When Saudi Arabia’s young and dynamic Deputy Crown Prince, son of King Salman, arrives in Washington this week, he’ll seek to both reaffirm the strong security alliance with America and to impart a powerful message of how the Kingdom is changing.
In just over two years, the 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, has tackled the threat posed to the Kingdom by Yemen’s Iranian-allied Houthis as defense minister.
He has taken on serious economic reforms that have curbed government subsidies.
He launched an ambitious plan to wean the country’s economy off oil. And of high importance to the West, he has made clear that he intends to push for considerable social reform. At the top of his agenda: greater rights for women.
After eight years in which the Saudis watched as the Obama administration seemed to pivot towards Iran—a country where “Death to America” is still shouted daily in the streets—this is the moment for a reset on national security issues, with an eye toward the exciting social changes happening in the kingdom.
Here are seven things Team Trump needs to know before they meet:
1. Saudi Arabia’s leaders have already seen that the Trump administration has a clear vision of the Iranian regime’s trouble making. In Trump’s generals, at the Pentagon, and among national security advisers, they see veteran Middle East hands, with boots on the ground experience, no illusions about Iranian meddling, and an understanding of the price paid by many U.S. servicemen and women, killed by Iranian made IED’s. Even with this increased comfort level in Riyadh, more reassurance from the Trump team would be even better, signaling that the U.S. will continue to support and contribute to the defensive war in Yemen, and hold the line against further Iranian expansionist efforts that undermine regional stability.
2. The Kingdom is on the front line of the War on Terror, crushing Al Qaeda and ISIS at home, and working very closely with the U.S. and their allies to hunt them down across the region. Saudi intelligence provided information to the U.S. that stopped attacks planned to take place on American soil. The Kingdom has been recognized by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, in testimony to Congress last year, as a world leader in combatting terrorism financing.
3. Saudi Arabia’s next big project is the remaking of the country’s economy, transforming the oil-dependent state into a modern, technologically advanced and economically diversified nation. To do that, the Kingdom wants to work closely with American business and will be looking to the Trump administration to encourage U.S. businesses to seek opportunities there.
4. In Riyadh, there is frustration that too often, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is not fully appreciated in the United States. Recognition that the relationship is mutually beneficial—that Saudi purchases of U.S. military equipment have brought hundreds of billions of dollars back to the States and helped create tens of thousands of jobs, while enhancing the U.S. goal of greater regional stability, is important. As a businessman, Trump is likely to understand this.
5. Support and understanding of the pace of social reform would be helpful. An acknowledgement that Saudi leadership is carefully calibrating systemic change to avoid disastrous clerical pushback would be gratefully received. A celebration of accomplishments such as the recent appointment of a woman to head the Saudi stock exchange, and of another to head a major bank, would signal a recognition that the kingdom is on the path to profound change.
6. The government has worked to deal with intolerance at home by undertaking a systematic effort to rewrite textbooks and other literature to highlight the need for understanding of other religions and cultures. This is an important step in the movement forward of Saudi Arabia.
7. The Saudi national oil company, Aramco, is moving toward partial privatization. When that happens, this IPO will likely be the largest offering in history. The IPO is an enormous financial opportunity for US investment banks and advisers.
From the prince, the message is likely to be crystal clear to Team Trump: Saudi Arabia is and has always been on America’s side.
After eight years in which the Saudis watched as the Obama administration seemed to pivot towards Iran—a country where “Death to America” is still shouted daily in the streets—this is the moment for a reset on national security issues, with an eye toward the exciting social changes happening in the kingdom.
A recognition of Saudi Arabia’s achievement as the only government in the Middle East with a record of continuous stability for the past 100 years, and of its clear-eyed and pragmatic path to the future, will go a long way toward solidifying this vital bilateral relationship.
Ali Shihabi is Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Arabia Foundation, and is a member of the board of trustees of the International Crisis Group.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Until about four months ago, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 29, was just another Saudi royal who dabbled in stocks and real estate.
He grew up overshadowed by three older half brothers who were among the most accomplished princes in the kingdom — the first Arab astronaut; an Oxford-educated political scientist who was once a research fellow at Georgetown and also founded a major investment company; and a highly regarded deputy oil minister.
