Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: Can prince refashion Saudi Arabia?

April 21, 2017

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Two years into his campaign as change agent in this conservative oil kingdom, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be gaining confidence and political clout to push his agenda of economic and social reform.

The young prince outlined his plans in a nearly 90-minute conversation Tuesday night at his office here. Aides said it was his first lengthy on-the-record interview in months. He offered detailed explanations about foreign policy, plans to privatize oil giant Saudi Aramco, strategy for investment in domestic industry, and liberalization of the entertainment sector despite opposition from some religious conservatives.

Mohammed bin Salman explained that the crucial requirement for reform is public willingness to change a traditional society. “The most concerning thing is if the Saudi people are not convinced. If the Saudi people are convinced, the sky is the limit,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Change seems increasingly desired in this young, restless country. A recent Saudi poll found that 85 percent of the public, if forced to choose, would support the government rather than religious authorities on policy matters, said Abdullah al-Hokail, the head of the government’s public opinion center. He added that 77 percent of those surveyed supported the government’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, and 82 percent favored music performances at public gatherings attended by men and women.

“MBS,” as the deputy crown prince is known, said he is “very optimistic” about President Trump. He described Trump as “a president who will bring America back to the right track” after Barack Obama, whom Saudi officials mistrusted. “Trump has not yet completed 100 days and he has restored all the alliances of the U.S. with its conventional allies.”

There’s less apparent political tension than a year ago, when many analysts saw a rivalry between Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is officially next in line for the throne but less prominent than his cousin. Whatever the succession proves to be, the deputy crown prince appears to be firmly in control of Saudi military strategy, foreign policy and economic planning.

The biggest economic change is the plan to privatize about 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, which MBS said will take place next year. This public offering would probably raise hundreds of billions of dollars and be the largest such sale in financial history. The exact size of the offering will depend on financial-market demand and the availability of good options for investing the proceeds, he told me. The rationale for selling a share of the kingdom’s oil treasure is to raise money to diversify the economy away from reliance on energy.

The entertainment industry is a proxy for the larger puzzle of how to unlock the Saudi economy. Changes have begun. A Japanese orchestra that included women performed onstage here this month, before a mixed audience of men and women. A “Comic Con” convention took place in Jeddah recently with young men and women dressing up as characters from “Supernatural” and other favorites. Comedy clubs feature sketch comedians (but no female stand-up comics, yet).

“We want to change the culture,” says Ahmed al-Khatib, a former investment banker who’s chairman of the entertainment authority. His target is to create six public entertainment options every weekend for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is “spreading happiness” in what has sometimes been a somber country.

The instigator of this attempt to reimagine the kingdom is the 31-year-old deputy crown prince. With his brash demeanor, he’s the opposite of the traditional Bedouin reserve of past Saudi leaders. Unlike so many Saudi princes, he wasn’t educated in the West, which may have preserved the raw, combative energy that is part of his appeal for young Saudis.

Mohammed bin Salman is careful when he talks about religious issues. So far, he has treated the religious authorities as allies against radicalism rather than cultural adversaries. He argues that the kingdom’s extreme religious conservatism is a relatively recent phenomenon in Saudi Arabia, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Mecca mosque by Sunni radicals later that year.

“I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” he said. “We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era,” he concluded. “That age is over.”

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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