News Updates

Mohammed bin Salman Will Rule Saudi Arabia for Another 50 Years – Foreign Policy

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Before the sun rose Wednesday morning in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s order of succession had been transformed in ways likely to shape its leadership for decades to come.

In a series of royal decrees, King Salman ousted his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and named his favorite son Mohammed bin Salman as next in line for the throne. At just 30-something in age, Mohammed bin Salman could well be king for a half-century.

The shake-up was widely anticipated, though its timing was not. Mohammed bin Salman began consolidating his control over government portfolios from the moment he rose from obscurity to become deputy crown prince in 2015. Back then, there was scarcely a diplomat in Riyadh who could remember shaking his hand. Today, he controls almost all of Saudi Arabia’s levers of power, domestic and foreign, either directly or through a growing network of young, like-minded appointees.

“There was no surprise for such a decision,” said Abdullah al-Shammari, a former Saudi diplomat. “It was not secret that [Mohammed bin Salman] was the most powerful figure in Saudi [for the last] year.”

Mohammed bin Salman’s rise has been billed by advisors and supporters as a much-needed shift from the older generation to a new cohort of eager technocrats. “Following these decrees, Saudi Arabia is now even better poised to represent its youth and cater to their ever-growing needs,” said Salman al-Ansari, the founder and president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee.

In laying the groundwork for his rise these last two years, Mohammed bin Salman has also raised expectations for what he can accomplish — largely without having delivered big wins so far.

At home, he has promised to create jobs for the country’s growing (and increasingly unemployed) youth population. Through the partial privatization of the state oil company Saudi Aramco, he vows to move the economy away from oil. This can be done while maintaining cherished benefits like free education and health care, he has argued. Coinciding with the decrees that announced Mohammed bin Salman’s promotion, the state promised to retroactively pay benefits it slashed last September in a brief experiment with austerity.

Abroad, Mohammed bin Salman has proved no less ambitious. One of his first appointments was as defense minister, a post that he used to emerge as the public face of a Saudi-led coalition that is waging a war in Yemen to oust Iranian-allied Houthi rebels. Saudi airstrikes have devastated Yemen’s already weak infrastructure and left the country on the brink of famine, even as the front line of battle has largely frozen.

Mohammed bin Salman has also spearheaded a drive to win over the new White House. The effort appears so far to be a ringing success: Donald Trump visited Riyadh on his first overseas trip as president and has since visibly tilted in Saudi Arabia’s direction in policy toward the rest of the region, most notably in his animosity toward Iran.

Mohammed bin Salman no doubt hopes for Trump’s support in another regional conflict as well. Saudi Arabia is currently embroiled in the worst internal political crisis in the history of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council, as it joined with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and a growing list of other countries in halting or downgrading diplomatic relations with Qatar. Riyadh and its allies have accused Doha of supporting terrorism and not playing by regional rules. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have blocked Qatari access to their airspace and land routes, cut off Qatari websites and TV channels, and expelled Qatari citizens.

In one sense, Wednesday’s announcement brings some clarity to that crisis. Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut ties with Qatar sends a clear statement about what Doha can expect from Riyadh in the coming decades. Like a new CEO walking for the first time into a hostile boardroom, Mohammed bin Salman has set the tone: Saudi Arabia is laying out the rules of the game and won’t tolerate their being broken.

“It has long been assumed that [Mohammed bin Salman] was prominent in the decision to join or start the blockade of Qatar. Now we know,” said David Roberts, an assistant professor at King’s College London and the author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State.

At home, too, recent personnel shifts and ousters make more sense in the context of Wednesday’s announcement.

In April, Mohammed bin Salman led a reorganization of the Royal Court, the Saudi equivalent of a presidential cabinet, to create a National Security Center under his purview. The body, meant to act as a clearinghouse for all security- and defense-related matters, left many wondering what power was left for the then-crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, who was interior minister (a post he was also relieved of Wednesday).

Mohammed bin Nayef’s role was further diminished last weekend in royal decrees that moved the power of public prosecution, something like an attorney general’s office, from its historical seat in the crown prince’s office to a nominally independent authority reporting to the king.

In retrospect, it’s clear that this slow chipping away of Mohammed bin Nayef’s power was one of the major clues that a shake-up was coming. The shift did not come automatically: Mohammed bin Nayef was a well-respected leader, and his constituency within the royal family was well established — one reason that analysts initially brushed away the suggestion he might ever be removed from the line of succession. To win family backing, the king spent two years gradually introducing and elevating his son to office rather than simply naming him successor from the get-go.