But that was before their father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, 79, ascended to the throne. Now Prince Mohammed, the eldest son of the king’s third and most recent wife, is the rising star.
He has swiftly accumulated more power than any prince has ever held, upending a longstanding system of distributing positions around the royal family to help preserve its unity, and he has used his growing influence to take a leading role in Saudi Arabia’s newly assertive stance in the region, including its military intervention in Yemen.
In the four months since his coronation, King Salman has put Prince Mohammed in charge of the state oil monopoly, the public investment company, economic policy and the ministry of defense.
He is the most visible leader of Saudi Arabia’s two-month-old air war in Yemen, and his father has installed him as deputy crown prince, passing over dozens of older princes to put him second in line to the throne. Stunning the kingdom, King Salman removed his younger half brother, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, 69, as crown prince and replaced him with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, the popular interior minister. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Salman’s nephew, has no male heirs of his own, and Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is now next in line.
The sweeping changes have thrust the young prince into power at a time when Saudi Arabia is locked in a series of escalating conflicts aimed at defending its vision of the regional order and holding back its chief rival, Iran. The kingdom is financially sustaining the rulers of Egypt and Jordan and propping up the Sunni monarchy in neighboring Bahrain against a revolt by its Shiite majority. It is also arming rebels in Syria against the Iranian-backed president, fighting in the United States-led air campaign over Iraq and leading its own air assault on an Iranian-backed faction in Yemen. And it is ramping up its military spending even as plunging oil prices and growing domestic expenditures have reduced its financial reserves by $50 billion over the last six months, to less than $700 billion.
“The king has put his son on an incredibly steep learning curve, clearly,” said Ford M. Fraker, the president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “The king is obviously convinced he is up to the challenge.”
But some Western diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the prince and the king, say they are worried about the growing influence of the prince, with one even calling him “rash” and “impulsive.” And in interviews, at least two other princes in the main line of the royal family made it clear that some older members of the clan have doubts as well. Both questioned the costs and benefits of the Yemen campaign that Prince Mohammed has spearheaded.
King Salman, of course, has ultimate authority, and some diplomats who have met with both Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in recent months said the senior prince appeared avuncular toward his younger cousin. Several said the crown prince appeared to be working hard to guide and train Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But other diplomats said they believed Prince Mohammed bin Salman had played a bigger role in advocating for the Yemen air campaign.
After meeting with both princes at a summit meeting of gulf nations at Camp David last month, President Obama said the younger Prince Mohammed “struck us as extremely knowledgeable, very smart.”
“I think wise beyond his years,” Mr. Obama added in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya network.
But scholars say the accumulation of so much responsibility in the hands of one branch of the family — to say nothing of one young prince — breaks with a system of intrafamily power sharing put in place at the founding of the modern Saudi state by King Abdul Aziz al Saud eight decades ago. It ended decades of sometimes violent infighting and has helped preserve family unity ever since.
Crown princes had long presided over their own royal courts and executive staff members. Most other ministerial positions — and most important, those controlling the military, National Guard and internal security — were distributed among other princes. But the critical ministries of oil and finance were kept in neutral, technocratic hands outside the family.
But King Salman upended that. He made Prince Mohammed the first chief of his royal court and absorbed the court of the crown prince into his own. He removed the state oil company from the oil ministry and put it under Prince Mohammed, who was also handed control of a newly created economic policy council and the Defense Ministry. (King Salman had been defense minister.)
Prince Mohammed is also expected to take over the National Guard from his cousin Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, according to an aide to Prince Mutaib and Western diplomats. The change would consolidate both forces under the Defense Ministry but fundamentally alter the balance of power in the family.
Prince Mohammed’s three older half brothers — sons of their father’s first wife, Sultana Bint Turki Al Sudairi, who died in 2011 — all have distinguished résumés and were once considered contenders for top government roles.
Prince Sultan bin Salman al Saud, 58, a former colonel in the Saudi Air Force, is a former astronaut who flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985 and now heads a tourism and antiquities commission. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, believed to be about 55, is a deputy minister of oil who has championed efforts to modernize the industry. Prince Faisal bin Salman, 44, holds a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford, was a research fellow at Georgetown, founded one of Saudi Arabia’s largest investment firms, Jadwa, and serves as the governor of Medina.
Prince Mohammed, in contrast, holds a bachelor’s degree in law from King Saud University in Riyadh and has never studied outside the kingdom.
Prince Mohammed, however, is the firstborn son of the King Salman’s third and most recent wife, Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan, who worked hard to promote him as his father’s successor, according to Western diplomats who know the family, several family members and associates who have worked for the family.
“He is her eldest,” said one longtime associate who works closely with the clan. “For her, he is her glory at the end of the day.”
Prince Mohammed seemed to be planning for a future in government from an early age, said one family associate who knew him well. Unlike many other Saudi princes of his generation, Prince Mohammed never smoked, drank alcohol or stayed out late. “It was obvious to me that he was planning his future — he was always very concerned about his image,” the family associate said.
He became a constant presence at the side of his father, according to friends, relatives and associates. Eventually, Prince Mohammed held formal titles as adviser to his father, when he was governor of Riyadh and defense minister.
“Being with Prince Salman every minute — can you imagine what you would have learned?” said Dr. Selwa al-Hazzaa, a physician who has cared for the royal family and is a member of the advisory Shura Council appointed by the king. “Do you need someone who has been educated in the States, or someone who has been his father’s shadow?”
Current and former diplomats with long experience in Saudi Arabia say they barely know Prince Mohammed. He has seldom if ever given an interview, even to the supportive Saudi news media.
An official biography says vaguely that he was “self-employed” and “earned commercial experience founding several businesses and investments.” Businessmen in Riyadh say he was known for his active trading in stocks and real estate.
Associates say he likes water-skiing and other water sports on the Red Sea or during travels. He is a fan of iPhones and other Apple products. And he developed an early and abiding love of Japan, which remains his favorite country, a close associate said. When Prince Mohammed first married several years ago, he took his wife on a two-month honeymoon to Japan and the Maldives. (He recently married a second wife, associates said.)
His most public role was running the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Foundation. Broadly dedicated to developing Saudi youth, the foundation has held conferences on the uses of Twitter and YouTube, and it has explored producing Japanese-style “manga” cartoons to showcase Arab culture.
Echoing commentary in the state news media, many Saudi subjects interviewed on the streets of Riyadh in recent days praised Prince Mohammed as a representative of the nearly 70 percent of the population that is under 30.
But although Saudis are usually reluctant to voice dissent, several said they worried about his rise. “This is a large family that are competing to be rulers, and having a young guy in control of the government is going to create a lot of problems,” said one middle-aged man at an outdoor cafe who gave his name only as Abu Salah. “We are so concerned about the future.”
Abu Fahad, a businessman sipping coffee in a luxury hotel, said, “He has become Mr. Knows Everything. But he is 29 years old — what does he know?”
Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud left Riyadh on Monday for Washington, where he is set to meet United States President Donald Trump and a number of officials to discuss the strengthening of bilateral relations between the two countries and regional issues of mutual interest.
The visit comes as the United States expands its military mission against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, a country on the brink of widespread famine and torn apart by civil war involving Iranian-backed Houthi militias.
The Trump Administration has been considering its approach to the Yemeni war, and eyeing a tougher approach to roll back Iranian interference in the country.
That attack coupled with ballistic missile testing prompted then-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn to issue an ominous statement from the White House podium warning Tehran that it was being put “on notice.”
US President Donald Trump has already supported the expansion of a separate military campaign in Yemen against AQAP.
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with US Senator John McCain in Riyadh on Feb. 21, 2017. (SPA)
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz had earlier met with US Senator John McCain last month.
During the meeting, they reviewed relations between Saudi Arabia and the US and ways of enhancing them.
JEDDAH: Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, second deputy premier and minister of defense, has emphasized the role of Saudi youth in building and shaping the Kingdom’s future, noting that he is optimistic that the Kingdom’s future is secure in the hands of its youth.
He said Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman is in direct contact and involved on all issues pertaining to youth, and supports the new generation of youth to overcome all obstacles and challenges in their way.
Prince Mohammed was commenting on the annual report of the King Salman Center for Youth for 2015. He said there is no doubt that the whole world is now living in a different age and times, equipped with various weapons, but the center of all this diversity is education and knowledge, because youth are the base of all countries and will be the builders and leaders of the future.
For this reason, focusing on the youth is essential in any developmental plans or efforts in order to ensure the growth and renaissance of countries, and in the Kingdom, the king remains in directly involved in all matters concerning youth, he said.
He said the King Salman Center for Youth was established on this basis, and continues to shed light on the new meaning and understanding of building a new generation of youth. The center logistically supports youth and eliminates obstacles in their path based on the latest scientific findings and recommendations in this field.
The center also works on creating a spirit of innovation and industry, as well as encouraging the youth to be risk takers and stay away from the fear of trials based on sound scientific programs tailored for different fields.
“I look at the future optimistically, a future created by youth in the Kingdom,” said Prince Mohammed, expressing his appreciation for support and partners of the center, as well as all those who manage the center, and the youth who participated and benefited from its annual programs and activities.
The annual report of the center highlights the main initiatives, programs and activities provided by the center in 2015 to incentivize youth and equip them with the support needed. These initiatives include the “Plan” initiative, which focused on creating a culture of planning among youths via four forums held in several cities. Five social volunteer initiatives were supported, while several training sessions and advisory meetings were held with officials.
The center also organized the visit to 26 international companies to create more opportunities for youth businessmen and expand the scope of these companies. The center also provided a study about outlooks for youth in four areas, namely national youth initiatives, media, small enterprises and social responsibility.
The center incubated 14 projects as part of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Incubator for Digital Media, which aims to support the development of digital media in the Kingdom by founding Saudi companies specialized in this field. The program provides an appropriate work environment and advisory services to guarantee success, with projects focused on management of social media channels, electronic content, smartphone apps development and digital production.
The center also supported eight young writers in 2015, providing them with the necessary means to publish and market their writing products.
The report also highlighted the King Salman Center for Youth’s recipient of the 3rd Sheikh Fatma bin Mubarak Award for Arab Youth due to its initiatives, programs, and activities provided throughout the Kingdom benefiting 69,000 young men and women. The center was also awarded for its innovation and launch of new initiatives that specialize in addressing different needs of youth and shedding light on such issues in order to better address them.
Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Riyadh on Wednesday night with the Director General of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, and US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, in individual meetings.
During the meeting with Lagarde, a presentation of the cooperation between the IMF and Saudi Arabia was provided, as well as a discussion on the programs and implementation stages of Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program.
During the meeting with Lew, who is visiting the Kingdom to participate in the finance committee meeting between the US and GCC countries, key economic issues between the US and Saudi Arabia in investment and commerce were discussed.
Both meetings were attended by Minister of Finance Dr. Ibrahim Al-Assaf, as well as SAMA Governor Dr. Ahmed Al-Khalifi, and Deputy Minister for Economy and Planning, Mohammed Al-Tuweijri.
The meeting with Secretary Lew was also attended by US Ambassador to the Kingdom Joseph Westphal, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Affairs Adam Zoben, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs Roman Tully, as well as a number of other officials.
JEDDAH: Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, second deputy premier and defense minister, has become known among many as the face of the future of Saudi Arabia, particularly for the refreshing manner in which he has engaged the public about the government’s plan to revamp the economy.
With the enormous responsibility of holding the defense portfolio, and leading the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, he has broken that unwritten rule that “those in charge should not speak,” with a candid approach on the challenges facing the country, and the strategic decision-making needed to carry out reforms effectively.
Adel Al-Moaafi, a mass communications specialist, said recently that the vision has effectively been made a project that would be run by the people in conjunction with the government.
Al-Moaafi said citizens had become accustomed to hearing about large national projects in the Kingdom through the official news agency, the Saudi Press Agency, and local newspaper reports, but had rarely seen officials speaking clearly about specific plans, objectives and targets.
When the Kingdom announced the creation of the Islamic Alliance to counter terrorism, Prince Mohammed appeared in public for the first time to make a statement. He appeared confident and replied to all questions, said Al-Moaafi, who described his appearance as indicative of a “driven and practical man.”
Al-Moaafi, who is completing his postgraduate studies in the United States, said the prince’s decision to address citizens in a highly transparent manner showed his appreciation and desire for dialogue with the people. “He chose to appear and disclose all information, and was able to convince citizens of the government’s vision, and that they would have to drive it to success.”
