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Saudi Defense Minister, New Pentagon Chief discuss Mideast in 1st conversation

US and Saudi defence chiefs have held their first phone call since the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, exchanging views on the issues in the Middle East.

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US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis (L) and Defence Minister and Crown Prince of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia His Highness Prince Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud

Defence Secretary James Mattis and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who also serves as the kingdom’s defence minister, talked over the phone on Tuesday.

Mattis underlined the importance of the Washington-Riyadh strategic ties, particularly to counter security challenges in the Middle East, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said.

The US defence chief also expressed his desire to consult closely with Saudi Arabia on security issues of mutual concern, Davis added.

Meanwhile, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said in a Wednesday report that Salman “underscored the US secretary of defence’s experience in the region.”

Mattis, known as “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk,” served more than four decades in the Marine Corps and was involved in several key military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Elsewhere, the Saudi prince stressed that cooperation with Washington was necessary to restore stability to the region, the SPA reported.

The two officials further rejected what they claimed to be Iran’s “suspicious activities and interventions,” the report added.

Like Trump, Mattis is also an opponent of the Iran nuclear agreement, which was reached in 2015 between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Under the deal, Tehran agreed to limit some aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of sanctions.

The conversation between the US and Saudi officials on the regional issues comes as the two allies have been among the major supporters of militants fighting against the Damascus government since 2011, when the conflict broke out in the Arab country.

Takfirism, which is the trademark of many terrorist groups operating in Syria, is also largely influenced by Wahhabism, the radical ideology freely preached by Saudi clerics.

Washington and Riyadh have both been sidelined in efforts led by Iran, Russia and Turkey aimed at bringing an end to the crisis in Syria.

Organised by Iran, Russia, and Turkey, the latest round of the Syria peace talks wrapped up in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana on January 24, without Saudi Arabia being invited.

Moreover, Washington did not send a delegation to the discussions and only US Ambassador to Astana George Krol took part in the negotiations.

MiSK, SMRG renew agreement to work to help promote talented youth

RIYADH: Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) and Prince Mohammed bin Salman MiSK Foundation Monday signed a cooperation agreement stipulating the implementation of joint non-profit programs to develop the community.

The Prince said SRMG has been a strong supporter of MiSK’s programs and will continue to support its media message and its initiatives in Saudi society.
Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al-Saud, SRMG chairman of the Board of Directors, said the group has been the main supporter of the foundation’s programs since its establishment.

“The group is keen to consolidate its partnership with MiSK Foundation for its own impact on the community, especially among young men and women, who represent the highest percentage of the population of the Kingdom,” he said.
Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan said that this population category “will lead the nation in the future. The programs provided to them by MiSK Foundation brush up their talents and develop them in a way that makes them future leaders. From this perspective, the SRMG supports its programs and objectives, which are common goals.”

Bader Al-Asaker, secretary-general of the foundation, said the partnership agreement is an extension of the cooperation between the two sides in serving the nation and its young generation.

“The signing of the agreement comes within the framework of the institutional work pursued by the foundation after having adopted specific cooperation mechanisms, in accordance with the foundation development goals,” he said.
Al-Asaker highlighted the important role played by the SRMG, and said he was convinced that the agreement will contribute to MiSK programs to upgrade the development and educational process and disseminate a culture of innovation among the youth.
The agreement, which is a renewal of the previous agreement between the two parties that expired at the end of 2016, emphasizes the two sides’ keenness to provide media and communication support to the initiatives and projects implemented by the foundation to disseminate knowledge and create an environment conducive to the promotion of promising young talents.

The initiatives also aim at enabling young people to launch their creations in the scientific, cultural and technological fields, in addition to promoting their leadership skills.

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Saudi Prince readies strategy if clerics oppose reforms-report

The young prince leading Saudi Arabia’s drive for economic reform has laid out a three-pronged strategy to avoid a backlash from any religious conservatives opposed to his plan, according to remarks reported by Foreign Affairs magazine on Saturday.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old overseeing the kingdom’s biggest-ever overhaul of state and society, told visiting researchers last month punitive measures would be considered for any clerics who incited or resorted to violence over the plan, one of the researchers wrote.

