Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as “MBS,” has received a lot of great press lately as a modernizer. You may have seen his smiling photo in Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people, right up there with Jimmy Kimmel and Cardi B. The accompanying paragraph by Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi feminist who was jailed in 2011 for driving a car, is cautiously optimistic: “At first I was skeptical of the prince’s Vision 2030 plan to modernize our kingdom. I have come around. Most Saudis are under age 30, and have only known elderly rulers. Now a major leader is our peer. I want to see the changes lead to political reforms, even a constitutional monarchy and full freedom of expression. If MBS would do that, my hopes for a better Saudi Arabia are bigger than the sky.”
Well, here’s hoping. Mohammed has already made some changes toward the goals set out in Vision 2030, his blueprint for Saudi Arabia’s future, which acknowledges that the kingdom won’t be able to depend solely on oil exports and needs to evolve economically, socially, and politically in order to survive. Since 2015, women have been able to vote and run in municipal elections; more jobs have been opened to them. In June, they’ll be allowed to drive. There’s even talk of ending the guardianship system under which every woman, no matter how old, is under the legal control of a male relative. Movie theaters are opening up after a 35-year ban (first film shown: Black Panther). All this is part of the prince’s larger plan to diversify the economy and welcome tourists and foreign investment. Crucially, he says he wants to adopt a more moderate Islam than the severe Wahhabism that is the state religion and that Saudi Arabia has aggressively promoted around the world. (Islam is the only religion permitted in the kingdom.)
But if Mohammed, ruler of the country in all but name, really wants to show the world that he is moving Saudi Arabia away from repression, theocracy, and the flagrant and barbaric disregard of human rights, it’s imperative that he release and pardon Raif Badawi, a liberal blogger who has been detained since 2012, when he was charged with, among other things, “apostasy,” a capital crime. Badawi was cleared of apostasy in 2013, but he was sentenced a year later to 10 years in prison plus 1,000 lashes, of which he received 50, for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” Witnessed by a crowd of hundreds, the flogging left Badawi severely injured and touched off an international furor. Subsequent installments have been postponed.
What did Badawi write that brought the religious establishment down on his head? On his blog, Free Saudi Liberals, he opposed political Islam and called for freedom of speech and thought and an end to fundamentalist, obscurantist, coercive religion. His blog was taken down in 2012, but The Guardian gathered a sample of his posts: