- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s power behind the throne just took a big step into the spotlight.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the ambitious, impatient 30-year-old son of King Salman, last week was the public face for the launch of “Saudi Vision 2030,” a long-term blueprint designed to steer the kingdom’s economy through a brave new world of falling oil prices and rising competition.

The plan marked just the latest move by the prince to put his stamp on the country’s economic, diplomatic and strategic agenda, emerging as the royal to watch as the Saudi ruling family tries to deal with a host of domestic and international challenges, including a newly empowered Iran and a newly skeptical Washington.

Regional analysts and American intelligence sources say the young heir has already wielded outsize influence over the kingdom’s secretive policy-making machine, from pushing through the House of Saud’s recent plan to begin privatizing state oil assets to spearheading the proxy war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

“Prince bin Salman is now the main driver of economic policy and foreign military policy in the kingdom,” said F. Gregory Gause, who heads the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Eighty-year-old King Salman, who came to power in January 2015, “obviously trusts his young son to take up the reins on policy matters,” Mr. Gause said. “There is some disquiet in the family about this concentration of power in the hands of just one prince, and one that is young and has not had much experience. But there are no overt signs of efforts to block [him] from within the family.”

Others say Prince Salman, whose official titles now include those of second deputy prime minister and minister of defense, is being groomed to jump ahead of a host of cousins and older brothers as the heir apparent to the throne in Riyadh.

“Mohammed bin Salman is the guy,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, an analyst on Saudi politics at the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington. “In Saudi Arabia the king is basically equivalent to God, and so the absolute power that the king has is either being usurped right now or given to his favored son.”

It’s not just foreign and economic policy where the prince’s vision is at work. Mr. Al-Ahmed also called the prince a “driving force” behind a growing crackdown on political dissent, where the number of state-sponsored beheadings has more than doubled since 2014.

Prince Salman’s cousin, 59-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, oversees internal security as the nation’s interior minister and is technically first in line to the throne. But Mr. Al-Ahmed argued that the older prince is “out of touch and disinterested.”

“He’s being taken over by this young, reckless cousin,” the analyst said, adding that the crown prince has recently become the subject of gossipy ridicule online where “people are mocking him, of course under assumed names.”

His unprecedentedly swift rise has also raised questions about the qualifications of Prince Salman, who reportedly holds a bachelor’s degree in law from King Saud University and whose resume includes a brief tenure — during his 20s — as the governor of Riyadh Province.

While speculation abounds, the prince has drawn attention for his apparent passion for preserving Saudi dominance as the region’s most influential and wealthiest Sunni power in the face of a rising challenge from the region’s main Shiite power, Iran.

A profile by The Economist magazine in January said Prince Salman was already becoming known for espousing the view that “Saudi Arabia has no choice but to stop Iran from trying to carve out a new Persian empire.”

Other sources have tied him to the royal family’s controversial decision in January to execute Nimr al-Nimr, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Saudi Arabia, who was put to death alongside 46 others accused by Riyadh of terrorism and sedition. That decision infuriated Tehran and caused consternation in Washington, where many say Saudi Arabia is unduly fanning tensions as a time of rising conflict in the region.

A ‘pro-U.S.’ operator?

Despite his provocations toward Shiites and Iran, the young prince is believed to be taking great care to avoid any serious disruption to the current status quo of U.S.-Saudi relations.

The prince is “very pro-U.S.,” said Mr. Al-Ahmed, who downplayed the idea that tensions have risen between Washington and Riyadh in the wake of the nuclear accord that the Obama administration and other world powers pushed through with Iran last summer.

The Saudi royal family was widely seen to have snubbed President Obama this month when King Salman was not on hand personally to greet him on his arrival at the airport in Riyadh. The American president had some sharp words to say about the value of the U.S.-Saudi alliance in an interview with The Atlantic magazine before he arrived.

But Mr. Al-Ahmed, a longtime critic of the regime, said there is simply “a lot of exaggeration around the idea that there is a problem between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.”

“The fact is that the United States continues to support the Saudi war in Yemen as a silent partner and continues to take Saudi positions in the region vis-a-vis Iran,” he said. “U.S. officials talk about the Iranian involvement in terrorism, but not the Saudi involvement.”

But the clearest sign of the prince’s broad and growing influence may have come in his prominent role in the rollout of an ambitious and controversial economic reform package that made international headlines from Riyadh.

In his first appearance before international reporters, the prince claimed that the kingdom’s “addiction” to oil must be broken and that the nation’s economy re-engineered to make it into a global investment power.

At the heart of his “Vision 2030” is a plan to partially privatize Aramco, the storied state oil company, which Prince Mohammed said would be transformed into an energy company that he expected to be valued at $2 trillion to $3 trillion, with roughly 5 percent listed on the stock market.

His comments seemed crafted to appeal to younger Saudis at a time when the drop in global oil prices over the past two years has created fear of widespread unemployment and an end to the once-vast social program spending by Riyadh.

“We will not allow our country ever to be at the mercy of commodity price volatility or external markets,” Prince Mohammed said at a Riyadh palace, where foreign reporters had been invited to listen.

Economic vision or money grab?

According to the Reuters news agency, the prince said the kingdom’s goal is to increase non-oil revenue to some $160 billion by 2020 and $267 billion by 2030 — a sixfold jump from the relatively stagnant $43.6 billion that came from non-oil revenues last year.

But beyond his comments on Aramco, the prince provided few details on how the goal will be achieved.

But the prince’s blueprint will also include changes to the social structure of the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom, pushing for women to have a bigger economic role and by offering improved status to resident expatriates.

His announcements created such buzz among Saudis that hashtags associated with it were the top two trending on Twitter on last Monday, according to Reuters, which noted that the nation has the highest rate of social media use in the Middle East.

However, there was also no shortage of skepticism toward the young prince’s claims.

Sidar Global Advisors, a political risk and strategic advisory firm based in Washington, said in an analysis last week that the prince’s “Vision” is “blurry.”

The agenda “lacks details on key issues such as education reform and revenue generation from taxes,” the analysis said. “There is also no indication of democratization and changes to the absolute monarchy, which [remain] a major challenge for modernization and opening.”

The firm went on to assert that while Prince Salman’s plan for partially privatizing Aramco may well “increase transparency in the Saudi oil sector,” the result might “reveal significant corruption within Aramco.”

Ali al-Nasser, fund manager for the London-based Duet Group, said in a note to investors that the big question is whether the prince and his team have the ability to make his vision a reality.

“The question is now again about execution,” Mr. al-Nasser wrote. The prince “said all of the right things, it is a matter of putting it all to work, and locally there is strong support for his agenda.”

Mr. Al-Ahmed contended the real motivation behind the plan was self-preservation, with the prince seeking a way for the Saudi royal family to preserve its vast wealth should it lose power during the coming years.

“Right now, the ruling family is getting bigger and bigger, and they need to grab their share of the economic root in the country by converting it into the private property of the House of Saud,” Mr. Al-Ahmed added. “That’s why I think the Aramco decision was made, so they can get more personal revenues.”

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