Prince Mohammed said he believed only a small percentage of the kingdom’s clerics were too dogmatic to be reasoned with, the journal reported, while more than half could be persuaded to support his reforms through engagement and dialogue.

The rest were ambivalent or not in a position to cause problems, he is reported to have said.

There was no immediate comment from the royal court.

Prince Mohammed has couched his “Vision 2030” reform plan to wean the kingdom’s economy off oil in terms referencing Islamic tradition and has kept the focus on the economy, with scant concrete pledges of social change in the highly conservative kingdom.

But in a country that adheres to an austere brand of Wahhabi Sunni Islam, where gender segregation is mandatory and concerts and cinemas are banned, the plan’s seemingly anodyne goals to empower women, promote sports and invest in entertainment are controversial.

Saudi Arabia’s clerics offer legitimacy and public support to a king who styles himself the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites. They retain control of the justice system but leave most other matters of governance to him, so long as his edicts do not contradict their interpretation of Islamic law.

The government started trying to rein in what it saw as extremist viewpoints in the clergy after Islamist militant attacks inside the kingdom began in 2003, pushing hardline clerics to renounce al Qaeda and violent tactics and sacking clerics seen as disseminating radical views.

In the later years of the reign of King Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor, some senior clerics who opposed his cautious social reforms too openly lost their jobs.

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Legislating Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 transformation

If only a portion of Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Programme is implemented, there will be dramatic change, one of the kingdom’s most influential lawyers assures.

“If we can cover 50 percent of what is the aspiration in the Vision 2030, the kingdom will be doing much better,” the Saudi country director of international law firm White & Case, Doug Peel, says. “My view is that it’s a comprehensive plan, and the devil is in the detail and execution.”

Peel and his team are heavily involved in that execution, both directly, through advising government organisations, and indirectly, by hiring more Saudis (including women).

Vision 2030 is the largest transformation ever undertaken in the conservative kingdom, which is attempting to transition to a post-oil era.

New York-based White & Case is well positioned to partake in the transformation, having operated in Saudi Arabia since the 1950s when it started working with state oil giant Saudi Aramco. During the next half-century it witnessed the kingdom’s shift from an economy that relied on merchant families to one driven by the oil-fuelled coffers of the government. In doing so, it moved its offices in Jeddah to Riyadh in 2000. “Everyone who wanted to participate in Saudi economic life basically had to be in Riyadh, starting in the late 1990s,” Peel, who has worked in the Gulf for nearly 20 years, recalls.

White & Case operates in the kingdom through association with local law firm  AlSalloum and AlToaimi. It now employs 80 lawyers in five offices across the Middle East and many of their clients are government and high-ranking people in industry.

Saudi Aramco is one of the biggest, and while Peel declines to discuss anything related to the world’s largest energy company, White & Case is expected to advise the government on the upcoming sale of a 5 percent stake in an initial public offering (IPO) planned for 2018.

The IPO is part of Vision 2030, which was announced in April 2016, by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the 31-year-old who was handpicked to fix the kingdom’s burgeoning deficit and bring its economy and society into the 21st century.

White & Case is playing a key role in advising on the implementation of the vision, a task that Peel describes as mammoth but long acknowledged as necessary.

Efforts to re-balance the budget for the long-term could see $200bn raised through the privatisation of state assets over the next 20 years, according to economic development and strategy expert Dr Khalid Al Yahya.

While some in the kingdom have expressed concern that the country is giving away its ‘crown jewels’, Peel disagrees.

“I don’t [see that]. Obviously you have commentators from both ends of the spectrum and every point in between, some critical, some sympathetic,” he says.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for restructure because they look back at the track record and say, as Dr Khalid was saying on the panel, ‘we have known for 30 or 40 years, more or less, what we have to do and we’ve had these plans, but we haven’t executed them in the past, and now we are executing them’.

“I think there’s a lot of support and, sure, some people will say the state should not privatise and that the state is the best guarantor that these enterprises will be run for the benefit of the people. Others will say you have to privatise because that’s how you get efficiency and how you diversify your sources of revenue for the state.”

Privatisation of government assets is a central part of Vision 2030 as the government looks to increase private participation in what are traditionally government endeavours, including housing, social affairs, education and healthcare.

The sale of even 5 percent of Saudi Aramco would make its IPO the biggest ever.