Western allies had also taken heart when Mohammed bin Nayef was first named to the line of succession shortly after King Salman took power in 2015. As the West’s main Saudi security partner in a crackdown against al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, he is a man they know well. Famed for his firm hand against extremists, Mohammed bin Nayef has survived four assassination attempts, one of which — by an al Qaeda suicide bomber in 2009 — left him slightly injured.

“He will be remembered for a long time for what he has done to secure the country,” said Sultan al-Saad al-Qahtani, the editor of the Riyadh Post website. “People maybe have mixed feelings about his retirement after three decades of working.

“He had a great harmony with [Mohammed bin Salman] during the last two years, but for medical reasons, he is out of the scene now,” he added.

The rollout of Mohammed bin Nayef’s retirement was replete with symbolism that will cushion the blow for many who admired and respected him. The decrees promised that Wednesday’s decision doesn’t rule out other branches of the family from eventually being king.

The announcement came as many Saudis were finishing their suhoor, the pre-dawn meal before fasting, on one of the last days of Ramadan. This weekend, the holy month will give way to Eid al-Fitr, a celebration of new beginnings. In that spirit, Mohammed bin Salman begins his tenure with the announcement that the kingdom has extended the public holiday by an extra week.

As Mohammed bin Nayef pledged allegiance to the new crown prince, it was Mohammed bin Salman who bowed deeply before his older cousin, kissing his hand repeatedly in a sign of respect.

Mohammed bin Nayef’s brief words in that exchange may be the best summary of what lies behind and ahead. Gone is a generation of Gulf leaders who give deference to ceremony and age. The new generation has been dismissive of such concepts in favor of a purer form of ambition. Whether in countering Iran, pressuring Qatar, or leading an economic shake-up, there is no backing down.

“I will rest now, and may God help you,” Mohammed bin Nayef said as he stepped aside.


Mohammed bin Salman named Saudi Arabia’s crown prince – Al-Jazeera

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as heir, in a major reshuffle announced early on Wednesday.

A royal decree removed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a 57-year-old nephew of the king, as next-in-line to the throne and replaced him with Mohammed bin Salman, 31, who was previously the deputy crown prince.

According to the official Saudi Press Agency, the newly-announced crown prince was also named deputy prime minister and maintained his post as defence minister.

The former crown prince was also fired from his post as interior minister, the decree said.

The decision by King Salman to promote his son and consolidate his power was endorsed by 31 out of 34 members of the Allegiance Council, the decree said.

The council is made up of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family.

The Saudi king called for a public pledging of allegiance to the new crown prince early on Wednesday, the channel said.

Mohammed bin Nayef promptly vowed loyalty to his successor after the decree.

Newly appointed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif. Credit: Saudi NEws Agency Twitter

Restructuring power

Some royal observers had long suspected Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power under his father’s reign might also accelerate his ascension to the throne.

The young prince was little known to Saudis and outsiders before Salman became king in January 2015. He had previously been in charge of his father’s royal court when Salman was the crown prince.

Over the weekend, the king had issued a decree restructuring Saudi Arabia’s system for prosecutions that stripped Mohammed bin Nayef of longstanding powers overseeing criminal investigations.

Instead King Salman ordered that a newly-named Office of Public Prosecution and prosecutor report directly to the monarch.

Mohammed bin Nayef was not believed to have played a significant role in Saudi and UAE-led efforts to isolate Qatar for its alleged support of Islamist groups and ties with Iran.

The prince had appeared to be slipping from public eye as his cousin, Mohammed bin Salman, embarked on major overseas visits, including a trip to the White House to meet President Donald Trump in March.

That visit to Washington helped lay the foundation for Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May, which marked the president’s first overseas visit.

The trip was promoted heavily by the kingdom as proof of its weight in the region and wider Muslim world.

Yemen and Iran

Despite Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitions, which include overhauling the kingdom’s economy away from its reliance on oil, the prince has faced criticism for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which he oversees as defence minister.

The war, launched more than two years ago, has failed to dislodge Iranian-allied rebels known as Houthis from the capital, Sanaa, and has had devastating effects on the impoverished country.

Rights groups say Saudi forces have killed scores of civilians and have called on the US, as well as the UK and France, to halt the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the Yemen war.

