Volume 22 Issue 1, January 2018


For a person like me who landed at Jeddah International Airport in 1975 to join the editorial department of the first English language daily of Saudi Arabia ‘Arab News’, the change taking place soon after Mohammad bin Salman started calling shots is simply amazing - in fact unbelievable. Riyadh was then a very restricted city. No foreign carrier could land at Riyadh Airport and those who wanted to visit Riyadh had to board the national carrier Saudia. All the foreign embassies were located in Jeddah. The embassies were allowed to operate from Riyadh in 1984. Despite all these restrictions and a distinct way of life, Saudi Arabia was undoubtedly the most influential, powerful and wealthy Muslim country. King Faisal who ruled Saudi Arabia from 1964 to 1975 is credited with rescuing the country's finances and implementing a policy of modernization and reform. His main foreign policy themes were pan-Islamism, anti-Communism and pro-Palestinian nationalism. He successfully stabilized the kingdom's bureaucracy and his reign had significant popularity among the Saudis.

Though the appointment of Muhammad bin Salman as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is certainly an unexpected departure from old set principles of hereditary monarchy in Saudi Arabia, the selection of a young 32 years old prince with effective leadership traits and dynamic qualities that can make a real change, can definitely be termed as a far-sighted decision by King Salman bin Abdul Aziz - a visionary who can foresee the future and understand changing trend in global politics with a fairly good idea of the feelings and needs of the coming generation. There is no denying the fact that interaction between culture, gender and human rights and the critical importance of culturally sensitive approaches for effective development policies and programmes, requires a young and enterprising person at the helm of affairs. The latest changes in Saudi Arabia’s hitherto conservative society have been welcomed by both young and old. Even the women of the kingdom are happy and excited.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the 32-year-old is a wunderkind, who is determined to change the kingdom’s socio-economic landscape. His much applauded Vision 2030 is a grand plan and has been designed to establish the leadership of the Saudi economy and society in the 21st century. The plan envisages an economy with less dependence on oil and a broader industrial base, increasing the country’s non-oil revenue to $160-billion by 2020. On the other hand, Prince Muhammad’s $500-billion plan to create a business and industrial zone extending across its borders into Jordan and Egypt as a part of his efforts to reduce dependence on oil, is being termed as remarkable. The 26,500 square km zone, known as NEOM, will focus on industries including energy and water, biotechnology, food, advanced manufacturing and entertainment and will generate energy itself with the help of wind power and solar energy. The government, Public Investment Fund and local and international investors are expected to invest billions into the zone in the coming years. The crown prince says NEOM would be floated on the international financial markets alongside Aramco.

On the home front, Prince Muhammad’s anti-corruption crusade has caused seismic shifts in the Saudi establishment. The crown prince has rounded up highly influential figures in the kingdom, including princes, ministers and business magnates. These people include Al Waleed bin Talal, the billionaire prince known for his global investments as well as Saleh Kamel, a non-royal who headed one of the kingdom’s top business houses. On the other hand, women have been permitted to attend celebrations of Saudi Arabia’s Independence Day in a sports stadium. They will also be getting driving licences soon. These reforms in a country like Saudi Arabia are undoubtedly amazing but foreign observers note these changes with caution. According to them, at present Riyadh is at war with Yemen, while its other neighbours — Iraq to the northeast and Syria in the far north — are also unstable. Saudi Arabia’s rows with Qatar and Iran also show no sign of being resolved soon. In such a precarious regional scenario, the crown prince must handle internal reform carefully.

Bloomberg Businessweek writes that the 32-year-old prince, who’s known casually as MBS, has to be careful: If he moves too quickly, he could stir up dangerous opposition from those Saudis who fear his policies will lead to their marginalization. He will have to balance his impatient demands for change with the population’s willingness to adapt. It’s also not clear if the private sector in Saudi Arabia has the ability to become an engine of economic growth after decades of government largesse. This is a huge challenge for the country and has great implications for the world.

Apprehensions apart, the changes in Saudi Arabia have received a positive response globally. Thousands of articles have been published in English and other languages about the upheaval which has attracted thousands of business leaders to the Saudi capital. The Wall Street Journal carried a lengthy piece headlined “Saudi Prince pushes greater tolerance, unveils development project” in which it outlined Mohammad bin Salman’s aim to, as the newspaper put it, “push the country into the 21st century.” NBC News said the event offers glimpses of a “changing Saudi Arabia.” It noted that the Future Investment Initiative attracted a mixed crowd of some 3,000 business people. “Dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert’ — a reference to the annual World Economic Forum in Switzerland — the conference is the first of its kind,” the newspaper said. “This is not just buzz, not just symbolic,” it quoted Elliot Hentov, the head of research at State Street, one of America's oldest financial institution.

Though the defenders of the change are saying that this recolutionary upheaval was long overdue but it would be a bit early to predict the success of what Prince Mohammad has in mind as the conservative society of Saudi Arabia will take some time to get into the new mould.

The writer is a member of the staff.    
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