Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is part reformer, part showman with an astute understanding of the modern world and the need to bring his regressive desert dominion into the 21st century with a booming economy and a vibrant society
A week after Eid al-Fitr when the Ramzan fast is broken, a medieval rule was broken in the ultra conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the midnight of June 24. Women got behind the wheel of family automobiles, racing along the wide streets, honking deliriously, blasting loud music on car stereos, going for ice cream in the neighbourhood and taking selfies. A video clip of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal sitting in the passenger seat with his daughter Reem driving the family SUV went viral. “Ready Reem?” he asks in the Twitter video, “Al Hamdulillah, thank God, Saudi has entered the 21 century.”
But the man in the driving seat is his previous foe Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also called MbS, heir to the most powerful throne in West Asia and a modernist with the chutzpah to take on the omnipotent Islamic clergy that has been arbitrating affairs in the petrokingdom since 1979, when the Grand Mosque of Mecca was invaded by radical Islamists and the House of Saud had to align itself with the mossbacked clergy to stay in power.
MbS is the most controversial figure to have emerged in the Middle East in decades, a well-calibrated progressive-traditionalist who is redefining the image of the most authoritarian regime in the Islamic world. Liberals love him for easing curbs on women, cracking down ruthlessly on corruption, launching a job creation drive and engaging in realpolitik with Israel to create a New Gulf Order. The Economist labelled him the architect of the war in Yemen, which has precipitated an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Terrorists simply want him dead.
The US sees him as the most positive influence in the Islamic world while Iran fears his expanding influence. Since April 29, 2015, when he was appointed by his father King Salman as the deputy crown prince, the young royal has been steadily consolidating his power to push his agenda for a modern Saudi Arabia. On June 21, 2017, he became the heir apparent, firmly ensconcing him as the once and future king of an ancient people.
Women’s reform has been Prince Salman’s biggest image coup. In February 2017, Sarah Al Suhaimi was appointed the first female head of the Saudi Stock Exchange following which, Rania Mahmoud Nashar was made the CEO of Samba Financial Group, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest national banks. Saudi women were permitted to start their own business without the consent of a male guardian. Divorced mothers could retain immediate custody of their children without having to appeal to the courts that are traditionally pro-male. In December 2017, Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji enthralled thousands of young women at a performance in Riyadh—the first ever public concert by a female singer in Saudi Arabia.
Thanks to the prince, Saudi women can now hold jobs previously meant only for men, participate in sports and attend public events. The next big change could be women holding political positions and the end of male guardianship. “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,” said women’s rights activist Manal
Lifting driving ban on women
Appointing the first woman head of the Saudi Stock Exchange
Allowing women to work in jobs previously meant for men
Letting women to participate in public events such as concerts and wrestling matches
Opening cinema theatres
Women activists, moderate clerics and bloggers jailed
Media still controlled by government
Al-Sharif and author of Daring to Drive who was imprisoned by the authorities in 2011 for driving. Last year, the Saudi Cabinet voted to restrict the powers of Hay’a, the Religious Police—they can no longer chase suspects, make arrests or ask for identification, but only report suspicious behaviour to the regular police, which will take the final call on the matter.
However, Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, says, “The crown prince has brought about quite a few social and economical changes, but I am sceptical about his intentions. These moves are meant more to boost the image of one man—the crown prince.” Some others share his scepticism too. “The pro-driving activists have been thrown in jail. If credit for allowing women to drive goes to them, it takes away from the prince’s reputation as a reformer,” says a senior Middle Eastern diplomat. “I suspect it’s also his way to balance the disapproval of the clergy.”
The prince seems to be undeterred by criticism and is on an economic superdrive. In April 2016, he launched Vision 2030—Saudi Arabia’s roadmap to the future. It aims to transform the kingdom into the centre of the Arab and Islamic world connecting Asia, Africa and the Americas culturally and economically. Its main aim is to expand and privatise the Saudi economy. By 2030, MbS hopes to make the government fully digital—which will also significantly erode the clergy’s power.
He plans to create a $500 billion, 26,500 sq km pan Saudi-Jordan-Egypt business, industrial and cultural zone called NEOM, to promote industries such as energy and water, biotechnology, food, advanced manufacturing and entertainment, wind power and solar energy. Another upcoming mega project is a huge entertainment hub near Riyadh comprising theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari park to attract 17 million annual visitors, which could raise household spending on entertainment from 2.9 percent to 6 percent of GDP and generate 57,000 jobs by 2030. Both projects will be listed on the stock exchange.
