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Saudi Arabia's revolutionary vanguard

Deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is the face of the new Saudi Arabia. But who else is running the kingdom?

ADVERTISING boards and the walls of shops and restaurants of Riyadh display posters showing three men: King Salman, Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman. One is king, the second his nephew and the third is the young man of the day, the king’s favourite son. And while the three are pictured together, all the talk in the kingdom is about just him: deputy crown prince Mohammed, second in line to the throne, often referred to as “MbS” to distinguish him from his older cousin and crown prince “MbN”.

In particular, the gossip is about Saudi Vision 2030, the highly ambitious scheme unveiled by MbS to end the kingdom’s reliance on oil and introduce a vast array of economic and social reforms. The debate, in homes, workplaces and cafes as much as in the media, is whether such changes in the Gulf’s most important economy and the world’s biggest oil exporter are either desirable or achievable.

Unsurprisingly, opinions about the substance of what the deputy crown prince announced tend to differ. But on one element many agree: the style in which MbS unveiled the plan represented a revolution in the context of Saudi Arabia’s stolid and conservative leadership traditions. In an unprecedented move, the thirty-one-year-old prince gave a long and unscripted television interview, in which he not only explained the aims of Vision 2030, but also responded calmly and confidently to probing questions about it. He also conceded that a number of government failings needed correcting – an admission that had never before been made so openly by a man in line to be king. In the West, this would have been an every-day political chat with a senior politician. In Saudi Arabia, the interview was a profound break with the past.

MbS’s prominent role and the weight of responsibilities, including the wars in Yemen and Syria, on the shoulders of such a young man continue to be a talking point

Saudis watching it all at home were amazed. “I’ve never seen any of our leaders speaking on TV before without a script,” says sociologist Ali al-Khashaiban. In the view of media analyst Adel al-Moafi, MbS “broke the unwritten rule that those in charge don’t speak candidly about the challenges facing the country”. Newspaper columnist Sarah al-Rashidan was impressed by the crown prince’s “spontaneous manner, which drew the attention of viewers”.

While the change in style was regarded by most Saudis as a breath of fresh air, seeing MbS on the screen was not, in itself, a novel experience. The deputy crown prince is the kingdom’s Mr Everything, shouldering a wide range of responsibilities: minister of defence, head of state oil company Saudi Aramco’s Supreme Council, and chairman of the powerful Council for Economic and Development Affairs, the body now directing all aspects of the economy, including oil.

Looking forward

The extent to which Mohammed bin Salman has become the dominant voice of Saudi policy might give the impression that he has an independent seat of authority. But this is not the case.

All important decisions have to be endorsed by King Salman and the cabinet, and the monarch’s young son is said to consult at length with his father on most issues of state, domestic and foreign. It is a role akin to those of an activist chief executive and a watchful chairman.

Secondly, MbS does not operate in a vacuum. Instead he has assembled a team of advisers, most of them young and with experience in the private sector, in the kingdom and overseas. Fahad al-Essa, a law graduate from the US, runs the crown prince’s private office and advises him on defence matters. Another key adviser is Ahmed al-Khateeb, a financial expert and formerly head of the private Saudi firm Jadwa Investment. Both men attend most of MbS’s important meetings. A third adviser is Yasser al-Ramayyan, a banker by profession who has accompanied the deputy crown prince on some of his overseas visits – as has Saud al-Qahtani, who has a media background and is known as MbS’s gatekeeper.

Brought in for advice, too, are Musaeed al-Aiban and Khalid al-Humaidan. The former, a highly respected figure, is another US-trained lawyer who serves both on the country’s Economic Council and the Political Council, which is chaired by Mohammed bin Nayef. Humaidan, an army general, is head of Saudi Intelligence.

Among the key figures chosen to implement MbS’s new agendas is former Aramco chief executive Khalid al-Falih, who has also replaced Ali al-Naimi as the kingdom’s new oil minister. He previously served as Minister of Health but is also chairman of the Aramco board and was recently appointed head of the state minerals company Maaden.

Falih’s successful shake-up of the health ministry, with the introduction of radical efficiency and cost-cutting measures, is being presented by MbS as a template for what is needed in most government departments. Minister of Planning Adel Fakeih, with an engineering background, is also close to MbS – he had been another candidate to take Naimi’s oil portfolio – and Mohammed al-Sheikh, a lawyer with World Bank experience, is a likely choice as the next finance minister.

Naimi’s departure confirms MbS’s growing authority in the oil domain too. This became plain during the recent Doha meeting of oil-producing states when Naimi was ready to sign a deal with Russia and others on an output freeze – until the direct intervention of Mohammed bin Salman stopped him doing so.

The Saudi leadership’s determination to cut red tape and eliminate wasted state spending is enjoying widespread public approval

The ministry’s role in the newly structured economic management, with the partial public offering of Aramco upcoming, has yet to be fully delineated. But the indications are that it will focus more on regulatory and administrative issues, along with the drive for renewables, than on oil policy.

All ministries continue to operate as before at the level of project management and implementation. The main difference is that the process of seeking approval from either the national economic or political committee is much faster and more streamlined than in the past.

Popular policy

The Saudi leadership’s determination to cut red tape and eliminate wasted state spending is enjoying widespread public approval.

But MbS’s prominent role and the weight of responsibilities – including the wars in Yemen and Syria – on the shoulders of such a young man continue to be a talking point.

Social media exchanges speak of the young prince’s plans being opposed by members of the ruling family, and even of rivalry between MbS and MbN. Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the Shura Council, an elected advisory body, insists that rumours of a power struggle should be discounted. “Mohammed bin Salman has one area of responsibility and Mohammed bin Nayef another,” she says. Because the latter deals with intelligence and security “it is only natural that he doesn’t have such a high public profile. But they respect each other and consult much more than people realise.”

The king’s word

The future of Mohammed bin Salman may not be as obvious as it now appears, either. In the view of sociologist Ali al-Khashaiban, who also writes a weekly column for al-Riyadh newspaper, the emergence of MbS as a prominent public figure still has to be seen in the context of the monarchical system. “The king’s word, whoever might be king, cannot be challenged,” he said. “The king appointed the two crown princes and his choice has to be respected. There is nothing to suggest that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef won’t succeed King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman won’t be next in line.” When MbN is king it will be his prerogative, if he wishes, to make changes to the line of succession, as King Salman did when he removed Prince Muqrin from his position as crown prince.

More important than speculation about the succession, Khashaiban says, is another fact that has only been underlined by the unveiling of Vision 2030 and the manner in which it happened: power from now on is in the hands of the younger generation of princes, the grandsons of the kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud, rather than his sons who have ruled since 1953. Up to 70% of the Saudi population is under the age of 30 “and the vast majority want change. You can’t pretend any longer that you can’t hear them.” Mohammed bin Salman “is talking directly to them in language they understand, in a style they can relate to”.

The challenge now for MbS and his advisers is to match the revolution in style with actions that will convert the lofty goals in Vision 2030 into reality. Stasis in the bureaucracy will be an obstacle. Investors have warmed to the new energetic leadership, but wonder about those further down the chain of command.

As an economist with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (Sama) says, the planned reforms – in particular the gradual lifting of subsidies on fuel, electricity and water at a time of low global oil prices – will tighten the belt for most Saudis.

Mohammed bin Salman, the economist added, needs to convince the population of the need “to share the pain, in the way that we shared the gain in the days of very high oil prices”.

This article is part of an in-depth series on upstream in the Gulf. Next article: Business as usual for the Saudi economy.

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