The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman is travelling around the United States for the first time since he came into power last June when his eighty-two-year-old father King Salman named him crown prince.
The prince’s trip consists of meeting with high-profile Americans such as Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Tim Cook, and President Donald Trump. His goal as he tours the states is to recreate Saudi Arabia’s profile in the American mind. For decades, the Saudi Kingdom has been the home of ultra-conservative Islam and oil. Now the crown prince wants to show that the kingdom is changing and progressing out of its archaic ways.
Prince Salman’s journey to power began in 2013 when he was appointed head of the Crown Prince’s court, a position his father held at the time. When his father took the throne in January 2015, he made MBS the defense minister and named his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef crown prince. In April 2015, MBS gained more power and came closer to the throne when King Salman appointed him deputy crown prince, second deputy prime minister, and president of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs. Finally, in June 2017, King Salman pushed out Mohammed bin Nayef and made MBS the crown prince.
Suddenly, MBS became the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia. When he was named crown prince, he also remained president of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, defense minister, and began acting as first deputy prime minister. He heads most of the government’s departments now.
But MBS is not loved by all and his rise to power has caused concern. Before he became crown prince, MBS was subject to harsh criticism over his involvement in the Yemen crisis that began in 2015. ABC News reported that even during his trip to U.S., riots against MBS were planned in Boston by students and in Washington by CODEPINK, an anti-war group.
As the defense minister, MBS sent troops in 2015 to Yemen to fight off the Shiite Houthi rebels who were rebelling against Yemen’s military and government. Since Yemen is in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, there was a legitimate security concern for Saudi communities near the border. As the Sunni power in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has to keep Shiite enemies from creeping up on its borders, which meant protecting the Yemeni government instead of letting wild Shiite Houthis take it over. In 2015, many also supposed that Iran supported the Houthis, Saudi Arabia’s and everyone else’s great enemy.
The intervention became chaotic, especially after certainty arose that Iran had not financially supported the Houthis. But, MBS could not have predicted the turn that the intervention in Yemen would take. He tried to crush the Houthis, but instead, the Houthis have retaliated in smaller groups. They enjoy firing rockets into Saudi Arabian communities near the border to continue border squabbles that keep the Saudi military busy. MBS can no longer choose whether to secure the border or not; it’s a necessity to keep his people safe.
Aside from ongoing criticism about the Yemen crisis, as the new crown prince, MBS is now attacked as a power hungry individual. Critics cynically assume that all of MBS’s recent reforms are part of his plan to keep gaining power because he is just an ambitious power monger and has no true interest in changing Saudi Arabia.
Time will tell if MBS is a megalomaniac, but being a power monger and reformer are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Without the immense power that MBS now yields in his various positions, he would not have authority to enact the reforms that are bringing Saudi Arabia out of its unenlightened existence and into the westernized, twenty-first century.
Before MBS even became crown prince he was pursuing his “Saudi Vision 2030,” a long term plan for reforming the kingdom’s economy and social structure. His first step was to begin a long process of reforming the kingdom’s economy which has revolved around one commodity for decades: oil.
With dropping oil prices, MBS began shrewdly looking to the future and working to wean Saudi Arabia off its oil addiction. Reuters reported in 2016 that he wants to sell huge amounts of the kingdom’s national oil company, Aramco, and begin to diversify the economy so that it doesn’t revolve around oil. This is why he is meeting with U.S. figures like Cook, Bloomberg, and Gates.
According to Reuters, his financial plans for Aramco and the whole economy would mean “raising non-oil revenue to 600 billion riyals ($160 billion) by 2020 and 1 trillion riyals ($267 billion) by 2030 from 163.5 billion riyals ($43.6 billion) last year.” This would stabilize the kingdom’s economy so that it doesn’t shift every time oil prices change.
“We will not allow our country ever to be at the mercy of commodity price volatility or external markets,” MBS said at a press conference in 2016.
With financial reforms underway, MBS turned to reforming Saudi Arabian society once he became crown prince. His first step was beginning an anti-corruption movement. By November he had arrested more than 300 Saudi Arabian princes and elites.
Critics may view his campaign against corruption as an attempt to remove other influential royal members or business people to shore up his power and his future throne. Although he has exercised his power, he is nonetheless a reformer.
MBS is also looking to reform Saudi’s culture by transitioning to a more moderate Islam, instead of the ultra-conservative Islam that has prevailed in the kingdom for decades.
“We are simply reverting to what we followed — a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70 percent of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately,” he said.
Returning to moderate Islam means getting rid of primitive and backward customs that the kingdom clung to. Movie theaters have reopened, women can attend soccer games, join the military, and soon, they will be allowed to drive. Public events will be co-ed and MBS has neutralized the power of the religious police who used to harass women for how they dressed and arrest people for irreligious behavior.
MBS is fully aware that the majority of the population in his kingdom is part of a young, westernized generation and in order to keep up with the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia has to be reformed in some fundamental ways. This means recognizing women’s rights in society, transitioning out of ultra-conservative, and even extreme Islam, and diversifying an economy that previously revolved around one commodity.
MBS has been working for years to change and protect Saudi Arabia’s society and economy. Now as the most powerful man in the kingdom, he can enforce his reforms and quickly implement healthy change. MBS is the powerful figure that Saudi Arabia needs to finally bring it out of its primitive, oil-infatuated existence and into the modern world. Now he just needs to convince the U.S. of Saudi Arabia’s new character.
Abby Liebing is a sophomore studying history.