In his press interviews and appearances on the economy, the prince was able to answer all questions, to alleviate fears about what would be done. This was no mean feat because of the conservative economic approach adopted over the years. It was well received by the public, as evidenced by the response on social media, said Al-Moaafi.
Last Monday, he introduced Vision 2030 coherently and comprehensively, a plan he said had been the product of extensive work over several months. He had clarified many issues during the hour-long address and then later held a press conference with local and international media to provide further explanations.
Citizens have already shown a great deal of love for the young prince. Ali Al-Seed, an accountant at a food factory in Jeddah, said more officials should adopt the approach of Prince Mohammed and speak more regularly to the people.
Fahd Al-Rasheed: ‘It’s All About the Knowledge Economy’1:28
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s powerful deputy crown prince is a young man in a big hurry.
Amid plunging oil prices, 31-year-old Mohammad bin Salman is furiously promoting a plan to wean his country off of the fossil fuel while getting more of its people to work.
“This guy is all about change,” Saudi analyst Ahmad Al-Ibrahim told NBC News. He has “huge ambitions. And a Western mind-set that he wants to apply to Saudi Arabia.”
Al-Ibrahim described the prince’s “amazing aggression” in attempting to compress decades of economic and social change into less than 15 years.
Bin Salman’s message was unequivocal in Saudi Vision 2030 unveiled in April — Saudi Arabia must transform itself, and fast.
Under the plan, the world’s biggest oil producer will become a “global investment powerhouse,” a logistical hub for three continents — Asia, Europe and Africa — and an exporter of commodities such as gold, phosphate and uranium. Saudi Arabia would turn into “an epicentre of trade and the gateway to the world,” wrote the son of King Salman.
As part of the economic transformation, Saudi Arabia is reducing oil, water and electricity subsidies, and cutting officials’ wages and perks. The government is also planning a partial privatization of state-owned oil giant Aramco.
The deputy crown prince, who is chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Council for Economic and Development Affairs which drafted Vision 2030, has indicated that the changes go hand-in-hand with social transformation in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
“Our vision is a tolerant country, with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method,” he declared.
Bin Salman and the rest of the country’s rulers are also having to grapple with other challenges that have little to do with Vision 2030, such as where President-elect Donald Trump will take the U.S.’s longstanding alliance with the kingdom.
And as defense minister, bin Salman has pursued a war in neighboring Yemen, leading forces from other Arab states to put down a rebellion by Iran-linked Houthi rebels. Rising civilian Yemeni casualties have garnered international condemnation of Saudi Arabia.
While the obstacles the second-in-line to the throne are considerable, former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh and veteran Mideast watcher Charles Freeman said it was clear bin Salman had “a good understanding of the challenges Saudi Arabia faces.”
“He understands that it must transform itself,” he said. “He’s looking for ways to exploit Saudi Arabia’s many advantages. It is a strategic vision and it is extraordinarily difficult to carry out but he seems to be approaching with a lot of imagination and forethought.”
A Vision of the Future
Well-heeled young Saudis earnestly networked and discussed the importance of youth, entrepreneurship and the digital economy at the recent MiSK Global Forum in Riyadh.
While the crowd in the main hall was largely segregated by gender, on the event’s outskirts men mingled and openly exchanged business cards with unveiled Saudi women — something that until recently could have sparked a crackdown from the country’s now-marginalized religious police.
Attendees easily approached world famous speakers to make connections or simply snap selfies with the notables.
At the start of the event, a video message from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates exhorted Saudi youth to do “lots of studying and getting the new skills” to equip them for the “evolving job market.”
“It means building on the deeply engrained values of giving back, caring for others and working toward a common goal,” Gates said.
It should not be a surprise that the forum and its participants shone a light on bin Salman’s own vision for future — he was the event’s patron.
And the non-oil future bin Salman envisions is starting to be realized in another corner of the country, according to Fahd Al-Rasheed, the CEO of King Abdullah Economic City — a “megacity” being built on the Red Sea that will not rely on oil.
“You cannot be depending on oil in a world where the knowledge economy is the driver of economic development — manufacturing is 20th century,” he said.
Al-Rasheed echoed the goals being espoused by the prince.
“You could do this piecemeal but I think the government has decided there is no time,” he said. “We have to move forward, we have a few years to do it. And the next few years are going to be critical.”
