Muhammad bin Salman: this name has been read and heard very often lately in the mainstream media. It is the name of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the visionary, modern, 32-year-old son of the current king Salman who has been appointed by his father as his successor to the Saudi throne. The media have talked a lot about the Prince, who has been busy building a positive public image of himself in the international arena. With his words, he is working to give Saudi Arabia a better reputation, distancing himself (at least with the international media) from the most extremist Wahhabi positions and preparing the country for an ever nearer future where it will no longer be able to count on its oil reserves and on the military assistance of the U.S.
Together with media-friendly decisions such as allowing Saudi women to drive cars, he has pursued bold and aggressive actions at times, such as the Qatar blockade. Saudi Arabia has always relied on the three pillars mentioned above: a strict Wahhabist religious line, its oil production, and the military assistance of the USA. MbS has begun to guide the country to a smooth transition to a near future when the state will not be able to rely on these pillars as heavily as it has done so far. The current king of Saudi Arabia, Salman, is the son of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who in his life fathered at least 42 sons. Since his death in 1953, the crown of the country always passed to one of his sons, from brother to brother, in an agnatic succession. Ibn Saud’s last living son, besides Salman, is Muqrin (the child of a Yemenite concubine of the late monarch).
However, in an unprecedented move, king Salman decided to make his favorite son, MbS (short for Muhammad bin Salman) deputy crown prince, thus changing for the first time the customary succession rules. MbS, at the time of his appointment, was already among the most powerful men in the KSA. He was minister of defense and chaired the committee charged with planning the economy of the country. He had already expressed strong positions against the KSA’s dependence on oil and its financing radical Islamists, but at the same time he had also commented against Iran’s mullahs more than one time. Although, unlike many of his brothers, he was never educated in the West, MbS seems particularly comfortable with Western culture. For example he is one of the few Saudi notables who has no problem shaking the hands of women from the West.
MbS has also been quite close recently to another “prince” of a Western power: the coetaneous Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and put in charge by Donald of the Middle East policy of the current administration. The Trump administration realized the powerful influence that Iran is having on the Northern part of the Middle East: Lebanon is practically controlled by Hezbollah, which is notoriously a proxy of Iran. Syria is slowly being regained by Bashar’s troops, with the support of the Islamic Republic, and Iraq is since 2003 governed by the Shias under Persian influence (although this is changing due to Baghdad’s rapprochement to saudi Arabia in the last months). Trump and his advisors figured that given the situation the only solution was to strengthen again the USA’s ties to its traditional allies in the region: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Obama according to Trump had mistakenly loosened the bonds of friendship with the two powers, and they now needed to be renewed.
MbS and Jared Kushner seem to like each other a lot, and have met in more than one occasion in Riyadh after numerous correspondence and phone calls. It was Jared who engineered Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the renewed ties of the administration with the Sunni Arab governments. Many analysts have also speculated that Kushner had an important role in the decision to starting the blockade against Qatar of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.As for the Kingdom’s domestic situation, MbS’ main concern seems to be the direction tha Saudi Arabia will have to take after the oil era. Up to this day, the welfare state has been fully funded by oil, but oil is not eternal. Almost 70% of the population is under 30 years old. Several young people are sponsored by the government to go study in the West, and when they come back, they want jobs and they miss the social freedoms that they enjoyed back in the USA. But jobs are lacking in Saudiyah, and Wahhabism is still the official state creed.
As a way to face the uncertain future, and to keep foreign investors interested, MbS have devised Saudi Vision 2030,, announced officially two years ago, in April 2016. SV2030 is an ambitious yet achievable blueprint, which expresses our long-term goals and expectations and reflects our country’s strengths and capabilities, as the official website declares. MbS claims Saudi Vision 2030 is based on three pillars:The first pillar of our vision is our status as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds. We recognize that Allah the Almighty has bestowed on our lands a gift more precious than oil. Our Kingdom is the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, the most sacred sites on earth, and the direction of the Kaaba (Qibla) to which more than a billion Muslims turn at prayer. The second pillar of our vision is our determination to become a global investment powerhouse. Our nation holds strong investment capabilities, which we will harness to stimulate our economy and diversify our revenues. The third pillar is transforming our unique strategic location into a global hub connecting three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa. Our geographic position between key global waterways, makes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia an epicenter of trade and the gateway to the world.
Saudi Vision 2030 aims at improving the country’s infrastructure, diversifying its economy, softening its religious regulations and making Saudiyah more attractive for tourism. To do so, the crown prince intends increasing the country’s female workforce and focusing on the health, education and financial welfare of the citizens. Most of the projects already planned are expected to begin before 2030.Muhammad ibn Salman’s ambition and the renewed ties with the United States leave us wondering about the future of the Kingdom. Iran’s influence in the Levant is getting stronger everyday, despite problems in domestic politics, but the KSA seems determined to maintain a powerful role in the region and to accelerate its walk towards modernity.
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