The Architect of Saudi Arabia’s ‘Shock Therapy’ Introduces Himself to the West

Faisal Al Yafai

As always with visits of world leaders, the real work is done behind the scenes. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was in London last week and will be in Washington for four days next week. In London, of course, there were smiles for the cameras in Downing Street with the British prime minister. But the real work was done behind closed doors, in meetings with political and defense officials.

The same will be true in Washington, which in terms of important relationships matters much more than the UK. There will be smiles with Donald Trump, but it will be the three days of meetings with officials away from the limelight that will really matter. The officials will be looking to understand Mohammed bin Salman, to get a sense of the man whose imprimatur can be felt on the most wide-ranging reforms of Saudi Arabia for decades. In an interview with the Washington Post just before he departed for Cairo, Prince Mohammed called his reforms a necessary shock for the kingdom. Now the political and military elite of the United States will get to meet the man behind those plans.

Some historical perspective is necessary to explain why the accession of Prince Mohammed as the next-in-line to the throne is so unusual. Succession in Saudi Arabia is a protracted affair and crown princes usually take up the office having served in some other capacity first.

King Salman, the current king, had served as governor of the capital Riyadh for nearly half a century before he was named crown prince. His predecessor, King Abdullah, was deputy prime minister for seven years before becoming crown prince. By contrast, Prince Mohammed had been Minister of Defense for only two years before becoming crown prince.

He is also young, just 32 years old, and in Saudi Arabia’s political system, that matters. He was the youngest crown prince for decades, with most predecessors taking over the office in their 50s or later. Yet his youth, while unusual among Saudi’s leadership, is not unusual among its citizens.

Saudi Arabia’s demography is the key to understanding the kingdom’s plans for the future. The country – and indeed the wider Gulf region – is one of the most youthful regions in the world; in Saudi, nearly 70 percent of the population are under the age of 30. Young Saudi Arabians – it bears repeating – are fully a majority and they are pushing against the restrictions imposed by the generation or two above them.

In Prince Mohammed, that generation feel they have someone who understands them. When, in October last year, a high-level investment conference gathered senior global figures in Riyadh – dubbed “Davos in the desert” – Prince Mohammed told them that Saudi Arabia had changed. “Seventy per cent of Saudis are under 30, and we won’t allow the 30 per cent to hold them back,” he said.

The changes Prince Mohammed is overseeing are vast, but what binds them is a belief that stabilizing the kingdom requires confronting what he considers to be malign forces. A high-profile campaign against corruption and moves to remove subsidies on water, fuel and electricity are attempts to staunch the flow of funds from the treasury. Bringing in outside investment, creating the mega-project industrial zone called Neom, and selling off a part of Saudi Aramco are all designed to bring in new sources of revenue and create jobs.

The most visible of these changes has been in foreign policy. If there is one word to characterize his influence on Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, it would be “muscular.” Prince Mohammed’s foreign policy is best described as attempting to tackle threats abroad before they begin to affect his own country. His influence can be seen in how forthright King Salman has been on foreign entanglements, after decades of the kingdom preferring to work behind the scenes. But it has not been easy: the bitter war in Yemen is at a stalemate; the dispute with Qatar, which many expected to be resolved within weeks, has stretched into months.

Where Prince Mohammed has been extraordinary, is in his posture toward Iran. Most of the Gulf states, and many Arab states beyond the Gulf, dislike Iran’s influence across the Middle East. But the prince was the first to openly threaten to destabilize Iran. “We will not wait until the fight is in Saudi Arabia,” he told the Saudi broadcaster MBC last year. “We will work on having the fight in Iran.” Such a policy, if implemented, would parallel much of what Iran has already sought to do in many Arab countries. And yet no Arab leader had so openly threatened to take the fight inside Iran’s borders.

All of these changes are watched closely in Washington and London. The war in Yemen has led to criticism of the UK government directly and, in the dispute with Qatar, Washington has struggled to face both ways, toward Doha and Riyadh. The economic reforms will have global repercussions and impact British and American companies. Changes to foreign policy and a confrontation with Iran will have an impact on the military and security establishments of the West and on their allies.

The ties between Saudi Arabia and London and Washington go back decades. Leaders may come and go, but the military and security establishments in both those countries have “institutional” memory. They like to know the people making the decisions and prefer to have known them for years. In Prince Mohammed, that process is now beginning. In the nine months that he has been crown prince, he has influenced an extraordinary shift in Saudi Arabia. Now the king in waiting is introducing himself beyond Saudi’s borders.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

AFP PHOTO / Tolga AKMEN