The newly-minted crown prince also ruled out any chance of dialogue with Iran.

In remarks aired on Saudi TV in May, Mohammed bin Salman framed the tensions with Iran in sectarian terms and said it is Iran’s goal “to control the Islamic world” and to spread its Shia doctrine.

He also vowed to take “the battle” to Iran.

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry has played out in proxy wars across the region.

They back opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen and they support political rivals in Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq.


Saudi deputy crown prince meets Iraqi PM Abadi

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Mecca on Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to review bilateral relations and latest developments in the region, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

An SPA statement said the meeting was “attended by Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif bin Abdulaziz, Advisor to Minister of Interior, Minister of State and Cabinet’s Member Dr. Musaed Al-Aiban, Minister of Commerce and Investment Dr. Majed Al-Qasabi, Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Engineer Khalid Al-Falih, Chief of General Intelligence Khalid Al-Humaidan, Minister of State for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan and Chargé d’Affaires of the Saudi Embassy in Iraq Abdulaziz bin Khalid Al-Shammari.

“On the Iraqi side, it was attended by Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Ibrahim Abdul Karim Al-Jaafari, Minister of Interior Qassem Mohammad Al-A’araji, Minister of Planning Dr. Salman Al-Jumaili, Acting Minister of Industry Engineer Mohammed Al-Sudani, Minister of Agriculture Engineer Falah Al-Zaidan, the Secretary General of the Council of Ministers Dr. Mahdi Al-Alaqi, and a number of officials,” SPA added.


Muhammad, Tillerson discuss efforts to block terror financing – Saudi Gazette

Jeddah — Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, second deputy premier and minister of defense, received a telephone call from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday.

During the conversation, they reviewed bilateral relations, latest developments in the region, and the joint efforts of the two countries in combating terrorism, extremism and blocking terror financing to achieve security and stability in the region. — SPA


International conference to discuss coalition against terror

RIYADH: The second international conference on command and control solutions will be held at Riyadh’s King Saud University in October, under the theme “Coalition Against Terrorism.”
Operating under the patronage of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the event will take place from Oct. 17 to 19.
The conference will feature discussions on the importance of strengthening international alliances, achieving integration in the armed forces’ command and control systems, and providing them with the ability to monitor and respond to terrorist operations.
Conference organizing committee Chairman Abdullah bin Sharaf Al-Ghamdi said: “Command and control systems are now the vital nerve of the armed forces in confronting terrorism both through their field operations and through technical confrontation in cyberspace.”
He added: “The conference will focus on transferring technology knowledge and the localization of specialized expertise in command and control systems as one of its main themes, in line with Saudi Vision 2030.”
Al-Ghamdi said the conference would target major industrial and financial sectors, which are also vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Last year’s event, “Building Local Capabilities,” saw more than 2,000 industry experts and professionals attend.
October’s event will be attended by more than 700 people, including senior military officers from the Saudi armed forces, as well as other members of the International Alliance against Terrorism.


Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince praises relations with Russia

BEIRUT, LEBANON (5:01 P.M.) – The Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman al Saud gave praise to Russia’s relations with the Kingdom in a meeting with President Putin on Tuesday. Both Salman and Putin said during the talks in Moscow, that the two countries are speeding up their bilateral process to overcome the still existing differences.

The crown prince added, that “relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia are seeing one of their best stages at the moment.” He stressed, that there is already a common ground for the two countries and a clear mechanism established with which remaining issues can be solved out.

Especially the oil market was emphasized by Salman as a field of cooperation: ” The main thing is that we manage to built a strong foundation as concerns the oil market and prices of energy resources. This offers opportunities for building a strategic future further”.

Russia and Saudi Arabia are the two biggest oil exporters worldwide. Naturally their economies suffered from the heavy drop in oil prices since 2014. Together with other members of the OPEC cartell of oil producing states they recently agreed on limiting their oil output in order to stabilise the prices.
While Russia’s economy, despite being under additional sanctions by the West, is doing relatively well, Saudi Arabia seems to be heavier impacted by the low oil prices, which together with the costs of their war with Yemen cut into their household.
Saudi Arabia has recently downsized it’s social benefits program, increased taxes, started the privatisation of Saudi Aramco, a state owned oil producer and liquidated it’s foreign asset holdings, as shown in the chart below:
Henri Feyerabend | Al-Masdar News

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to Meet Putin in Moscow Visit

Riyadh – Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Defense will arrive Tuesday in Moscow where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss bilateral cooperation in various fields, in addition to Syria and Iran.

