Spearhead Analysis – 20.04.2018
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
This is a two-part series chronicling the rise of Mohammad Bin Salman, the young and ambitious Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and his grand plans for the future of his country.
On 21 June 2017, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) was appointed the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, as per a decree issued by his father, King Salman. The position had previously been held by his cousin, and the King’s nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, who was removed from his post of First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior. This marked the culmination of a years-long concentrated effort, by MBS, to exploit his father’s position as the monarch and secure his future as the most powerful man in the Middle East.
Ascent to Power
News of an impending power struggle and change in succession was first reported in 2015, when the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) released a two-page memo to various local news outlets and journalists. In it, they predicted that the then newly appointed King Salman, had grand designs for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East as a whole, and was envisioning himself as the de facto leader of the region. They theorized that there would be a definitive shift in the foreign and domestic policy of the oil rich state in the near future and that the “thus far cautious diplomatic stance of the elder leaders in the royal family is being replaced by an impulsive interventionist policy”, which they predicted would be led by King Salman’s ambitious son, MBS.
Even though the German government took no time in distancing themselves from this report, publicly rebuking the BND for attempting to sour the great relationship shared between the Saudi and German people, it wasn’t long before many of the agencies predictions started to come true. Shortly after assuming his mantle, King Salman appointed MBS as the new Defense minister and put him in charge of the economic policy of the Kingdom, including the future of its vast oil and gas reserves. The King also removed his brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz from his post as Crown Prince, replacing him with Muhammad bin Nayef, and later, MBS.
While rumors abound as to the precise motives behind the ouster of both Abdulaziz and Nayef, it is certain that MBS had a huge part to play in influencing his father’s decision. Regardless, it wasn’t long before the Prince found himself propelled to the upper echelons of power and become the face of the Saudi Arabia of the future.
One of the first initiatives taken up by MBS was the formation of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA). It was under the umbrella of CEDA that he would eventually go on to unveil a vision for 2030, that projected that Saudi Arabia would relinquish its dependence on oil and instead transform itself into a hub for commerce and technology. The plan highlighted the need for diversification and private enterprise, that could eventually help steer the Saudi economy in to the future.
The plan also called for the creation of a new city and economic zone, that would become the center of the emerging Saudi economy, and form the nucleus of its ambitious ideas for future sustainability. MBS also outlined his desire to bolster the tourism industry by appealing to a whole new demographic of people outside the Muslim world, that could be tempted by the same amenities that they enjoyed in other Middle Eastern states, like the U.A.E. One such initiative is the Red Sea Project, which aims to develop and build a series of luxury resorts and hotels on the, over 120-mile-long North-West coast of the country. This spectacular stretch of real estate is being touted as a safe haven for tourists, with limited restrictions on clothing, alcoholic beverages, and even visa requirements.
As MBS was planning on weaning the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil, he was also preparing to rid the workforce of its reliance on the large number of expatriates it employed. He realized that in order to be truly accepted as a modern and progressive economy, and to convince locals to take a greater role in the Saudi workforce, he would first have to drastically improve the situation of women in the country. As a result, several laws were passed that were aimed at liberating the women of Saudi Arabia from the years of oppression forced on them by the state.
One of the first such changes came when, back in 2015, Saudi women were allowed to stand for elections and vote for the first time in their lives. Twenty women received the honor of becoming the first female elected officials in the Kingdoms history, with Sarah Al-Suhaimi going one further by becoming the first female head of the Saudi Arabian stock exchange. More recently, women have finally been granted the license to drive, without the need for a male guardian present with them at all times, while they have also been permitted to go to sporting events as well, even though they would still have to make do with segregated seating arrangements.
In February 2018, King Salman, under the influence of MBS, initiated a huge shakeup of his country’s armed and security forces. Not only were several high ranking officers removed from their positions, but for the first time ever, women were given the choice of joining the military or the police, provided that they had the permission of a male guardian first.
Reiterating his desire to further the cause of Saudi women, MBS also spoke out against the head scarf or Abaya that all women are required to wear at all times. “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men. This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear”. He also went on to talk about the “extremists” who forbid mixing between the two sexes and who are “unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace”.
Courting the West
In March, earlier this year, MBS announced his plans to embark on a tour of several major western powers, starting with the US. In a trip that lasted over two weeks, the Crown Prince met with a vast array of personalities, including politicians, tech magnates, businessmen and even Hollywood actors. The tour was designed to portray a progressive and reformed side of Saudi Arabia, one that was consistent with the changing political landscape around the world. It was also designed to strengthen the previously frayed relationship between the US and to reinforce trade ties, with MBS signing deals worth almost half a trillion dollars, including the biggest arms deal in US history.
Unlike previous state visits made by Saudi diplomats or monarchs, this tour not only focused on matters of trade and politics, but was primarily aimed at improving the image of Saudi Arabiia and the Crown Prince around the world, especially in the US. As a result, MBS made certain that he would be interacting with people that had not only achieved personal fame, but also enjoyed a considerable standing in the community, which they could utilize to inform opinions, like former Presidents, Bush and Clinton, as well as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and even Oprah Winfrey. He also gave several interviews to leading newspapers, magazines and television networks, in which he reiterated the changing prospects in his country, as well as the new direction he envisioned for its future.
One of the biggest talking points from his visit to the US came in an interview where, in an answer to a question, he conceded that the people of Israel deserved to have their own nation. “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation” and that “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land”. He further went on to say that Saudi Arabia had only had “religious concerns about the fate of the Holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people” and that “we don’t have any objection against any other people”. However, he did warn that to find a solution to this problem would require a “peace agreement” in order to ensure stability and safety for all parties involved.
By publicly acknowledging the Israeli people’s right to have their own nation, he became the first prominent Arab leader to move away from the decades old tradition of resolutely opposing the legitimacy of the state of Israel, and opened the door for a resolution to the conflict, sometime in the future. He also reinforced his image as the liberal and revolutionary young Prince, whose main purpose is to integrate 21st century ideals into Saudi culture, and to liberate the country from its oppressive past.
However, while it seems Saudi Arabia is drastically changing itself to better reflect the shifting political and social landscape around the globe, behind all this progress, its business as usual.