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King Salman implements reform in Saudi Arabia

The monarch has moved quickly with senior appointments designed to see off threats - at home and abroad - to the Kingdom’s stability

In what must have been one of the last storms of late spring before the raw heat of summer takes hold the rain deposited large spots of sand on the windscreen. The geometric high-rise skyline of the capital was, for once, shadowless. As we approached the city the rainfall intensified, and warning signs flashed red by the side of the highway: “Slow Down. Slippery Road”.

Saudis like to drive fast, but for decades almost all other aspects of life have proceeded slowly, exasperating those in the kingdom seeking reform and frustrating those elsewhere in the Middle East who felt that the country was failing to use its financial clout in the best interests of the region. 

Now, all of a sudden, Saudi Arabia finds itself in the fast lane. King Salman has belied expectations that his monarchy would be characterised by quiet continuity and has overseen arguably the most radical transformation since the foundation of the kingdom in 1932. 

The changes since King Salman came to power are, by Saudi standards, breath-taking. The Saudi media marked his first 100 days on the throne with special supplements that included dense lists and charts of the many decisions taken and appointments made (“100 years condensed into 100 days”, ran one headline). The most significant of these has been the promotion of two second-generation princes to the key positions of crown prince and deputy crown prince – Mohammed bin Naif and the king’s youngest son Mohammed bin Salman, respectively. The king and his two heirs have rigorously shaken up both domestic and regional strategies – most dramatically in the unprecedented military intervention in Yemen.

Mohammed bin Naif, who is 55, is the country’s interior minister, a post held by his late father for many years. He is regarded among Saudis as an efficient minister, less ruthless than his father but with sufficient steel to cope with a range of terrorism challenges that Saudi Arabia faces at home and from abroad. In foreign capitals, Prince Mohammed has impressed politicians who say he has the qualities needed to be the next king of Saudi Arabia.

While Mohammed bin Naif has been a public figure for some years, the same cannot be said for Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is in his early 30s. So little is known of King Salman’s favourite son that Saudi television channels are still broadcasting profiles of him. Unlike many of the younger generation of princes, Mohammed bin Salman did not study abroad and his first public role was as special advisor to his father when the latter was governor of Riyadh Province. Today he is not only third in line to the throne, but also minister of defence, and head of both the newly created Council for Economic and Development Affairs and the supreme board of Saudi Aramco.

Around Riyadh and in all forms of Saudi media, pictures of the king and “the two Mohammeds”, as the young princes are referred to, blazon the new hierarchy. While retaining the outward trappings of a traditional monarchy, the three men are operating as something more akin to a triumvirate presidency, directly controlling all issues relating to defence, security and oil.

A number of underperforming government bodies have been dismantled or merged with others. “The purpose of all the restructuring is to speed up decision making and make government operate more effectively,” finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf told the Euromoney conference in Riyadh earlier this month. Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the Majlis al-Shura, the 150-member Consultative Council, says the key words now are efficiency and accountability. “We face a lot of problems, especially with such a high proportion of young people. We need an efficient leadership that can meet the needs of the young.”

King Salman, often written off when he was crown prince as old and ineffective, has much more insight, many Saudis told me, than the late King Abdullah about the needs and concerns of the younger generation. He has known for some time that a large proportion of the 60-70% of Saudis that are under 30 are disaffected and highly critical of the monarchy, which is regarded by its critics as a dinosaur, out of touch with the realities of the 21st century. The king chose Mohammed bin Naif as the architect of a new system of governance to help meet some of these challenges. 

In conversations with a range of Saudis, it became clear that radical change was urgently needed. Public fears for the healthy survival of the monarchy were genuine and growing, with major anxieties about the kingdom’s future in the wake of the Arab uprisings and regional turmoil. The kingdom was governed by ageing, secretive and equivocating leaders who seemed blind to the range of dangers facing Saudi Arabia. 

Mohammed bin Naif, with his Interior Ministry background, knew better than anyone the problems related to the incompetence of a flabby government. His mission now is to bring the political establishment up to the level of the kingdom’s internationally acclaimed financial establishment by emulating the key qualities of efficiency and accountability which underpin the latter’s success. If these qualities are visible in the governing structure as a whole, the argument runs, then many of the grievances and criticisms of the leadership being aired on social media should evaporate. 

As part of the new strategy, the king agreed that Mohammed bin Salman be brought on board, symbolising youth and energy, and someone with whom the younger generation might identify. The two Mohammeds have drawn up action plans with target dates for a range of issues, to be tackled in an holistic way. They argue, for example, that terrorism in the kingdom cannot be dealt with in isolation from a clear Saudi regional strategy, plus measures to tackle youth unemployment, housing shortages and inadequate health care. Mohammed bin Naif is convinced that only a centralised and focused leadership can hope to respond to such issues fast and effectively. The days of waiting for ministerial committees to sit and family discussions to reach consensus are over, it seems, and complacency and procrastination are being uprooted.