One of the main reasons the next few years are so important is Saudi Arabia’s so-called demographic bulge. An estimated 65 percent of Saudis are under 30 and most will need jobs.
A scholarship program initiated in 2005 under former King Abdullah, that has seen some 180,000 Saudis study abroad, is seen as key to achieving modernization goals. Officials frequently refer to the change in “mind-set” of those who’ve studied abroad and how vital this will be to help the country transform.
Economic modernization is bringing social changes like the status and place of women in the famously conservative kingdom.
While Vision 2030 mentions only one target aimed at women, the impact of it and the country’s National Transformation Plan on the country’s women is likely to be outsized. The plan sets forth plans to boost women’s participation in the workforce to 30 percent from 22 percent. Already women are able to work in shops, hotels and offices — which were all off-limits to them just a few years ago.
Many women still chafe under laws regulations such as the guardianship law, which requires women to gain permission from a male guardian to travel and marry.
Human Rights Watch and others groups accuse Saudi authorities of “systematically” discriminating against women and religious minorities. Speaking out against authorities is also hard and dozens of human rights activists are serving prison sentences for criticizing authorities or pushing political for reforms.
It is the younger generation — the group that bin Salman and others like him place so much hope in — that is eager for social change, according to a recent study. A full 90 percent of young Saudis surveyed said they wanted “rulers to do more to improve the personal freedom and human rights of women,” Asda’a Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2016 found.
Plunging oil revenues brought on by falling international oil prices — down to under $50 a barrel now from more than $100 in 2013 — underline the need for economic reform. OPEC was meeting in Vienna on Wednesday to discuss terms of a potential deal to cut production in an effort to prop up prices.
As oil prices fall, the government’s main revenue stream is going away.
“The government source of funding is progressively shifting from oil to non-oil revenue,” according to Andrianna Dafnis, the Saudi Arabia country director for Oxford Business Group, which publishes economic research reports around the world.
But tapering Saudi Arabia off of oil will be hard. It has been the lifeblood of the Saudi state since the discovery of huge oil fields soon after the country was founded in 1932.
The vast majority of the government’s income comes from oil. And some 80 percent of Saudi households’ incomes are thought to be derived in one way or another from the government.
Oil has paid not only for Saudi elites’ famously lavish lifestyles, but huge infrastructure projects and sweeping welfare and education programs. Saudis, for example, have traditionally received cradle-to-grave medical care but now must contend with private insurers.
Meanwhile, millions of foreign workers from places like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines do jobs Saudis cannot or will not do, and are thought to make up more than half the workforce. To accommodate Saudi youth, millions of the country’s foreign workers will be phased out and the country’s private business sector built up.
But the recent squeeze on government spending has put pressure on the private sector — precisely the part of the economy that the government is trying to bolster.
Youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. According to World Bank numbers which put the rate of joblessness among those aged 15 to 24 at more than 25 percent.
The reforms pushed by the prince have prompted warnings.
“Being so fast could backfire on a lot of things,” said Al-Ibrahim, the analyst. “What Saudi people don’t want to see is someone touching their pockets — don’t touch my pocket, don’t touch my benefits.”
An example of what could happen when the government did not take Saudi’s pockets into consideration came earlier this year, when the country’s water and electricity minister sparked fury on Twitter after water rates were reportedly hiked by around 500 percent. King Salman fired the minister, Abdullah Al-Hasin, in April.
So the drive for change nevertheless continues in spite of the online protests.
But when it comes to women and personal freedoms, officials have appeared keen not to push conservative Saudi society too fast. For example, bin Salman has said publicly he does not feel it is the right time to end the ban of women driving, which is seen by some as a litmus test for female equality in the kingdom.
Al-Rasheed of King Abdullah Economic City seemed to echo these concerns when he cautioned that those uneasy with change needed to be cajoled into supporting the economic and societal overhaul.
“Every society has its social fault lines where people agree and disagree … It is a dialogue that is happening today in society,” he said “It may not be so visible outside Saudi Arabia but … we discuss it every day in our homes.
He added: “It is about getting people on board, not simply about shocking them and one portion of the population doing what they want and leaving behind the rest of the population.”
Still, the young prince is popular among some segments of the educated and urban youth, and is more visible and vocal than either his father King Salman or his more senior cousin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef — the powerful but low-key Interior Minister and successor to the king.
