Over the past two years, Saudi Arabia has undergone a period of wrenching change. Throughout history, any transformation of this magnitude has been destabilizing. In Saudi Arabia, a deeply polarized society split between liberal reformers and powerful reactionaries, it is even more so. Under these unique circumstances, the Saudi government has become more authoritarian in order to hold the country together while forcing through necessary, but controversial reforms, such as empowering women socially and economically. So far, they have succeeded in this endeavor. There have been no terror attacks and no mass demonstrations. The speed and scope of these reforms have, however, resulted in overreach and serious mistakes. I believe the Saudi government recognizes that.
One of the structural problems the kingdom has is that under sharia’a law one cannot be “named and shamed” when they are arrested and indicted. This creates an unfortunate situation whereby no one knows exactly why detainees are imprisoned. The government can improve transparency by publicizing the charges against these individuals. It has taken steps in this direction. After the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, senior people were removed, and individuals were tried in hearings that were opened to foreign diplomats. At the same time, the government cannot be seen as reacting to Western pressure, particularly by its most conservative communities who strongly oppose any type of external influence.