Also during his visit, the Deputy Crown Prince will sign a number of cooperation protocols between the two countries.

“The visit of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Moscow is very important in its timing, because it comes after the visit of US President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia as his first official trip overseas, and what accompanied this visit, including the Gulf-US Summit and the Arab-Islamic-US Summit,” Saudi Ambassador to Russia Abdurrahman bin Ibrahim Al-Rossi told Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday.

Al-Rossi said there is a mutual desire to enhance cooperation between Riyadh and Moscow on all levels, and in line with the vision of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and Putin to achieve the benefit of both people and to strengthen security and stability in the region.

The Saudi Ambassador also uncovered that several Saudi officials had lately visited Russia to enhance relations between both countries.

The latest visit was made by advisor to the Royal Court and General Supervisor of the King Salman Center for Humanitarian Aid and Relief (KSRelief), Dr. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Rabeeah, who was in Moscow to further develop the Russian-Saudi cooperation, particularly in humanitarian relief and other issues of mutual interest. The advisor had also informed the Russian officials about the Saudi efforts in the humanitarian work and the Saudi plans implemented in a number of disaster areas around the world, particularly in Yemen and Syria.

The meeting between Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Putin also comes following the meeting of Putin with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, during which both men had mainly tackled the crisis in Syria.


Saudis welcome Trump with gold medal, receive arms package – New Indian Express

RIYADH: President Donald Trump basked in Saudi Arabia’s lavish royal welcome Saturday as he left behind, at least temporarily, the snowballing controversies dogging him in Washington. Trump rewarded his hosts with a $110 billion arms package aimed at bolstering Saudi security and a slew of business agreements.

“That was a tremendous day, tremendous investments in the United States,” Trump said during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

The visit to the kingdom’s capital kicked off Trump’s first foreign trip as president, an ambitious, five-stop swing that will take him through the Middle East and into Europe. He is the only American president to make Saudi Arabia — or any Muslim-majority nation — his first overseas trip.

Trump arrived in Riyadh besieged by the fallout from his firing of FBI Director James Comey and more revelations about the federal investigations into his election campaign’s possible ties to Russia. Escaping Washington for the embrace of the Saudi royal family appeared to give Trump a boost.

After an overnight flight, the president was greeted at the airport by King Salman, which was notable given that the monarch did not show up last year to welcome President Barack Obama on his final visit to Saudi Arabia.

Trump descended the steps alongside first lady Melania Trump, who wore a black pantsuit and gold belt, but did not cover her hair in the ultra-conservative kingdom, in keeping with the traditions of Western delegations.

As Trump and the 81-year-old king, who was aided by a cane, walked along the red carpet, military jets flew swept the sky, leaving a red, white and blue trail. During a ceremony at the grand Saudi Royal Court, Salman awarded Trump the Collar of Abdulaziz al Saud, the kingdom’s highest civilian honor.

Trump bent down so the king could place the gold medal around his neck. Saudi Arabia has previously bestowed the honor on Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Obama.

Trump’s warm welcome reflected the degree to which Saudi Arabia had become disillusioned with Obama. The Saudis deeply distrusted Obama’s overtures to Iran and were frustrated by his restrained approach to the Syrian civil war.

As Trump arrived, Iranians had just re-elected Hassan Rouhani — one of Obama’s partners in the landmark accord aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions — for a second four-year-term as president, validating his push for greater freedoms and outreach to the wider world. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he hoped Rouhani would use his new term “to begin a process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism.”

Trump made no substantial remarks on his first day abroad and spent most of his time shuttling between opulent palace ballrooms with the king. The two were overheard discussing natural resources and arms, and Salman bemoaned the destruction caused by Syria’s civil war.

The most tangible agreement between the two leaders was the $110 billion sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia that is effective immediately and could expand up to $350 billion over 10 years. The deal includes tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, radar and communications, and cybersecurity technology. The State Department said the agreement could support “tens of thousands of new jobs in the United States.”


An Ambitious Young Prince Wants To Make Saudi Arabia More Fun – NDTV

In a country where cinemas are banned and even Starbucks are segregated by gender, a powerful young prince is pushing a plan to create jobs for women and a more integrated and satisfying social life for a youthful population long straitjacketed by oppressive cultural norms.

