Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman a 'bumbling hothead' who is bringing about economic and social reform

Since his emergence as Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has set his sights firmly on reforms in the ultraconservative kingdom.

FP Staff November 06, 2017 11:55:40 IST
Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman a 'bumbling hothead' who is bringing about economic and social reform

Since his emergence in June as the crown prince of world oil superpower, Saudi Arabia, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman has set his sights firmly on economic, social and religious reforms in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The young and dynamic prince, known by his initials MBS, has already overseen the most fundamental cultural and economic transformation in the modern history of the Gulf state, half of whose 31-million population is aged under 25.

Prince Mohammed's agenda is upending the ruling Al Saud's longstanding alliance with the kingdom's clerical establishment in favour of synchronising with a more cosmopolitan, global capitalism that appeals to international investors and maybe even non-Muslim tourists.

At an investor summit in late October, MBS pledged a "moderate" Saudi Arabia, long seen as an exporter of a brand of puritanical Islam espoused by jihadists worldwide. "We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today and at once," said the prince, who has sidelined powerful clergy who have long dominated public discourse in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabias crown prince Mohammed bin Salman a bumbling hothead who is bringing about economic and social reform

File image of King Salman (left) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). AP

The Guardian reported that in theory, MBS could be in power for a half a century. The question is whether he is showing the maturity and steadiness to use such a long reign to create a viable, modern Saudi Arabia.

Promoting women's rights

In September, a royal decree said women would be allowed to drive. Some conservative clerics — who for years staunchly opposed more social liberties for women — have back-pedalled and come out in favour of the decree allowing women to drive. Under the crown prince, the kingdom is also expected to lift a public ban on cinemas and has encouraged mixed-gender celebrations — something unseen before.

In October, it was announced that Saudi Arabia will allow women into sports stadiums for the first time from 2018. "Starting the preparation of three stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam to be ready to accommodate families from early 2018," the General Sports Authority said on Twitter. Restaurants, cafés and video screens would be set up inside the venues, the authority added. In September, hundreds of women were allowed to enter a sports stadium in Riyadh, used mostly for football matches, in a one-off event to celebrate Saudi Arabia's national day.

The government has also set up an Islamic centre tasked with certifying the sayings of Prophet Mohammad in a stated bid to curb extremist texts. The government appears to have clipped the wings of the once-feared religious police — long accused of harassing the public with rigid Islamic mores — who have all but disappeared from big cities.

In tandem with reforms, Prince Mohammed has been shoring up power and over the summer carried out a wave of arrests in a crackdown on dissenters, including influential clerics and some liberals who could block his path.

Sweeping crackdown

On the business front, the prince was named the head of a new anti-corruption commission, established by royal decree, late Saturday.

Immediately after, 11 princes, including prominent billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and dozens of current and former ministers were arrested, in a sweeping crackdown seen as consolidating the crown prince's hold on power.

Al-Waheed's arrest "shows that Saudi Arabia is too small for two charismatic men with competing visions especially in light of the fact that the Salman branch of the royal family grabbed power unilaterally," Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based think tank focused on energy security told CNBC. "Expect the 'Game of Thrones' to be fierce," he said. "This is only the first act and the implications for the oil market will soon be felt as well."

"One element that's not part of the transformation drive is more tolerance of political differences and differences in opinion about the directions Saudi should take," said Lori Boghardt, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The crown prince has made this clear."

Writing for Politico, Aaron Miller and Richard Sokolsky called MBS a bumbling hothead. "The young prince who would be king might not only get his own country into heaps of trouble, he could also drag the United States down with it," they wrote.

Vision 2030

MBS is the architect of a wide-ranging plan dubbed Vision 2030 to bring social and economic change to Saudi Arabia's oil-dependent economy.

From a holographic lion to talking robots and flying taxis, Saudi Arabia has dazzled investors with plans for hi-tech "giga projects" — but sceptics question their viability in an era of cheap oil. The kingdom has revealed plans to build NEOM, a mega project billed as a regional Silicon Valley, in addition to an entertainment city in Riyadh that would rival Walt Disney and the Red Sea project, a reef-fringed resort destination.

The blueprints for the projects were on display to 3,500 corporate honchos at this week's Future Investment Initiative (FII) — dubbed "Davos in the Desert" — that sought to project the insular kingdom as a business destination. But serious questions remain about Saudi Arabia's ability to execute such projects, funded in part by its sovereign wealth fund, as it scrambles to diversify its economy amid a protracted oil slump.

Among the most prominent positions held by MBS is chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, which coordinates economic policy. Mohammed also chairs a body overseeing state oil giant Saudi Aramco. He also holds the post of defence minister and has led Saudi into a military intervention in neighbouring Yemen in 2015.

In a dramatic announcement on 5 June, Mohammed bin Salman was named to replace his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the Saudi throne. He had been second-in-line since early 2015.

Born on 31 August, 1985, MBS graduated in law from Riyadh's King Saud University, and the dark-bearded prince with a receding hairline is the father of two boys and two girls

With inputs from agencies

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