Saudi rulers are chosen by consensus by the descendants of the country’s founder Abdulaziz Al Saud and not handed down father-to-son.
There have been unconfirmed reports that other royals complained to King Salman about bin Salman’s behavior and assertiveness.
But an advantage for the government is that Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy — one that has had to negotiate with stakeholders, but an monarchy all the same.
In the past change has been driven by decisions from the top — for example, King Faisal in 1962 decreed that girls should be educated despite widespread opposition. Now Saudi Arabia has a female literacy rate of more than 94 percent, according to the United Nations.
So the world should not discount the progress driven from the top that has already swept Saudi Arabia, as well as the changes that are happening now, according to diplomat Freeman.
“Everything is totally transformed and they’ve done this with virtually no social dislocation,” he said. “It is very hard to see these changes except through the rear-view mirror.”
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got a standing ovation when he visited a gathering of Saudi youth last month. Last week, after hearing about his economic plans in a meeting with religious leaders, one of the kingdom’s most conservative sheikhs tweeted a smiling selfie of himself with the prince.
Whether the 31-year-old son of King Salman will achieve his goal of modernising the kingdom’s economy is the subject of animated debate on social media, in office buildings and at coffee shops here.
The plans, aimed at ending dependence on oil by 2030, require shaking up a bureaucracy that has stymied changes in the past, challenging powerful religious conservatives and building up a private sector currently reliant on state spending.
Diplomats and economists say the programme, which relies on the private sector driving growth and providing new sources of revenue to the state via new taxes and fees, will be exceptionally difficult to implement.
“Saudi Arabia is far away” from its economic goals, said Steffen Hertog, an economist at the London School of Economics (LSE) who studies the kingdom.
The prince’s close aides acknowledge the difficulties. Some ruling family members fear too rapid economic changes could cause social unrest or tension inside the Al Saud dynasty, Saudi analysts say.
Yet in this country of 20 million Saudis and 10 million expatriates, the rise of Prince Mohammed — who runs economic, defence and oil strategy — underscores a dramatic shift towards a leadership seemingly more in tune with the needs of a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30.
It is the first time that effective power has passed from the royal gerontocracy of 70- and 80-something rulers to a third generation of a family founded by the prince’s grandfather, known as Ibn Saud.
King Salman still has the final word, but he has delegated nearly unprecedented powers to his son.
That has meant changes in style and substance. Prince Mohammed works 16-hour days — unlike the more sluggish schedules of his older predecessors — and has appointed business people and economic experts instead of other royals to top jobs.
Many younger Saudis see the rise of a man who is usually referred to as “MbS” as evidence their generation is at last playing a role in a country whose patriarchal traditions had made power the province of the old.
“I’m so excited! I want him to be our king now. I mean he’s open-minded, has a great plan and maybe a little handsome,” said Najla, 20, who did not wish to give her family name.
That backing, and widespread fears about plunging oil prices, is providing MbS with an important springboard for his efforts. When in December, he and his team raised petrol prices — a step previous administrations had hesitated to take for fear of public backlash — Saudis took the move in stride.
The lack of protests surprised MbS, according to people close to the prince, but also helped convince him that Saudis were ready for a change.
Jihad al-Najjar, one of those who lined up outside petrol stations that night to fill up on the lower cost fuel, said he understood the country could no longer afford such subsidies.
“It’s not the real price,” the 22-year-old medical student said.
Abdulaziz al-Sager, head of the Jeddah and Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre, says there is a growing recognition among Saudi leaders that the oil-based economic system is not sustainable. That will necessarily lead to social and political change.
“You cannot do the economic change and the transformation without some sort of political change,” he says. “That raises the question of what sort of a new social contract we are going to have.”
Few had heard of Prince Mohammed before his father, 80-year-old son of modern Saudi Arabia’s founder, became the kingdom’s 7th monarch in January 2015. Today, Prince Mohammed is second in line to rule behind Mohammed bin Nayef, a cousin who is crown prince and, as Interior Minister, head of internal security.
Unlike many other royals, Prince Mohammed did not go to school abroad but graduated from King Saud University with a law degree. Informed Saudis who follow royal affairs say he is the favoured son of King Salman, who made him his personal adviser at a very young age.
