It seems that the right leader has emerged at the right time and in the right place. Fortunately for Saudi Arabia, in the right position as well.
On 24 October, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, made several comments at an investment conference to launch a $500 billion economic zone project, and separately in an interview with Guardian, that should change the kingdom in an historic way.
He said: “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia.”
“We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it….We are a G20 country. One of the biggest world economies. We are in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world. So this is what we are trying to do here. And we hope we get support from everyone,” he added.
For good measure, he further noted: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70 per cent of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately”. (A disclaimer must be made here, to cater to the realities of the fake news era. These direct quotes of the prince as they were published in mainstream media sites, and their translations are assumed to be accurate).
It is not by an accident that these comments were made at and around the launch of NEOM, a $500 billion economic zone development project that will encompass parts of the territories of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. It will be financed by Riyadh. NEOM stands for Neo Mostaqbal (or New Future, combining Latin and Arabic). The symbolism is not to be missed.
Crown Prince Mohammed, referred to in the kingdom as MBS, is said to be quite a popular figure among Saudi youth, and he is regarded as the “favourite son” of the king. He has been castigated, in the Western media, as a “hothead” and as the man responsible for the Saudi military involvement in Yemen. It would also be fair to say that the kingdom itself has been receiving a lot of unfavourable media attention in recent years – and not all of it is undeserved.
The Saudi leadership has rarely seemed to be bothered by such perceptions, and the people even less so. But the descendants of Ibn Saud have not survived and thrived for so long by ignoring ground realities. Time and again, they have demonstrated a fine sense of the geo-political balance.
The world around Saudi Arabia has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. The kingdom’s geo-strategic space has become increasingly constrained owing to a combination of factors: one, low oil prices due to a variety of factors beyond Saudi control; two, the spread of Islamic extremism; three, the partly resultant growth of a strain of populist nationalism across much of the West as well as in the East; four, rapid global advances in technologies and their absorption, and perhaps most directly important; and five, the fraying of its traditional alliances with the key Western powers into something less confident and less reliable.
Seen in this context, the statement of Crown Prince Mohammed is an historic departure from the past in general, and the recent past in particular. Put simply, his comments boil down to this: (a) Saudi Arabia is going to change, and change dramatically from the kingdom we have known it to be for the last 30 years, at least; (b) the extremism that is in the kingdom, and emanating from it, will be “destroyed now and immediately” – in short, no time will be wasted, and (c) the emphasis is going be on economic growth and socio-economic transformation on convergent tracks.
The world must assume that the Crown Prince means what he says, and that he believes he has the wherewithal to see it through. The question then, for the world, is one of assessment: can MBS execute as well as he has articulated? Here are some near certainties:
- There will be resistance to these objectives. That, in turn, means there will be visible internal turbulence in the near term within the royal family, in addition to the invisible (to the rest of the world) flux that has been affecting the House of Saud in recent years. The nature and degree of turbulence will determine whether Crown Prince Mohammed will be able to carry his agenda forward and even whether he will succeed King Salman.
- MBS will get all the support he needs externally. The European powers, the US and in some manner Russia have clearly indicated support for his objectives, and they had also demonstrated clear support for his appointment as Crown Prince. The military offensive in Yemen, now well past its expiry date, and bloodier than the Rohingya crisis, will get zero traction in global human rights councils (lip service will remain just enough to suggest opprobrium, but not enough to enforce anything meaningful).
- The Crown Prince has, and will continue to get, considerable internal support, bolstered by a better public image than Saudi royals have generally enjoyed. For instance, among the poorer sections of the Saudi population (yes, they exist) and the youth, his calibrated populism is effective – if the support he receives on social media is any indicator. For all intents and purposes, in the Saudi context, he seems to have “the people” on his side.
- A slow and steady whittling down of the Saudi-promoted extremism infrastructure (internally and export quality) can be expected. This will be a substantial challenge, indeed perhaps the most stressful of the lot. But the Crown Prince’s comments reflect a determination that has not quite been seen in the past from the Saudi leadership.
In this writer’s view, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will succeed in this endeavour. He will see off the challenges, and steward his agenda through to an end which will mean the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a vastly different place than it is today. He is still young, in his early 30s, and he has the time. Provided there are no game-changing developments related to health or mortality, the world must prepare for a new kind of Saudi Arabia. Much of the globe will welcome this. The Islamic World will, in fact, breathe a collective (and for now hidden) sigh of relief.
The kingdom itself has no choice. If it does not change from inside, it will be changed from outside. So it appears that, as it happens in all countries of significance from time to time, the right leader has emerged at the right time and in the right place. Fortunately for Saudi Arabia, in the right position as well.