THE CURRENT Saudi regime, controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has the strange distinction of being both the most repressive in recent Saudi history — and also, in some respects, the most reformist. That seeming paradox was on vivid display last week when, after the death in prison of one of the kingdom’s foremost liberal activists, authorities disclosed the abolition of flogging of criminals and capital punishment for crimes committed by children.

Abdullah al-Hamid, 69, died of a stroke that was the direct result of his mistreatment by the regime, which sentenced him to 11 years in prison in 2013 for advocating a peaceful transition to democracy. It is another black mark for Mohammed bin Salman, who since rising to power has become notorious for overseeing the mass arrest of leading businessmen, the torture and imprisonment of women’s rights activists, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

That is not how MBS, as he is known internationally, wants to be perceived; he styles himself as a modernizer who is revamping Saudi society and the economy for the 21st century. To do that, he desperately needs to attract foreign investment. So perhaps it is not a coincidence that, days after Mr. Hamid’s death, authorities announced that flogging — a crude punishment often ordered by judges for minor offenses — had been outlawed, along with the execution of people convicted of crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

Like previous reforms, such as lifting restrictions on women and permitting movie theaters and other public entertainments, the change was more than symbolic. There are at least half a dozen prisoners under 18 awaiting execution, including several who participated in anti-government protests by the minority Shiite community. The most notorious flogging in recent years was delivered to Raif Badawi, a liberal blogger who criticized the country’s religious establishment.

Yet for MBS, reform is an autocratic exercise, controlled by him alone and deliberately prejudicial toward grass-roots activists for change. While granting women the right to drive in 2018, the regime arrested 18 of the most ardent advocates for that right. Several were brutally tortured and two of the most prominent, Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sadah, remain imprisoned even though they have never been convicted of a crime. Mr. Badawi, too, is still in jail, serving a 10-year sentence. His sister Samar Badawi, one of the women’s activists, has been jailed without trial since July 2018.

Mohammed bin Salman would have it both ways: free to brutally suppress all independent voices in the kingdom while reaping credit at home and abroad for reforms he dispenses as a benevolent despot. It’s not a workable strategy in the 21st century, as the continued stagnation of the Saudi economy demonstrates. MBS’s crimes deeply overshadow his concessions to modernity; unless the 34-year-old ruler quickly changes course, they will subvert all he seeks to accomplish.

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