a low priority in the kingdom. The blogger Raif Badawi, for example, has been in prison since 2012 despite an international effort to free him. Indeed, the crown prince appears to be in no hurry to create a more open society.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

1955: First school for girls, 1970: First university for women

Girls have not always been able to go to school like these students in Riyadh. Enrollment at the first school for girls, Dar Al Hanan, began in 1955. The Riyadh College of Education, the first higher education institution for women, opened in 1970.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2001: ID cards for women

At the start of the 21st century, women could get personal ID cards for the first time. The cards are the only way for them to prove who they are, for example in disputes relating to inheritance or property issues. IDs were only issued with the permission of a woman's guardian, though, and to the guardian instead of directly to the woman. Only in 2006 were women able to get IDs without permission.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2005: End of forced marriages - on paper

Saudi Arabia banned forced marriage in 2005, but marriage contracts continue to be hammered out between the husband-to-be and the father of the bride, not the bride herself.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2009: The first female government minister

In 2009, King Abdullah appointed the first female minister to Saudi Arabia's government. Noura al-Fayez became the deputy education minister for women's affairs.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2012: First female Olympic athletes

Saudi Arabia agreed to allow female athletes to compete on the national team for the Olympics for the first time. One of them was Sarah Attar, who ran the women's 800 meter race at the 2012 Olympics in London wearing a headscarf. Before the Games, there was speculation that the Saudi Arabian team might be banned for gender discrimination if they didn't allow women to participate.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2013: Women are allowed to ride bicycles and motorbikes

Saudi leaders allowed women to ride bicycles and motorbikes for the first time in 2013 — but only in recreational areas, wearing full Islamic body covering and with a male relative present.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2013: First women in the Shura

In February 2013, King Abdullah swore in the first 30 women to the Shura, Saudi Arabia's consultative council. This allowed women to be appointed to these positions, soon they would be allowed to actually run for office...

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2015: Women can vote and get elected

In Saudi Arabia's 2015 municipal elections, women were able to vote and run for office for the first time. By contrast, New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, in 1893. Germany did so in 1919. At the 2015 Saudi polls, 20 women were elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2017: First female head of the Saudi stock exchange

In February 2017, the Saudi stock exchange names the first female chairperson in its history, Sarah Al Suhaimi.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2018: Women to be allowed in sports stadiums

On October 29, 2017, the country's General Sports Authority announced that women would be allowed into sports stadiums for the first time. Three previously male-only arenas will soon be open for women as well, starting in early 2018.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2018: Driving ban eliminated

On September 26, 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that women would soon be allowed to drive, causing a flurry of driving courses for women to prepare for June 2018, when they would no longer need permission from their male guardian to get a driver's license or need their guardian in the car when they drive.

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia: A timeline

2019: Saudi women to be notified by text message if they are divorced

The new law, designed to protect them from having their marriage ended without their knowledge, will allow women to check their marital status online or visit a court to get a copy of divorce papers. Human rights defenders say the law does nothing to address the fact that Saudi women can only obtain divorces in exceedingly limited cases — such as with her husband’s consent or if he has harmed her.