“There was a list mooted of 146 state enterprises that are going to be privatised one way or another,” Peel confirms. “I see IPOs, trade sales, PPPs [public-private partnerships] in healthcare, education, transportation, other social infrastructure. Whether that proceeds at exactly the pace that’s contemplated in the National Transformation Programme, or at a slower pace, we’re going to be swamped with work.”

Peel says there are two significant challenges in the NTP: consensus and coordination at the government level, and an educated and talented workforce.

“I personally have worked on projects in the past for years that in the end fell at the final barrier because the government wasn’t coordinated. The ministries we were working with wanted to do something but the ministry of finance didn’t and at the end of the process, after three years’ work, that was it,” he laments.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore with the National Transformation Programme in place. That’s half the challenge solved.”

The issue of having an able, talented workforce will take longer in the long-term, he says.

“At the top level of industries and government you really only have a small number of highly talented, qualified, motivated individuals driving change. The international scholarship programme — 100,000 to 150,000 students abroad at any given time — has the potential to change that over the medium term. We’re starting to see those [students] coming back. That’s going to be a massive increase in the amount of talent available,” Peel says.

“It’s just being able to continue to work through the NTP before that wave of people is available to the government.

“The challenge is, what do you do until you can staff all of your ministries and enterprises with that highly qualified and educated, hardworking demographic. It’s starting to come, but it’s going to be another five or ten years before that surge of people has really ramified all the way through government and industry. When it does, Saudi Arabia is going to be transformed.”

White & Case is ahead of the curve, with two-thirds of lawyers in the Saudi firm nationals, including four Saudi women. A fifth Saudi female lawyer is due to start in April. While the level of Saudi lawyers is largely due to customer demand, Peel says the increasing number of women is one of the biggest transformations he has seen at White & Case’s Saudi practice.

Saudi Depty Crown Prince Mohammed is spearheading the kingdom’s diversification plans.

“We had not really tapped into the female Saudi lawyer talent pool until [2015] and it is just extraordinary how talented, well-educated and capable Saudi women lawyers are,” Peel says.

“They are phenomenal at execution. It might surprise people who have preconceptions about what Saudi social constraints are, but we have Saudi women lawyers who are happy to start at 8 in the morning and work right through until midnight, two or four in the morning, because that’s what it takes to get the job done. It’s really impressive to see.”

While the law firm poses as a case study for the broader economy, achieving such scales is more difficult in larger firms and government organisations.

“For us it’s easy; we have 20 people. If we want to add 50 percent, we only have to go and hire ten people. If you are the Ministry of Energy or Ministry of Mineral Resources, you need 100 people, or a 1,000 people. If you’re PWC or one of the foreign accounting firms, there’s a much larger scale and it’s harder to replicate what we’re able to do because the talent pool just isn’t as big,” Peel says.

He says that Saudis are seen as the future of the firm in Riyadh, where there is a predominantly local client base who are more comfortable working with Saudi lawyers.

“There’s a huge business opportunity in presenting clients with a more Saudi firm that operates to international standards, rather than a bunch of New York and English lawyers. They respond well to it,” he says. “There’s a perfect cultural fit. Our clients are often going through the process of transforming their organisations to become more Saudi and so they look at us, see us doing the same thing and they like that.”

As Al Tamimi & Company law firm assists the UAE’s legislature plans, Peel says White & Case is frequently requested to help with law reform in the kingdom.

“We’re paid for our expertise in a particular area and we work with a ministry or a government body to understand best practices and how that could be reflected in Saudi Arabia in draft laws and regulations,” he says.

A comprehensive building plan is needed over the next five years to meet KSA’s rising demand.

“The other way we do it is, now the government often puts draft laws out for consultation prior to adopting and when that happens, if it’s in an area that is of interest and relevance to us or our clients, we will comment.”

There will be plenty of legal work required to achieve Vision 2030. A new companies law is already in place, and other changes are expected to govern bankruptcy, enforcement, mortgages and mining.

“If you go through it [Vision 2030], there’s an extraordinary level of granularity — ministry by ministry, agency by agency,” Peel says.

“Every single agency is going to have to do something about the legislative or regulatory environment in its sphere of responsibility to give effect to the National Transformation Plan. Some of that will be tweaking and some will be wholesale legislative reform.”