The expansive effort aims to overhaul and diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy and modernize a restless culture in which women make up just 22 percent of the workforce and nearly two-thirds of the population is under 30.

That means most Saudis have never lived in a society that places much value on fun and entertainment – the kind of world they see when they travel abroad. And that’s a world they seem to crave: Saudis spend more than $5 billion a year on overseas leisure travel.

“We want to be normal like anywhere else,” said Nouf al-Osaimi, 29, a scuba diving instructor who was gearing up for a dive at Dream Beach, a few miles north of this Red Sea port. Osaimi hopes to open her own dive school and thinks the government’s goals will make that easier for her and other female entrepreneurs. “The world is moving forward, and we need to keep up.”

saudi arabia washington post
Founders of Loud Art, a local Saudi artist hub and galler are, from left, Najla Alsuhaimi, Raneen Bukhari and Doaa Alshafie.
The Vision 2030 plan, the most dramatic and far-reaching set of changes for the Saudi economy and society in decades, is being driven by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. King Salman’s outspoken 31-year-old son has emerged as a remarkably influential leader since his father took the crown two years ago. Mohammed met with President Trump at the White House in March, and the two are expected to see each other again when Trump visits the kingdom this weekend.

Unlike many high-profile members of the royal family, the prince was educated in Saudi Arabia, not at elite universities in the West, which young people here said gives his demands even more credibility.

“We are the same generation, and we speak the same language,” said Fatimah al-Sani, 29, a woman who works at Uturn Entertainment, a Jiddah company that produces YouTube videos and is planning to expand under Vision 2030.

In this country of 32 million people, the main entertainment options are shopping malls, cafes and restaurants that are still largely segregated. While men and women have been allowed to mingle more freely in public in recent years, there are relatively few museums or other venues for them to do that.

Prince Mohammed has said that people will be more productive workers if they are happier in their leisure time.

“We have a lot of weekends in the year, so we need options,” said Amr al-Madani, a top official of the General Entertainment Authority, which was created under Vision 2030 to license, arrange and sometimes finance cultural events. “People work hard, and they need to re-energize.”

saudi arabia washington post
Saudi women attend a spinning class at Kore Studio in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in October 2016.
Since November, Madani said his group has supported more than 100 events in 21 cities, including art and food festivals, the Arab World’s first YouTube Fanfest, a Comic-Con convention, and a U.S.-style “monster jam,” with huge trucks with big wheels in a Riyadh soccer stadium attended by more than 25,000 people. It has even sponsored a handful of live music concerts, which have generally been banned.

More conservative members of Saudi society have complained that the prince is moving too fast. Madani noted that part of his job is to persuade people who are “intimidated” by what they fear will be an onslaught of Western-style entertainment with R-rated content. He said the authority is being careful to support only events that are family-friendly and reflect “Saudi values.”

Although change comes slowly in this conservative kingdom, analysts here said Prince Mohammed clearly has the support of his 81-year-old father and the backing of much of the business community, which hopes to recapture some of the billions that Saudis spend vacationing overseas.

“It’s logic and common sense,” said Soraqa al-Khatib, an executive at Uturn, the online entertainment firm in Jiddah. “If we can create the right environment here, I can tap into that.”

One evening last week, Maha, 30, waited in line with her sister, Ranya, 28, and nearly 200 other people to attend a show at Al Comedy Club in Jiddah, the only stand-up comedy venue in the country.

Maha and Ranya said they spent thousands of dollars last fall to fly to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to see a concert by the singer Yanni.

“I would rather spend my money here, but there is nothing to do,” said Maha, a government payroll worker. “If we are just working all the time, what’s the point? We need things to do.”

They declined to give their last names because they did not tell their father they had gone to Abu Dhabi for the concert. Under Saudi law, women may not travel internationally without the permission of a male “guardian.” Their father had given them general permission, but they worried he would revoke it if he found out they had traveled without telling him.

Yaser Bakr, 38, said he started Al Comedy Club in 2012 and now hosts two shows every Thursday evening in the 185-seat theater. He said he initially had to request permits from local government officials who had difficulty even understanding the concept of someone standing on stage and making jokes: “It was like literally Chinese to them.” Bakr said dealing with the General Entertainment Authority has been much easier.

He said his comedians poke fun at Saudi society, but they go easy on religious and political topics, and avoid profane or explicit content. All of his comics are male, and the audience is segregated by gender with wooden partitions. The audience is also sober, because alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.
“My prediction is that all the segregation will go away in a couple of years,” Bakr said, crediting Prince Mohammed with driving that change, including the calls for increasing female participation in the workforce to 30 percent and encouraging more women to start businesses.

