A smooth transition in Saudi Arabia
This is a time of momentous change in Saudi Arabia. In elevating 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to crown prince, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud pressed reset on the power equation in the kingdom. The country has demonstrated its capacity to manage an orderly and smooth leadership transition and perhaps balance the timeworn ways of the past with a beckoning future that will not be denied.
This cannot but enthuse Saudi Arabia’s overwhelmingly young population, 70% of which is under the age of 35. As Saudi academic and newspaper columnist Khaled Batarfi told the Associated Press: “The country needs new blood and a new generation because the changes needed are big.”
Crown Prince Mohammed is expected to forge ahead with his agenda of domestic reform. He has something of a head start in this regard. As deputy crown prince, an appointment that came within three months of his father succeeding King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the throne in January 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed demonstrated his commitment to reform.
He was the key architect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a blueprint for socio-economic transformation that would wean the country’s economy off its dependence on oil, shift the focus from big government spending, reduce unemployment and improve overall economic efficiency. He has led the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, the country’s supreme economic body; supervised Saudi Arabia’s top sovereign wealth fund; and has taken a more direct role than usual among Saudi royals in the operation of the energy industry.
Another aspect of Saudi Arabia’s modernisation is the promotion of cultural diversity and openness as well as religious moderation, both at home and beyond. The fight against ideological extremism will be a key goal of Saudi leadership, especially after the Riyadh summit, which launched an ambitious regional and global anti-radicalisation drive.
At a time of great challenges in the region and beyond, the elevation of Crown Prince Mohammed confirms the emergence of a new Saudi governing style. One that is not averse to taking risks to achieve strategic objectives.
It helps that the new crown prince is perceived as being in tune with Washington. He has a good working relationship with US President Donald Trump, having first met him at the White House in March and then in Riyadh in May. Good communication and, even better, deep inter-personal links, can only help US-Saudi, and the wider US-Arab relationship as the region confronts a wide variety of issues fraught with danger.
At the top of such issues is Iran’s continuing defiance and regional aggressiveness. In a remarkably abrasive display of mean-spiritedness, Tehran described Crown Prince Mohammed’s appointment as crown prince as a “soft coup.” Among Riyadh’s priorities must be the containment of Iran as it seeks to expand Tehran’s destabilising influence in the region through proxies in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Another urgent task is management of the Qatar crisis. Doha must agree to mend its ways, which was the reason the situation became a crisis in the first place.
A full and testing agenda awaits Saudi Arabia’s leaders. The successful transition at the very top augurs well for its capacity to meet the challenges ahead.