Peel says the agility and commitment of the ministerial teams he is working alongside is “unbelievable”.

“For me it’s a revelation to see very high-powered, well-informed, high level Saudi people driving change through,” he says. “[When change happens] there will be greater foreign investment, greater transparency, greater efficiency in each sector, and I believe that’s going to be the same process in all of these different areas of endeavour in government. In our day-to-day work — we’re at the coalface with these guys — you can really see it happening. People and resources are being devoted to making the change happen.”

Peel picks out the mortgage law as being one of the most important pieces of legislation that will be passed, which will allow for greater private sector involvement in the provision of much-needed housing.

“If you have the private sector involved, you have to have private sources of finance, you have to get banks lending money to people for houses and banks lending developers huge sums of money to build 15,000 or 100,000 units at a time,” he says.

“The mortgage law should enable that but because we haven’t yet seen full implementation of the change in the land registry, from a notarial system to a cadastral system that has a central digital registry of all titles.”

However, Peel says there is some resistance in the kingdom to allowing traditional mortgages, viewed as anti-sharia law. Currently, real estate projects are typically financed through special purpose vehicles (SPVs) with a licence to own real estate. The funding bank receives a security interest in the ownership of that SPV.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to raise more than $100bn in non-oil revenue a year by 2020.

Peel says the lack of a mortgage law is throttling the ability of private sector participants to tap sources of finance for major real estate developments.

“As a result of that, you have a continued housing crisis,” he says. “There’s a good mortgage law in the books. [But] making the real estate title system work with it requires structural reform, and once you have that done, you can liberate private sector developers to tap private sources of finance.

“If you need to provide a million houses to your citizens in the next ten years, you really have to find a way to de-bottleneck the system.”

While less than 5 percent of White & Case’s global headcount is in the Middle East, Peel say the region’s profit outweighs its staff numbers, a feat he attributes to the ability to build trusted adviser relationships, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

“That means that you’re not having to compete on price with another law firm that a client thinks it just like you,” he says.

“Elsewhere, in some parts of the world, [legal] relationships have become a little commoditised, where they have a panel and go to several law firms because that’s their procurement process.”

He adds that White & Case’s business is “counter-cyclical”. “For example, we have a disputes practice that is very focussed on construction,” he says. “When it’s boom times, we’re doing front-end construction work — putting together projects and executing them. In hard times, we’re doing financing or restructuring.”

Peel sees plenty of opportunity for growth, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

“The opportunity for growth for us is there, whether we’re in a boom cycle or down cycle,” he says.

“For me, Saudi Arabia is a phenomenal opportunity. We have such a powerful brand there and such good people and amazing clients, that I think we could double in size there over the next three to five years.

“The objective is to grow in a profitable way. What I would like to see is a doubling of headcount, leading to a trebling of profit. That’s the sort of aspiration we have. The great thing about being in Saudi Arabia is that you can actually achieve that.”

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Saudi’s Deputy Crown Prince meets Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the headquarters of Facebook on Wednesday and met with the tech giant’s founder and president, Mark Zuckerberg.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in San Francisco on Sunday, in the second phase of his US tour, which started last week with a visit to Washington where he met with President Barack Obama and other top US officials.

During his time in California the Deputy Crown Prince included meetings with a number of executives in Silicon Valley, the home of the world’s tech giants – as well as meeting Zuckerberg,

Another significant meeting in Silicon Valley was with Satya Narayana Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft. During the meeting, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed, under which Microsoft will train young Saudis and will support Saudi Arabia in its ambitious digital and knowledge-based innovation transformation under Vision 2030.

Microsoft inked another deal to boost the Decision Making Support Center at the Royal Court by setting up systems and operational programs with the help of a team of experts from Microsoft.

It is understood that Prince Mohammed’s meetings aimed to enhance ties with Silicon Valley and create new projects to be implemented in the kingdom.

These meetings also aim to establish a high-tech sector to achieve the aims of a diverse economy, as sought by Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tries out new technology in Silicon Valley (Photo: Bandar al-Galoud)

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Mohammed bin Salman Chairs Gulf Economic and Development Authority Meeting – Asharq Al Awsat

Riyadh- Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General Dr Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani stated that Riyadh will witness on Thursday the first meeting of the Gulf Economic and Development Authority, which will be chaired by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

On the sidelines of the preparatory committee meeting held on Thursday, which discussed the authority specialty, statute and topics related to reinforcement of economic and development cooperation between the GCC countries, Zayani stated that “The meeting of the preparatory committee was a chance to tackle the prepared agenda of the upcoming meeting.”

