Can this prince trans­form Saudi Ara­bia?


Triyadh, saudi ara­bia wo years into his cam­paign as change agent in this con­ser­va­tive oil king­dom, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sal­man ap­pears to be gain­ing con­fi­dence and po­lit­i­cal clout to push his agenda of eco­nomic and so­cial re­form.

The young prince out­lined his plans in a nearly 90-minute con­ver­sa­tion Tues­day night at his of­fice here. Aides said it was his first lengthy on-the-record in­ter­view in months. He of­fered de­tailed ex­pla­na­tions about for­eign pol­icy, plans to pri­va­tize oil gi­ant Saudi Aramco, strat­egy for in­vest­ment in do­mes­tic in­dus­try and lib­er­al­iza­tion of the en­ter­tain­ment sec­tor, de­spite op­po­si­tion from some re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives.

Mohammed bin Sal­man said that the cru­cial re­quire­ment for re­form is pub­lic will­ing­ness to change a tra­di­tional so­ci­ety. “The most con­cern­ing thing is if the Saudi peo­ple are not con­vinced. If the Saudi peo­ple are con­vinced, the sky is the limit,” he said, speak­ing through an in­ter­preter.

Change seems in­creas­ingly de­sired in this young, rest­less coun­try. A re­cent Saudi poll found that 85 per­cent of the pub­lic, if forced to choose, would sup­port the gov­ern­ment rather than re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties on pol­icy mat­ters, said Ab­dul­lah al-Hokail, the head of the gov­ern­ment’s pub­lic opin­ion cen­ter. He added that 77 per­cent of those sur­veyed sup­ported the gov­ern­ment’s “Vi­sion 2030” re­form plan, and that 82 per­cent fa­vored mu­sic per­for­mances at pub­lic gath­er­ings at­tended by men and women.

“MBS,” as the deputy crown prince is known, said that he was “very op­ti­mistic” about Pres­i­dent Trump. He de­scribed Trump as “a pres­i­dent who will bring Amer­ica back to the right track” af­ter Barack Obama, whom Saudi of­fi­cials mis­trusted. “Trump has not yet com­pleted 100 days, and he has re­stored all the al­liances of the U.S. with its con­ven­tional al­lies.”

There’s less ap­par­ent po­lit­i­cal ten­sion than there was a year ago, when many an­a­lysts saw a ri­valry be­tween Mohammed bin Sal­man and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is of­fi­cially next in line for the throne but less prom­i­nent than his cousin. What­ever the suc­ces­sion proves to be, the deputy crown prince ap­pears to be firmly in con­trol of Saudi mil­i­tary strat­egy, for­eign pol­icy and eco­nomic plan­ning.

The big­gest eco­nomic change is the plan to pri­va­tize about 5 per­cent of Saudi Aramco, which Mohammed bin Sal­man said will take place next year. This pub­lic of­fer­ing would prob­a­bly raise hundreds of bil­lions of dol­lars and be the largest such sale in fi­nan­cial his­tory. The ex­act size of the of­fer­ing will de­pend on fi­nan­cial-mar­ket de­mand and the avail­abil­ity of good op­tions for in­vest­ing the pro­ceeds, he told me. The ra­tio­nale for sell­ing a share of the king­dom’s oil trea­sure is to raise money to di­ver­sify the econ­omy away from re­liance on en­ergy.

The en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try is a proxy for the larger puz­zle of how to un­lock the Saudi econ­omy. Changes have be­gun. A Ja­panese orches­tra that in­cluded women per­formed here this month, be­fore a mixed au­di­ence of men and women. A Comic Con took place in Jeddah re­cently, with young men and women dress­ing up as char­ac­ters from the TV show “Su­per­nat­u­ral” and other fa­vorites. Com­edy clubs fea­ture sketch co­me­di­ans (but no fe­male stand-up comics, yet).

“We want to change the cul­ture,” said Ahmed al-Khatib, a former in­vest­ment banker who is chair­man of the en­ter­tain­ment author­ity. His tar­get is to cre­ate six pub­lic en­ter­tain­ment op­tions ev­ery week­end for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is “spread­ing hap­pi­ness” in what has some­times been a somber coun­try.

The in­sti­ga­tor of this at­tempt to reimag­ine the king­dom is the 31-year-old deputy crown prince. With his brash de­meanor, he’s the op­po­site of the tra­di­tional Be­douin re­serve of past Saudi lead­ers. Un­like so many Saudi princes, he wasn’t ed­u­cated in the West, which may have pre­served the raw, com­bat­ive en­ergy that is part of his ap­peal for young Saudis.

Mohammed bin Sal­man is care­ful when he talks about re­li­gious is­sues. So far, he has treated the re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties as al­lies against rad­i­cal­ism rather than cul­tural ad­ver­saries. He ar­gues that the king­dom’s ex­treme re­li­gious con­ser­vatism is a rel­a­tively re­cent phenomenon in Saudi Ara­bia, born in re­ac­tion to the 1979 Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni rad­i­cals later that year.

“I’m young. Seventy per­cent of our cit­i­zens are young,” he said. “We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi peo­ple, to en­joy the com­ing days, and con­cen­trate on de­vel­op­ing our so­ci­ety and de­vel­op­ing our­selves as in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies, while re­tain­ing our re­li­gion and cus­toms. We will not con­tinue to be in the post-’79 era,” he con­cluded. “That age is over.”

Saudi Ara­bia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sal­man.

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