“We have never before had someone who was not the king with this kind of clear power,” Bakr said.

Abrar Qari, 23, the first Saudi woman with a government license to run a video production studio, said the new atmosphere in the country toward women – and the promise of more business-friendly regulations and easier access to capital – has given her a chance to expand her company, which produces educational and cultural videos.

“I can hire other women and help them do the same – and more,” she said.

Qari spoke one day recently as she strapped a dive vest and air tank over her wet suit and flippered into the Red Sea with an underwater camera in her hand. She was filming a documentary about Nouf al-Osaimi, her female dive instructor, who holds Saudi deep-dive records.

“I feel like I am building bridges for the next generation,” Qari said. “And it’s all happening because of the Vision.”

The Vision is talked about everywhere in Saudi Arabia these days – touted on billboards, on television commercials, in newspaper advertisements and on social media. Prince Mohammed spoke about it in a nationally televised interview this month. He said in that interview that the country had also vastly increased its annual non-oil revenue in the past two years, from about $30 billion to $53 billion, from mining and other businesses.

At the same time, the government, faced with budget deficits from falling oil prices, has made unpopular cuts to government salaries and benefits, subsidies for gasoline and water and other generous benefits Saudis have long taken for granted. The plan also calls for a new value-added tax on goods, and selling off a chunk of Saudi Arabia’s crown jewel, the state-owned oil behemoth, Saudi Aramco.

Those economic measures have led to backlash, most notably in the kingdom’s hyperactive social-media world. But the prince’s social plans seem to have broad support.

For almost a quarter century, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, 54, was a member of the Saudi religious police, tasked with enforcing the kingdom’s strict cultural norms – including patrolling malls to make sure unrelated men and women weren’t mixing, breaking up gatherings with music, enforcing shop closings at prayer time.

Then Ghamdi had a change of heart. He left the religious police and now embraces the ideas he sees Prince Mohammed pushing. In many ways, he said, those societal changes trace their roots to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States in which 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis. He said there was such international backlash against the kingdom, including from other Muslim countries, that “we started thinking about our own religious beliefs.”

The result, Ghamdi said, was a widespread view that Saudi society needs to modernize.

“There is a youthful spirit in our country, and a push for change – things will not stay the same,” he said.

That rings true in the Jiddah offices of Uturn, where women – some in hijabs, some with their hair uncovered – and men work on laptops in a shared office space filled with glass walls and ping-pong and foosball tables. The company has about 80 YouTube channels and employs about 40 people producing everything from comedy to shows on beauty – and plans to expand.

“This is exciting, life-changing and empowering,” said Zoya Shahid, 24, a Uturn employee who wears a hijab.

Emad Eskander, 34, Uturn’s creative director, said the company is careful to follow Saudi cultural norms. But still, he said, the religious police used to come to their offices occasionally to complain about their content – until last year, when King Salman stripped away much of the religious police’s power as part of efforts to modernize.

Now, Eskander said, Uturn is hoping to take advantage of the new environment to produce feature films made by Saudis, about Saudi issues, which he hopes will ultimately be shown in Saudi cinemas, built thanks to the changes in his country.

“This is very real,” he said. “And it’s good for business.”



Trump and Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman are the most dangerous men in the world – and they’re meeting next week

Many people view Donald Trump as the most dangerous man on the planet, but next week he flies to Saudi Arabia for a three-day visit during which he will meet a man who surely runs him a close second as a source of instability. This is deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31 – the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since his father King Salman, 81, is incapacitated by old age – who has won a reputation for impulsiveness, aggression and poor judgement in the two-and-half years he has held power. Early on he escalated the Saudi role in Syria, thereby helping to precipitate Russian military intervention, and initiated a war in Yemen that is still going on and has reduced 17 million people to the brink of famine. Combine his failings with those of Trump, a man equally careless or ignorant about the consequence of his actions, and you have an explosive mixture threatening the most volatile region on earth.

Prince Mohammed, who is also defence minister, is not a man who learns from his mistakes or even notices that he has made them. Less than a year after his father became king in January 2015, the BND German intelligence agency issued a warning that Saudi Arabia had adopted “an impulsive policy of intervention” abroad and blamed this on the deputy crown prince whom it portrayed as a naïve political gambler. The degree of alarm within the BND about his impact on the region must have been high for them to release such a document which was swiftly withdrawn at the insistence of the German foreign ministry, but its predictions have been fulfilled disastrously in the following eighteen months.

