Profile of a Prince: Promise and Peril in Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030
Saudi Arabia and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are beset on all sides by problems. Many of the current challenges are of the Crown Prince’s own making. His international reputation is stained by the murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Arguably, the Kingdom’s standing, at least in the West, is at the lowest point since September 11, 2001, when 15 of the 19 hijackers that destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands were Saudi nationals.
The U.S. Congress is increasingly hostile, although President Donald Trump continues to voice support for the Crown Prince. Mohammed bin Salman’s war in Yemen is stalemated and growing civilian casualties there are another source of tension with many Western countries he needs for investment in the Kingdom. His feud with Turkey grows deeper and his cold war with Iran has failed to halt its rising influence across the Middle East.
At home his Vision 2030 plan to create a vibrant private sector that can wean the Kingdom off its overwhelming dependence on oil revenue is stalled. Over the past two years, consumer spending has tanked as higher prices for gasoline, water and electricity caused citizens to nervously hold on to their sparse pocketbooks. The private sector, long dependent on cheap foreign labor—9 of 10 workers in the private sector are foreigners—has seen an exodus of some 1.1 million expatriate laborers over the past two years.The exodus has further drained consumer spending from the Saudi economy. As a result, the private sector isn’t leading but loudly calling for a lifeline.
In response, the Crown Prince is doing what Saudi governments have always done in the face of citizens’ grumbling—raising government spending. Despite a pledge to wean citizens off government handouts, the 2019 Saudi budget is the largest in history.Higher oil prices, now around $67 a barrel, have given the government the capability to raise spending without wrecking its pledge to balance the budget by 2023. That oil price is expected to hold for at least the first half of 2019 because U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela are cutting their oil exports and Saudi Arabia and Russia have agreed voluntarily to curb their production to prop up prices.
As transformation enters its fourth year, the positive changes aren’t economic and surely not political. The Crown Prince has imposed a near total muzzle on any citizen comment, let alone criticism. Hundreds of high-profile Saudis are locked up, many of them denounced as traitors. Hundreds, possibly more, are barred from leaving the Kingdom. Still others have quietly left with no plans to return, creating the rudiments of an overseas Saudi dissident community. “We were hoping for a more balanced society, more rights,” says a Saudi rights activist who has come under government pressure. “Instead what has happened is more repression, just with a different ideology.”
The government has sought to distract Saudis from both economic and political woes by opening up a wide variety of previously forbidden entertainment. That effort is accelerating. In addition to cinema, the Kingdom has offered car races, an international golf tournament and increasingly daring concert venues. In February, Mariah Carey, wearing a parade of formfitting dresses, performed before a raucous Jeddah crowd that paid from $70 to $500 for a ticket. (Such high-priced entertainment is beyond the means of most Saudis: The majority of Saudis work for the government and the average government salary is about $3,000 a month (10,894 Saudi Riyals).
While elite Saudis enjoy the new entertainment, it is sparking resentment among those who can’t afford it. And the Kingdom’s religious conservatives bitterly oppose such frivolity as distracting from devotion to Allah—but largely only behind closed doors. Still, the government seems confident enough of its control over the religious establishment that it is allowing its Potemkin parliament, the Majlis Ash Shura, comprised of 150 people appointed by the King, to debate the issue of requiring shops to close multiple times a day for 45 minutes to observe Muslim prayer times.In a country where the religious police until three years ago stalked the streets with sticks to whip those who dared dally at locking their shop doors for prayer, formally ending this practice would clearly mark one more step on the Crown Prince’s proclaimed road to a moderate, modernized Saudi Arabia.
Already in the past year more and more shops and restaurants are only pretending to observe the prayer stricture. Front doors are locked at the call to prayer but customers wishing to enter or exit may usually do so through a rear door. With religious police banned from arresting citizens, old rules increasingly are ignored.
This report, based on three prolonged trips to the Kingdom over the past year, the most recent in January 2019, will take a deep look at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who dominates every aspect of foreign and domestic policy, to try to answer what lies behind his Mona Lisa smile. It will also examine the Kingdom’s social progress, its economic stagnation and its growing political repression. Readers will have to evaluate for themselves whether the social progress he has offered Saudis in general—and women in particular—offset his autocratic tactics at home and abroad.