Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known as MBS, is driving sweeping economic and social reforms in the kingdom after purging his political rivals.
– High-level arrests of rivals has cleared the path for MBS to succeed his father as king of Saudi Arabia
– MBS has begun to implement sweeping social and economic reforms in the conservative kingdom, exemplified by his ambitious ‘Vision 2030’ plan
– Reformers will contend with religious conservatives and elites who have benefitted from the current economic and social system
– The 31-year old will to deal with a host of issues and dangers to implement his bold reform agenda
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (often referred to by his moniker MBS) is pressing ahead with large scale domestic reforms in the deeply conservative kingdom. Recent decrees have allowed women to attend football matches and the reopening of movie theatres, highlighting the transformation taking place in the country. These social and economic changes come after a series of high-level arrests, which swept up rival contenders for the throne as well as one of the world’s richest men. More than 200 people were arrested in what was publicly described as a corruption clampdown, but has been understood as a purge of MBS’s political rivals to consolidate his status as the power behind the throne of his father, King Salman.
MBS is championing Vision 2030, a long-term economic development plan intrinsically linked with social reforms. Released in April 2016, it is an ambitious blueprint that seeks to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil (particularly as the world moves away from carbon-based energy), diversify the economy by seeking private sector investments and permitting the growth of entertainment and tourism industries. Along with unprecedented relaxation in regards to concerts and entertainment, the intertwined economic and social aspects of Vision 2030 are seen in the push to get more women into private sector work.
The plan also outlines the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund and the sale of shares from Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil conglomerate, often touted as the world’s most valuable company. By cutting subsidies and ballooning public services while increasing the tax-base, the government is trying to reduce a state-budget deficit resulting from low oil prices. However, recent negative economic growth demonstrates the dangers of austerity measures and its implications for youth unemployment and extremism.
YOUNG AND RECKLESS?
The relevance of Vision 2030 has never been higher with around two-thirds of the population under the age of 30 and 1.9 million Saudis set to enter the workforce over the next 10 years. This has generated an urgent need for job creation and retention. MBS has publicly spoken about comprehensive social reforms to stimulate the youth of the country. The government aims to establish more than 450 amateur clubs for culture and entertainment by 2020. In addition, MBS has been credited with the recent lifting of the driving ban on women and the scaling down of guardianship laws. MBS has deliberately positioned himself as a leader of the youth demographic, which while still is deeply religious, but is also future-facing in comparison to conservatives.
MBS also stirred strong reactions when he spoke about bringing “moderate Islam” back to Saudi Arabia and his pledge to destroy extremism. This renewed focus on youth engagement comes against a background of growing social tensions including an attempted terrorist attack in Mecca claimed by ISIS and worries that unemployment and marginalisation of young people could cause massive unrest.
To push through a drastically different vision of the Kingdom, the recent purges have begun unravelling the two intertwined traditional power structures in the country: hardline clericism and entrenched business elites. Vision 2030 could represent the breakdown of the alliance between Wahhabi clerics and the House of Saud, which has been at the heart of Saudi legitimacy since the 18th century. Clipping the wings of the once-feared religious police ties in directly to the push for a change to “Moderate Islam” and thus, hopes to change the international perception of the kingdom. Another key battleground is pushing substantial reforms in education, an area which is traditionally a stronghold of the religious clerics.
Jane Kinninmont from Chatham House notes that to secure buy-in for the dramatic economic changes the government wants to make, it will have to successfully renegotiate the social contract in Saudi Arabia. This includes potentially collaborating with the hardliners and securing the support of allies in the region such as the United Arab Emirates.
BOLD BUT DANGEROUS
Vision 2030 faces substantial internal and external challenges. Traditional Saudis sceptical of globalism will argue that the plan is more of a reflection of the Western economic model and that its social and economic impact on ordinary Saudi citizens is yet to be tested. Additionally, weighty obstacles such as decades of ingrained poor work ethic, an overburdened regulatory environment and a general reluctance to change remain. A failure to raise sufficient funds through the Saudi Aramco float and foreign direct investment poses another risk to MBS’s lofty plans.
The reformist government will be forced into a delicate balancing act. There is a high risk that if MBS pushes too hard, resistance from conservatives and remaining rivals will stifle reform efforts and undermine his legitimacy. Conversely, if reform-minded Saudis become disillusioned with the slow pace of reforms there could be internal backlash resulting in social unrest.
MBS’s challengers, who wish to preserve the status quo of conservatism, are likely to coalesce around a key figure from the purge, such as MBS’s cousin and former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Nayef was formerly the head of the powerful Saudi secret intelligence service and even if he does not attempt to push his way back to power, he is a reminder of the potential resistance arrayed against King Salman and MBS. Conversely, reactionary segments of Saudi society could fall away from the political process altogether. If the promised increase in meaningful employment does not materialise, the youth could become a tinderbox of extremism – the reverse of MSB’s goals.
The push to make Saudi Arabia ‘open-for-business’ has so far had a paradoxical reaction as the initial international business response to the purges has been caution and hesitation. The opaque arrests of key Saudi figures in finance and business could potentially mute investment and increase wariness over domestic instability and the state of the rule-of-law in the country with those detained reportedly paying up to $1 billion for their freedom.
MBS’s centralisation of power is bound to anger many influential groups including royal relatives, conservatives and businessmen. This leads to the questions of whether MBS can successfully navigate the turbulence his reforms create and how deep their impact will be on the Arab world’s largest economy, during a particularly precarious time in Middle Eastern politics.