MbS plans to sell about 5 percent of Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, to private investors through an IPO, hoping to raise $100 billion of the oil giant’s $2 trillion valuation. Riyadh had previously claimed that the Saudi economy would not be affected even if the oil price went down to $20 a barrel, but that optimism has faded to caution. Between 2013 and 2017, the Saudi budget deficit was $258 billion, prompting Riyadh to take $240 billion from its reserves and borrow around $100 billion. But in 2016, the Saudi public investment fund was worth $150 billion. Today it is $300 billion, expected to become $400 billion by 2018-end and grow to $600-700 billion and $2 trillion in 2020 and 2030 respectively. The prince reportedly plans to invest half this money for development at home, and the rest abroad to try dominating emerging sectors overseas. Job creation is his priority.
Academic curriculum will be changed from pure religious instruction to make education more employment-oriented. Bloomberg estimates that lifting the driving ban alone will boost women’s employment, and add $90 billion to the economy by 2030. Saudi families reportedly shell out $3.7 billion a year on drivers. Traffic Policewomen would be seen patrolling Saudi roads soon. Women are expected to enter the workforce—Middle East taxi app giant Careem, which employs 80,000 drivers in Saudi Arabia, hopes to hire 20,000 new drivers, including females.
The “National Transformation Programme 2020” is expected to create jobs for youth through sporting and entertainment ventures such as wrestling matches, concerts, a Comic-Con event and cinemas. In its version of Arab glasnost, Saudi Arabia established an entertainment authority in May 2016. In December 2017, the 35-year ban on cinemas was lifted with Marvel’s Black Panther opening in April this year at a theatre in Riyadh, owned by the US entertainment company AMC—the world’s largest film exhibitor. But Ahmad is sceptical, saying: “Vision 2030 is more an effort to curry favour with the business community. It is completely unrealistic—there is no groundwork being done for the same.”
But tourism is being opened up. Foreigners can now get tourist visas. Prince Salman wants his pet Red Sea tourism project to change the travel paradigm in his country, with investments expected from leading global hospitality firms; it will be exempt from Saudi conservative Islamic rules on public behaviour. The government has hired young social media savvy Saudi Muslim scholars for their connectivity with the youth, posing a challenge to the council of conservative scholars who are the arbiters of official religious policy.
The country is investing heavily to modernise the Army. Prince Salman aims to localise 50 percent of Saudi procurement from 2 percent now, which will create thousands of jobs and generate $10 billion a year in revenue by 2030. With the military and the security forces in his pocket, he is in an unassailable position at home. Saudi Arabia has been for long dominated by wealthy royals who cornered the most lucrative government business contracts, land and exports. In November 2017, an anti-corruption committee led by the crown prince ordered the arrests of around 500 powerful persons in the kingdom for “money laundering, bribery, extorting officials, and taking advantage of public office for personal gain”.
All private jets were grounded, over 2,000 domestic accounts frozen as the Saudi government claimed over $800 billion had been amassed as fruits of corruption by the Saudi elite. Prince Salman himself is wealthy as befits a future king, buying a luxury yacht for half a billion dollars and spending $300 million on a gold-encrusted château near Versailles, which he told reporters were bought with his own money. On October 24, 2017, he declared at an investors’ summit in Riyadh, “We are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”
Moderate Islam is Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s clarion call apart from anti-corruption and economic reform. He told Time magazine, “We believe the practice today in a few countries, among them Saudi Arabia, it’s not the practice of Islam.” Pre-1979, the kingdom had a liberal society with a vibrant entertainment and cultural scene; female anchors on television were not compelled to wear headscarves. Almost three decades after the first Mosque siege, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry announced on June 23, 2017, that security forces had foiled another terrorist plot on the sacred site. On April 21, Iranian newspaper Kayhan even gleefully reported that Prince Salman was killed in a palace coup. Many exiled princes and businessmen are plotting to remove him, according to Western intelligence agencies. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has warned of retribution to the crown prince’s “sinful projects”.