In his few public appearances with journalists, the powerful prince projects confidence. He listens to questions in English but speaks through the Royal Court’s interpreter, and sometimes corrects the interpreter’s phrasing of English translations.
His picks for top cabinet positions and senior advisers have leant more heavily on former businessmen than those of former administrations, which relied more on professional bureaucrats.
Last week, Prince Mohammed officially unveiled Saudi Vision 2030, his blueprint to move the economy decisively from that he called its “addiction to oil” towards the private sector.
The phased removal of subsidies on fuel, water and electricity — part of the welfare lavished on Saudis, of whom about four out of five workers hold public sector jobs — is already underway.
The new plan includes earning non-oil income from private investment and privatisation and setting up the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. The idea is to create millions of new jobs and raise the participation of women in the workforce from 22 currently to 30 percent by 2030.
The plans also include selling a stake of less than 5 percent in Saudi Aramco, the state oil giant, and placing the proceeds and the company in the Public Investment Fund (PIF), along with other assets that could eventually create an investment vehicle worth up to $3 trillion.
Another ambitious target is to locally source 50 percent of Saudi military procurements — part of the third largest defence budget in the world — by 2030, up from a mere 2 percent now.
Many diplomats, analysts and economists say the magnitude of the goals — including the primary one of ending dependence on oil by 2020 — defy credibility.
“To achieve the economic goals, the kingdom would need a thriving non-oil private sector that caters to private demand, offers sufficient productive jobs for nationals and produces substantial non-oil exports of goods and services,” said the LSE’s Hertog, who has written a book about how the Saudi government works.
There are social challenges because some of Prince Mohammed’s ambitions, including giving women a bigger economic role, will anger religious conservatives, the source of the most dangerous threats to Al Saud rule since the kingdom was founded.
Some had hoped, for example, that Vision 2030 would include moves to lift the ban on women driving, which it did not. Answering a question on it, the deputy crown prince said the issue was a social rather than religious question, therefore it was up to society to decide.
Moreover, the country’s education system is traditionally regarded as under the thumb of religious fundamentalists who, among other things, insist on the cloistering and segregation of women, hindering their ability to enter the workforce.
Some older Saudis, ruling family members and Saudi businessmen fear that Prince Mohammed’s plans to streamline the kingdom’s bureaucracy could cause social fractures if they fail to maintain comfy living standards or soothe conservatives.
And MbS’s meteoric rise has also prompted rumours among some Saudi analysts of friction with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 56, a veteran security chief and a favourite of Riyadh’s top ally, the United States.
So far, both men have appeared careful in public, with the younger prince showing deference and respect to his cousin, diplomats say.
Prince Mohammed and his close advisers appear fully aware of the entrenched resistance they will face — and are working to overcome it.
For example, MbS — like his father and previous Saudi rulers — has devoted significant effort to wooing clerics, who have great influence in the legal system. One adviser said that the prince meets between four and five religious leaders a week.
Last week, right after announcing 2030 Vision to reporters, he met a group of religious and intellectual leaders in the next room and directly assured them that he would not go too far. When asked about the issue of women drivers, he turned specifically to look at the religious leaders and said it would not happen yet, a person present said.
Young people say they like MbS’s business-like approach of announcing systemic plans, rather than speaking in generalizations as many of his predecessors did.
Still, there is a long road ahead, especially on social change, they say.
“I’m waiting for the moment where I can travel without a male with me,” said Najla. “And drive — I already know what car I want,” she said, sending by phone a picture of a bright red sports car.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud received President of the World Bank Group, Dr. Jim Kim and his accompanying delegation at Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh on Monday.
During the meeting, they discussed aspects of cooperation between the Kingdom and the World Bank Group.
Dr. Kim praised the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia s vision 2030, expressing the Bank’s desire for participating in achieving the vision s objectives.
The audience was attended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Premier and Interior Minister; Minister of State and Cabinet’s Member Dr. Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al-Assaf; Minister of State, Cabinet s Member and Chief of Royal Court Khalid bin Abdulrahman Al-Issa; Minister of Finance Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Jada an; Governor of Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Dr. Ahmed bin Abdulkarim Al-Khulaifi; and Kingdom s Executive Director to the World Bank Group Dr. Khalid bin Suleiman Al-Khudairi.