The deputy crown prince is turning out to be not only a gambler, but one who recklessly raises his stakes when in trouble. Proof of this came in an extraordinary but under-reported interview he gave earlier this month, broadcast on al-Arabiya TV and Saudi TV, in which he threatens military intervention in Iran. “We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia, but we will work so the battle is there in Iran,” he says. Speaking in highly sectarian terms, he claims that the Iranian Shia leaders are planning to seize Mecca and to establish their rule over all the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. He believes that “their logic is based on the notion that Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for his arrival and they must control the Muslim world.” His diatribe is as anti-Shia as it is anti-Iranian and likely to provoke fears among Shia in Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia itself, where Shia make up a tenth of the population, that they will be the victims of an anti-Shia crusade.

It is absurd to imagine that the four or five Shia countries have the ambition or the ability to take over the fifty or more that are Sunni, though Sunni fundamentalists accuse tiny Shia minorities in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Indonesia of plotting to do so. Prince Mohammed appears to give credence to the theory of a grand anti-Sunni conspiracy orchestrated by Iran, saying that, since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran has been trying to “control Muslims in the Islamic world and spread the Twelver Jaafari [Shia] sect in the Islamic world so Imam Mahdi comes.”

There is more at play here than Prince Mohammed whipping up religious and nationalist feelings in Saudi Arabia to secure his own power base and fend off his rivals within the royal family. None of his foreign ventures have so far achieved their aims: in Syria in the spring of 2015 Saudi Arabia gave support to the so-called Army of Conquest, consisting primarily of the al-Qaeda affiliate the al-Nusra Front and its then ally Ahrar al-Sham. This won a series of victories against pro-Assad forces in Idlib province but their success led to Russian military intervention later the same year that was a turning point in the war. Saudi influence was marginalised, something that he blames on “former American President Barack Obama [who] wasted many significant opportunities he could have seized to achieve great change in Syria.” In practice, Saudi Arabia was hoping for US military intervention to enforce regime change in Syria along the lines of Iraq in 2003 or Libya in 2011. Obama was privately critical of Saudi actions and the tradition of the Washington foreign policy establishment of giving automatic support to Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Nevertheless, in Yemen Mr Obama gave backing until the last days of his presidency to the Saudi-led bombing campaign which has been devastating the country since March 2015 but has so far failed to win the war for the Saudis’ local allies. It has brought terrible suffering to the Yemeni population of 27 million, of whom the UN estimates that 17 million are “food insecure” including 3.3 million pregnant and breast-feeding mothers and children, some 462,000 under the age of five, who are “acutely malnourished” or, in other words, starving. Saudi-backed forces are poised to attack the Red Sea port of Hodeida, through which come 80 per cent of Yemen’s imports which make up most of its food supplies. If the port  is closed then Yemenis will face the worst man-made famine since Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Leap Forward. Prince Mohammed says the war is all but won, though, mysteriously, in finishing off the other side, “thousands of our troops can fall victims. There will be funerals in all Saudi cities.”

Trump has already ordered greater US support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, but the deputy crown prince will be primarily bidding for US backing for his confrontation with Iran. Words are already turning into action with reports of the US and Saudi Arabia being at one in planning to stir up an anti-government insurgency among minorities in Iran such as the Baluchis in the south east, something that has been done before but with limited impact.

Saudi leaders were overjoyed by the election of Trump whom they see as sympathetic to them and the Gulf leaders whom he will meet after he arrives in Saudi Arabia on 19 May, before going on to Israel. It is a chilling tribute to the authoritarian instincts of Trump that his first foreign visit as President should be to the last arbitrary monarchies left on earth and to a state where women are not even allowed to drive. On the question of confronting Iran, he is unlikely to be restrained by his Defence Secretary, James Mattis, and his National Security Adviser, HR McMaster, both former generals scarred by America’s war in Iraq, where they see Iran as the main enemy.

The White House is doubtless conscious that the one-time Trump has won universal plaudits in the US was when he fired missiles in Syria and dropped a big bomb in Afghanistan. Trump and Prince Mohammed may be very different in some respects, but both know that fighting foreign foes and waving the flag shores up crumbling support at home.


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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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