A good example of the new air of accountability emerged during the first week of May when the head of royal protocol was sacked by the king for slapping a photographer during the state visit of the King of Morocco. Not only was the response fast and decisive, but the incident was given major media exposure. The naming and shaming of a person in high office is something new in Saudi Arabia.

The changes have been so rapid and radical that Saudis are still digesting them. It is too soon, for example, to know whether there will be opposition to the latest leadership moves from within the family, particularly from those branches of Al Saud that now appear to be out of the running for top jobs. In general, people I met thought there would not be dissent, and went on instead to express relief that the unsettling years of uncertainty and rumours over the succession, and on how power would be passed to the younger generation, were over. Everyone, including members of Al Saud, now knew where they stood. 

The ruling family is likely to observe the new leadership’s performance before judging it. If it proves successful, then they are hardly likely to knock it. If it fails – and the two Mohammeds have put themselves in a position where they will be directly linked to either success or failure – then they might see a chance for a comeback. But on the whole, Saudis say, there is little that disaffected princes can do without undermining the ruling family, of which they are a part, in its entirety.

Some Saudis, though, are beginning to ask whether the new leadership pattern and the administrative adjustments will have implications, positive or negative, on political reform. Thus far the consensus seems to be that the changes are more about structure than substance. “With power concentrated effectively in the hands of three people I don’t think we should expect the kind of political reform that liberals are looking for,” a businessman said. 

Another concern is whether King Salman will seek to reverse some of the benefits that his predecessor awarded to women during his reign. The Western media, for example, have pointed to the greater role that the king is according to the religious establishment as a negative factor, a setback for reform. Saudis I met said they thought the king’s decision to bring religious leaders into the circle of power was wise and would increase stability. King Abdullah, they said, had sidelined conservative Islamic figures to push through reform, thus creating enemies among them. King Salman has brought them back, but without rescinding the measures approved by his predecessor. 

Elham Hassainain, another Shura Council member, told me that when she and her colleagues called on the king to express their loyalty, he was seated next to the country’s top Islamic leaders. King Salman, she believes, wanted the religious establishment to be present when the Shura delegation arrived to make the point to them that women would continue to play a part in public life. “The momentum towards greater freedom and rights for women cannot be stopped now,” Hassainain said.

The likelihood is that for the foreseeable future Saudi leaders will continue to resist demands for democratic reform. But voices can be heard calling for moves to change public attitudes, especially among the young. “A reform of attitudes has to be expedited,” political commentator Abdulateef al-Mulhim told me. “Young people have to learn to be responsible and accountable, especially when it comes to getting jobs. There are still many jobs that Saudis refuse to do, or they insist on working only in the big cities, not in smaller and more remote towns.”

Unemployment, all Saudis agree, will be a huge problem in the coming years, second only to the threat of terrorism. As part of the efficiency drive instigated by the new leadership to minimise wasted expenditure, cuts are being imposed across the board, including in higher education. The generous overseas scholarship programme encouraged by King Abdullah is being scaled back. Students completing BAs, for example, will no longer receive funding for further study. The selection process for future scholarships will be more rigorous, with the focus on academic programmes offering qualifications suitable for the Saudi workplace. 

As a result of the scholarships cutback, around 150,000 students from the US alone are expected to return to the kingdom in the coming months, putting even more strain on the infrastructure and further increasing youth unemployment – unofficially estimated at 30% or more. As one Shura Council member said: “The financial measures are essential, but the fall-out will be hard to handle. I believe we face five very difficult, very challenging years.”

By far the biggest and potentially most dangerous venture with which the two Mohammeds’ names are closely associated is the military intervention in Yemen. The decision to become involved was taken, in line with the new modus operandi, quickly and with minimal consultation. The move is part of a new Saudi strategy of regional assertiveness – partly to counter Iranian/Shia influence and partly in response to the recognition that the US is beginning to disengage from the Middle East. The newly assertive kingdom is also toning down criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood with a view to drawing Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan into a regional Sunni alliance.

There is much for an alliance like this to worry about: chronic instability in Syria, Iraq and, of course, Yemen. Today the vast majority of Saudis appear to back the Yemen campaign as a necessary move to restore legitimacy there and remove the threat from the kingdom’s southern border. Yet defeating the Houthis and their Yemeni army allies is proving to be anything other than a swift and decisive military operation. Victory on the ground seems still a long way off.  What if the conflict is not settled in a year from now, or two years from now? What will be the fate of the two Mohammeds then?

Of all the new highways that the new ruling trio have opened up, the Yemen one looks the most slippery.

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