Can the Saudi crown prince pull off his ambitious project against all odds?
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz gave himself a mission shortly after being named successor to the Saudi throne. The crown prince wants to modernise Saudi Arabia, no small task in a country where culture and tradition play important roles in people’s lives.
The 32-year-old crown prince is running the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom, where King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, his ailing 82-year-old father, appears to have taken a back seat. Crown Prince Mohammed’s intention is to bring the desert kingdom more in line with the modern world while retaining local customs and traditions.
The crown prince wants to introduce social reforms, curb religious extremism, give the country’s women equal rights, make Saudi Arabia more competitive in international business markets, prepare the country for the day when oil runs out and reshape it to become a key player in the next century.
A tall order? Yes, but that’s not all.
Crown Prince Mohammed also wants to address extremely sensitive issues, such as allowing Saudi women to travel alone without a male relative. This carries enormous repercussions in Saudi Arabia where traditionalists could argue that fathers and husbands stand to lose the control they have wielded over the family.
It is said that all change brings conflict. Sometimes that conflict comes with positive fallout. Other times the conflict carries negative repercussions. Regardless of which side the crown prince rules on, he will be upsetting very prominent people, including members of powerful families and traditionally supportive neighbours.
If Crown Prince Mohammed gets all these reforms passed without too much delay and if Saudi Arabia becomes the shining light of the Arab world, encouraging the rest of it to follow its lead, he could rise to iconic stature in a region without many leaders.
The crown prince is aware that, to get ahead in the business and political fields, the support of the United States is necessary. To that end he embarked upon a 2-week trek across the United States, going from Washington to New York and to the West Coast. A news release from the Saudi Embassy in Washington stated that Crown Prince Mohammed wanted to inform the American public that his country supports the United States.
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia were severely strained following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks were Saudi, as was al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The crown prince wants to inform Americans about his plans for the future. He hopes he can change the image that many Americans have of his country.
All the changes the crown prince wants to bring about and the enemies he will create will seem tame when compared to the threats he is likely to receive from some of the world’s most dangerous quarters.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s agenda is at odds with that of Iran’s mullah-led regime, which is directly involved in Syria and is perceived as a source of direct threats by the Gulf region; Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement that operates mainly in the Gaza Strip; Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shia movement in Lebanon; al-Qaeda; and the Islamic State. Yemen’s Houthis, another Iran proxy, with whom Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a real war, can be included in that list.
Those are all formidable enemies to have. Putting aside that, threats and all, the crown prince realises he needs to do far more. Since going to the United States, he has been on an unprecedented charm offensive. Political analysts who follow Saudi Arabia say Crown Prince Mohammed is working to rebrand Saudi Arabia as a prime site for investments and a source of moderation.
Indeed, the crown prince is projecting a new style of governing, moving away from the stagnation that marked Saudi Arabia for so long.
Crown Prince Mohammed appears to be direct and to the point and is not shying away from accusing those who he feels threaten his country and naming them publicly, as is the case with Iran.
While it may be refreshing to see that kind of openness in governance, it comes with the condition of possible negative reactions from Iran, whose leader the crown prince described as more dangerous than Hitler.
The crown prince is attempting more than just rebranding Saudi Arabia but is projecting a style of government for the region. As Riyadh prepares to host the Arab summit, Crown Prince Mohammed is preparing more than the habitual lip service to unavoidable issues in which host countries usually engage. Indeed, this crown prince is hinting that Saudi Arabia is ready to lead the region towards a sustainable peace in the Middle East.
The crux of the matter will be a fair settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It remains to be seen if US President Donald Trump can deliver on his long-promised “deal of the century.” Stay tuned.