The GCC Secretary-General mentioned that forming the Gulf Economic and Development Authority was one of the recommendation s of the meeting of GCC leaders for consultations, along with stipulating the establishment of a ministerial committee entrusted with preparing for the meeting.

Kuwaiti Finance Ministry Undersecretary Khalifa Hamada reported to the press, on the sidelines of the preparatory committee meeting, that one of the basic topics discussed in the meeting was launching the joint Gulf market and achieving unity of customs.

“I believe that the firsts step is to determine the tasks of the authority then to form the technical office. Those in charge of the authority will determine which economic and development matters in the GCC have the priority to be tackled,” said Hamada.

Regarding economic growth slowdown and income sources diversification, amid drop in oil prices and relapse of oil revenues in the Gulf, Hamada ensured that these topics will be listed in the authority’s meeting agenda.


Mohammad bin Salman — world’s youngest defence minister – The News

At the age of 30, the visiting Saudi Arabian deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, happens to be the youngest defence minister in the world.

This is what an esteemed British newspaper “The Independent” had recently stated about Mohammad in its latest January 9, 2016 edition: “When Mohammed bin Salman was just 12 he began sitting in on meetings led by his father Salman, the then governor of Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Province. Some 17 years later, at 29 and already the world’s youngest defence minister.”

Also holding the office of his country’s second deputy Prime Minister, he was born out of King Salman’s wedlock with Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan, the monarch’s third spouse.

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud’s younger full brother Turki bin Salman Al Saud is Chairman of the Riyadh-based Tharawat Holding Company, which is a principal Saudi Arabian firm specialising in diverse investments in business, technology, food, sports development and real estate sectors.

The 28-year old Prince Turki is also the Chairman of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group. According to British newspaper “Daily Mail”,  “King Salman has 13 children from his three wives. With his first wife Sultana bint Turki Al Sudairi – who passed away at the age of 71 in July 2011 – he fathered Prince Fahd, Prince Ahmed, Prince Sultan, Prince Abdulaziz, Prince Faisal and Princess Hussa. Sultana was the daughter of Salman’s maternal uncle, a former governor of Asir Province.

His second wife, Sarah bint Faisal Al Subai’ai gave birth to Prince Saud. And the children from his third marriage to Fahda bint Falah bin Sultan Al Hithalayn were Prince Mohammed, Prince Turki, Prince Khalid, Prince Nayif, Prince Bandar and Prince Rakan. The King’s second son Prince Sultan bin Salman was the first Arab of royal blood – and the first Muslim – to fly into outer space. He flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in June 1985 and has occupied the post of Deputy Minister of Oil since 1995.”

As far as the Saudi Royal family’s wealth is concerned, a WikiLeaks cable provides an in-depth account in this context.

The cable had noted that according to a 1996 estimate of US embassy in Riyadh, the wealthiest royals were: Al-Walid bin Tatat bin Abd Al-Aziz ($13 billion); King Fahd ($10 billion); defence minister Prince Sultan bin Abd Al-Aziz ($10 billion) and Khalid bin Sultan Abd Al-Aziz ($2 billion).

In June 2015, the Forbes magazine had listed Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal as the 34th-richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of US$28 billion.

Earlier in March 2014, this is what the “Forbes” had stated that Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal: “His net worth of $20.4 billion at the time of publication comes from stakes in News Corp, Citigroup, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts and other investments controlled through his Kingdom Holdings.”

In 2008, Prince Waleed was listed as one of Time magazine’s “Time 100,” which an annual list of the hundred most influential people in the world.

Prince Waleed is a nephew of the late Saudi King Abdullah, a grandson of first Saudi King Ibn-e-Saud and a grandson of Lebanon’s first Prime Minister Riad Al-Solh.


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Quote by the Prince

"We seek to be proud of our country, and allow the latter to contribute to the development of the world, whether on the economic, environmental, civilisational, or intellectual levels."

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