The West endorses Saudi crown prince
MbS’s first visits to the UK and US as crown prince show acceptance there that he’ll be the next Saudi king. But not all Saudis are happy
Since becoming ruler of Saudi Arabia three years ago, King Salman has approved a wide range of changes to the way the country is governed. The most surprising and radical move was the promotion out of obscurity of his young son, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). In a matter of months, he became defence minister and took over the reins of the energy, economic and security establishments. The final move in his consolidation of power was the removal of crown prince Mohammed bin Naif. MbS was the new heir to throne.
Western allies of Saudi Arabia watched with some concern as the king made these jaw-dropping changes. They weren't always reassured by what they saw. The headlong rush into the war in Yemen, for example, was regarded as a product of rash and unconsidered decision-making. The same goes for the economic blockade of Qatar.
Equally surprising, but this time welcomed in Western capitals, were MbS's social reforms. These included curbing the power of the religious police and granting women the right to drive. Also applauded was MbS's Vision 2030, a strategy to wean Saudi Arabia off oil and boost investment in the private sector.
But a nagging doubt remained. Did the young and inexperienced prince have what it takes to become king of this giant Arab oil-producing state? Having dispensed with the traditional system of power-sharing and consultation involving the different branches of the family, would his autocratic style of leadership be sustainable?
The lavish reception that the British government laid on for MbS's visit to the UK earlier this month—with a hugely symbolic audience with Queen Elizabeth—sent out a clear message: like it or not, MbS will be the next king of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Britain wants to do business, in every sense, with the new monarch.
The same goes for the US. Hosting the crown prince on a three-week tour of American cities is proof that the Trump administration intends to work closely with the future King Mohammed.
The Saudi media coverage of MbS's foreign excursions, not surprisingly, has been massive. Columnists said the reception he received in the UK—and could expect in the US—proved that Saudi Arabia, with the dynamic young prince at the helm, was now part of the international community and open to the world. MbS, furthermore, was promoting moderate Islam and inter-faith tolerance—aside from all the domestic social reforms.
But it's important to keep in mind that the changes haven't pleased all Saudis. Branches of the family who've missed out on promotion or seen relatives suffering public humiliation after being arrested on corruption charges aren't at all happy. At the same time, many on social media still grumble about the increasing difficulties of daily life-rising electricity bills, unemployment, and so on.
Kudos won from grandiose foreign visits is one thing. But MbS is likely to be judged in the long term on whether he can deliver economic reforms on a scale that can meet the needs of the fast-growing Saudi population. Jobs and homes are what young Saudis are urgently looking for.