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WASHINGTON AND THE WORLDSaudi Arabia’s Populist King in WaitingWashington is underestimating the scale of Mohamed bin Salman’s ambition.
By MISHAAL AL GERGAWI November 22, 2017
Mishaal Al Gergawi is co-director of emerge85, a lab exploring change in the emerging world and its global impact. He tweets at @algergawi.
Last month in Saudi Arabia, 11 princes along with a number of current and former government officials were arrested by a newly announced anti-corruption committee headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In recent interviews, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has confirmed that 208 people have been arrested, of which seven have been released, and $100 billion has been accounted for as stolen from the Saudi Treasury. He has also noted the government’s offer of leniency: Return the funds or risk full prosecution. The arrests have been described as unprecedented. Supporters of the crown prince are calling the move an overdue corruption purge, while critics see it as a consolidation power play. In fact, the developments are bigger than both readings.
Crown Prince Mohammed, who is also known as MBS, isn’t just trying to clean house or shore up his internal position. He’s attempting nothing less than the complete reboot of Saudi Arabia’s government and society. MBS has laid out the grand scale of his ambitions in his Saudi Vision 2030
, a plan that broadly calls for Saudi Arabia to become a more forceful regional power that is economically diversified and a member of the trillion-dollar GDP club, while growing more socially tolerant, culturally creative and reconciled with the world. And he believes he needs full authority to pull off this audacious effort.
Present-day Saudi Arabia is actually the third iteration of the Saudi state. The first Saudi state was founded in 1744 and lasted until 1818, when it was destroyed by Ottoman and Egyptian forces. The second state was founded six years later by the grandson of the first state’s founder. That state, which was much smaller and never reached the borders of Iraq or the shores of the Red Sea, was consumed by infighting in 1891. Its last ruler was Abdulrahman bin Faisal. His son, King Abdulaziz — who is also MBS’s grandfather — founded the third and present-day Saudi state in 1932 after 30 years of battles and negotiations across Saudi Arabia.
MBS wants to pre-empt a repetition of the downfall of the earlier states due to familial infighting, internal malaise, external frailty and failure to modernize. King Abdulaziz’s feat of uniting the country in 1932 was remarkable and, in hindsight, improbable considering the circumstances of his family’s escape when the second Saudi state fell—Abdulrahman bin Faisal, defeated in battle, was forced to flee to Kuwait—and the limited resources he had to reclaim his father’s lost rule. Mindful of this history, instead of waiting for today’s Saudi state to weaken and fall, MBS is trying to save the country before it collapses.
In practice, this means that MBS seems to be taking on every looming problem at once, in a whirlwind of activity that is dizzying to a society accustomed to inchwise change. At home, he has cracked down on political Islamists, called for the curbing of extremism in school curricula, announced that women will be allowed to drive, lifted a ban on public music concerts and is expected to open cinemas across the kingdom in 2018. He has also very aggressively pursued plans to partially privatize Aramco, the kingdom’s national oil company and crown jewel. In foreign policy, MBS launched Saudi Arabia’s first major foreign military campaign in decades in Yemen; is leading efforts by several Gulf states to cut ties with Qatar, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council that has often bucked Saudi policy; turned the Saudi Public Investment Fund into an active vehicle that has invested in Uber and Softbank’s $100 billion vision fund; and launched free economic zones on the Red Sea. These moves are the outcome in one form or another of Vision 2030.
This is not merely a set of ambitious policies: It’s a rebirth of Saudi Arabia. The 2030 date isn’t a transformation mission for the world’s most important energy supplier and custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, it’s a countdown for Saudi Arabia to be reborn in new colors. MBS intends to define those colors as locally stable, globally relevant, economically diversified, socially reconciled with global norms, and, of course, ruled over by him.
By GLENN FRANKEL
When the young crown prince rose to power, Saudi social media quickly noted his uncanny resemblance to his grandfather, King Abdulaziz. As crown prince, MBS has already demonstrated that those comparisons extend beyond the physical to actions. MBS is dismantling the third Saudi state, which he believes must be remade according to his vision and leadership or risk falling apart due to internal malaise and external irrelevance. By 2030, MBS intends to have created the fourth Saudi state. From the role of women and religion to the speed of decision-making, oil and economic diversification, and foreign policy, he will want the country to resemble little of what we see in Saudi Arabia today.
Last month, at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, MBS said he wanted Saudi Arabia to return to a pre-1979 era—a reference to the year Saudi Arabia changed—and that the next 30 years cannot be like the previous 30. Conventional wisdom within the Gulf suggests that 1979’s trifecta of the Iranian Revolution, the siege of Mecca and the invasion of Afghanistan forced Saudi Arabia to embrace a much more conservative interpretation of Islam known as the “Sahwa” (“Awakening”). However, his ambition isn’t simply to return to a pre-1979 Saudi Arabia but to enter the 21st century via a historical edit: an alternate future in which the past three decades never happened.
Through all the changes MBS is pursuing, he wishes to leave nothing but himself and his ideas to connect the third and fourth Saudi states. He wants to be a portal between the two worlds. He intends to be the arbiter of what from the past can continue into the future. Modern Saudi Arabia has been built on two main pillars: consensus between the royal family and the religious establishment, and attentiveness to the merchant class and the people. In MBS’ Saudi Arabia there will also be two pillars: him and the people. He is the populist king in waiting: politically conservative, economically neoliberal and socially progressive.
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