Iran is the biggest thorn in Prince Salman’s side. He told CBS in an interview that Iran was hosting Osama bin Laden’s son and heir Hamza bin Laden—an allegation Teheran denies. The prince’s acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist has shocked Saudis and alarmed the Iranians. In March, Air India inaugurated direct flights to Israel over Saudi Arabia—a move hailed by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “significant” and with “long-term implications”. A Saudi-Jordan-Egypt-Israel anti-Iran coalition—unthinkable just a few years ago—seems to be forming tentatively. Israel’s Maariv newspaper broke a story (denied by the Saudis) about a secret meeting between Prince Salman and Netanyahu at the Royal Palace in Amman both with and without Jordan’s King Abdullah’s presence. Previously, the prince had asked Palestinians to either accept peace proposals or “shut up and stop complaining”.
The Saudi position on Syria seems to have changed: wary of an American pullout strengthening the Hezbollah in the region, the prince said, “Bashar is staying. But I believe that Bashar’s interests are not to let the Iranians do whatever they want they want to do.” Israel supports the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar motivated allegedly by that country’s intimacy with Iran and support to terrorist groups. Yemen has been a breeding ground for terrorism, reportedly with Iranian support. Insurgents have been firing missiles across the Saudi border, and two almost hit the royal palace and the Riyadh airport but were fortunately shot down. Oil is at the heart of the conflict— Yemen is situated on the Bab al-Mandab strait that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden—the route of most of the world’s oil shipments. And terror is the lingua franca of power in the Middle East today.
Though Prince Salman vehemently denies that Saudi Arabia exports and funds terror and is instead a victim, Indian agencies have been for long worried about Saudi clerical activity in the country. In 2011, WikiLeaks cables revealed Indian concerns that Saudi Arabia is funding religious schools and organisations that contribute to Islamic radicalisation in South Asia. With growing economic powerhouse India playing a vital role in the war on terror, the young royal will have to reckon with troubled subcontinental equations to chart a middle path where Pakistan and Iran are concerned. “The prince knows terror is bad for the economy,” says an MEA official who has served in the Middle East. But India cannot afford to take sides between Iran and Saudi Arabia either, since it has deep interests on both sides of the divide.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is India’s biggest trade partner in the Middle East with the value of commerce amounting $16 billion in 2014. India also buys 750,000 barrels of oil daily from Saudi Arabia. With China ratcheting up its influence across the Persian Gulf using infrastructure projects like One Belt, One Road initiative, New Delhi cannot afford a pro-Beijing Iran, since it is through Iranian ports that Indian ships travel to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. In the past two years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited both Saudi Arabia and Iran, even as he strengthens cooperation with Israel and the US. The geopolitically astute Saudi Crown Prince will play a vital role in this complicated global matrix.
Prince For All Seasons
It is obvious Prince Salman knows how to woo the world. He has made it to the Time list of the most influential people of 2018. In March, he spent two weeks in the US, where he landed in a Boeing 747 with “God Bless You” emblazoned in gold under the cockpit in Arabic and English, dining and wining with the rich and the powerful like Rupert Murdoch, and meeting Donald Trump, whose son-in-law Jared Kushner is a close friend. The American media went gaga over the prince with 60 minutes hailing him as a revolutionary “emancipating women”. Murdoch’s dinner was attended by celebrities such as Morgan Freeman, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson and James Cameron. “A fun night and great to hear his deep-rooted, yet modern views on the world and certainly the positive growth of his country,” the Rock tweeted. However, the 32-year-old prince has a mixed reputation.
The New Yorker reported that he had once pressured a Saudi land-registry official to help him grab a property. When rebuffed, the prince reportedly sent him an envelope with a single bullet inside. This earned MbS the nickname ‘Abu Rasasa’, which means ‘father of the bullet’ in Arabic. Says Ahmad, “He controls every aspect of the country. He is anxious to gain a solid relationship with the US, and hence it is important for the kingdom to project a positive image aided by superficial measures: moderate, modern, modernist.”
During the prince’s US visit, he went for coffee at Starbucks in New York with billionaire Michael Bloomberg, wearing a blazer and a shirt open at the neck. At the MIT Boston function, he was dressed as a resplendent Saudi potentate, but while meeting Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates in Seattle, he wore a natty business suit. But lifting the veil of conservatism in Saudi Arabia is going to be a long process. And Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may well be the right royal to do it.
- Reduce dependence on oil
- Create jobs
- Boost the economy through tourism, entertainment and investments
- Make education globally employment-oriented
- Selling a stake in state oil company Aramco to raise $100 billion
- Make Saudi Arabia the pillar of the Islamic world through Vision 2030