Saudi Arabia has become a geopolitical loose cannon

MbS took firm control, brutally crushing any potential opposition. He transformed an inefficient but collegial monarchy into a far more ruthless but stunningly incompetent administration. So far, however, pervasive failure has only encouraged MbS to double down, usually to the detriment of anyone not a member of his faction of the Saudi royal family. So far his rule—of course, his father formally remains king—can be characterized as the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good is social reform. MbS has reduced the power of the religious police, taken aim at religious extremism, ended some restrictions on women, including on driving, and otherwise begun to moderate social strictures. He also sought to reform the kingdom’s finances to reflect lower oil prices. He reduced government subsidies for a time, before retreating in the face of discontent from a public grown dependent on the state. For these efforts he warrants praise, but hardly the stream of accolades for being a visionary modernizer.

The bad is really bad: domestic political and religious repression. Human-rights groups consistently find the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be one of the world’s most oppressive nations. For instance, Freedom House rates the KSA unfree. The Kingdom, reported Freedom House, “restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties through a combination of oppressive laws and the use of force.” The rulers “rely on extensive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power.”