Updated: May 12, 2018
The last two years have seen the meteoric rise of Mohammad Bin Salman both in Saudi Arabia and Internationally. While the west calls the young 32 year old prince "MBS", in Saudi Arabia he's known as Mr. Everything, a nickname that gives us a glimpse of how this young prince is the most powerful man in the Middle East.
The wheels for this transformation were set in motion when his father assumed the throne in 2015. King Salman worked to strengthen the authority of his son and today the prince leads a long list of institutions and government positions that have allowed him a swift consolidation of power, lending him his nickname. Crown Prince Bin Salman hopes to position himself as a reformer of the Saudi economy, creating a sustainable non-oil sector.
He unveiled an ambitious plan called vision 2030 to transform the kingdom into an advanced industrial power but for this to work he must redesign Saudi Arabia from the ground up.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has been shaped by the royal rivalries and major family clans were given certain positions or institutions to govern which created an informal system of checks and balances that prevented any single royal faction from dominating the country. The royals derived their legitimacy from the religious establishment of the Wahhabi Clerics and in turn allowed them to enforce their version of Islamic law in the Kingdom. While this system has allowed Saudi Arabia to be the most stable country in the Middle East, the drop in Oil prices has dealt a massive blow to the traditional structure and lifestyle of those in power. To that end, authorities in Saudi Arabia detained hundreds of royal family members, government officials and businessmen in a purge coinciding with a Royal Decree that placed Crown Prince bin Salman at the helm of a new anti-corruption committee. By using populist measures such as an anti-corruption crackdown the crown prince has weakened the political opposition and strengthened his popular approval.
In addition to generating funds to implement economic reforms, bin Salman must also boost labour productivity by introducing drastic social changes. This includes the emancipation of women and their participation in the workforce and public life. These changes are necessary for any modern economy but they are also incompatible with the conservative Wahhabi teachings. However, considering the fact that the current demographics show about 70% of the population to be below the age of 30, it is not entirely wrong to assume that any social changes that appeases the youth could grant him the legitimacy that he lost through the purge. Already, bin Salman is granting Saudi women more rights than they have had in the past few decades, from being able to drive to having access to entertainment in the form of concerts and movie theatres, these are massive changes that make it easier for women to enter the workforce. This is quite significant as the new vision 2030 drives to see double the jobs in the private sector while trying to change Saudi Arabia's ultraconservative image to attract foreign investors.
Vision 2030 is a move from the traditional oil-fuelled public sector to a private sector led economy. It includes the public listing of the state oil company (Aramco) which is poised to be the world's biggest IPO generating up to 2 trillion US dollars, enough money to fund bin Salman's mega city dreams. Saudi Arabia announced plans to construct a new mega city called the Neom project in the north-western corner of the country by the Gulf of Aqaba which will cost about 500 billion dollars and seeks to link Egypt and Jordan. To top things off, the plan is to integrate disruptive technologies and innovations into the city, for instance public transportation in the city will be run by autonomous vehicles, robots will handle repetitive tasks and power will be derived from solar and wind energy.
But before we crown him as the Price of Progress, we need to look carefully at the increased restrictions on freedom of speech and the harsh crackdown on dissent that allows bin Salman to operate freely from his critics. Neither the thinly veiled purge to consolidate power, nor the social reforms aimed at strengthening his popular approval can hide the fact that these changes come in response to changing trends in energy security. Bin Salman's push for a more assertive role in the region is a cause for concern for many, especially the kingdom's long-time rival, Iran. As defence minister, he launched a war on Yemeni Rebels supported by Iran which has created one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet with no end in sight. Saudi Arabia was also instrumental in the boycott of Qatar, leading to a diplomatic crisis and Saudi- US relations have added yet another wheel of unpredictability in the region. Bin Salman was among the first leaders to visit a newly elected Donald Trump and this relation was cemented when the latter paid his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia to sign a 110 Billion dollar arms deal.
Tensions in the Middle East are at an all time high and under the circumstances the world needs a crown prince of change focused on economic diversification and social liberalization rather than adventurous foreign policy. Saudi Arabia can be the shining beacon leading the Middle East to a progressive future forward economy or it could be the swamp of conflicting ideologies that stunt the growth of the region as a whole. Either way, Crown prince Bin Salman is one person the world should pay keen attention to.