Fast change driven by Riyadh's young prince

Fast change driven by Riyadh's young prince
Comment: Mohammed bin Salman is a young man in a rush - to shake up Saudi society as he amasses unprecedented influence in the kingdom, writes Bill Law.
5 min read
15 Jun, 2016
The young prince has already raised expectations within his youthful constituency [Getty]

There is an awful lot riding on Mohammed bin Salman's determination to transform the economy of Saudi Arabia and wean it off its addiction to oil.

Vision 2030, unleashed in April, is nothing short of a blueprint for revolution - an economic revolution it should quickly be noted, and most definitely not a political one, or to put it another way, perestroika without the glasnost.

For now, the 30-year-old has the wind in his sails - and it is a strong wind: he is the favoured son of King Salman, chair of the Economic Development Affairs Council, minister of defence, boss of Saudi Aramco's Supreme Council, the Economic Cities Authority and the National Centre for Measuring Government Performance - and, of course, deputy crown prince.

In short, he has, in the course of a little more than a year, amassed unprecedented powers, effectively marginalising senior members of the ruling house of Saud and isolating the crown prince and interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, his only serious rival for the throne.

But the source of his greatest power and the one that equally could prove his downfall should he fail to meet their aspirations are the nearly 70 percent of the Saudi population under the age of 30, roughly 15 million subjects.

Internet savvy, restless in a way their parents never were, with exceedingly high expectations at a time of low oil prices and an austerity squeeze, theirs are the voices that will ultimately decide the future of the kingdom, and with it the fate of Mohammed bin Salman.

Young Saudis that I speak with are eager to contribute to building a new Saudi Arabia

Were anyone to run an approvals ratings poll in the kingdom, I have no doubt that MbS, as he is known, would score very highly, despite the awkward and bloody baggage of the Yemen campaign, a war he recklessly launched more than a year ago and which continues to drag on without a clear end in sight.

And the deputy crown prince would score highly precisely because of one simple fact: Saudi youth identifies with him. Like him, they want change and they are impatient for it.  Like him, they have little time for the niceties and conventions of a social order that sounds and feels archaic and out of step with the modern world. Like him, they want an economic revolution and they want it now.

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Young Saudis that I speak with are eager to contribute to building a new Saudi Arabia; they talk about the need for meaningful jobs; they are not satisfied with the offer of a dead-end position working in the bloated public sector.  They see jobs in the private sector held down by expats, jobs they would like to have but may lack the skill-sets to perform. They see a society that does not reflect who they are or what they want.

They speak of the huge housing crisis, acknowledged for years but which the government has proved itself spectacularly incapable of doing anything meaningful to resolve. Young Saudis are delaying getting married because they cannot afford a home, nor can their parents any longer afford to buy one for them. It is a subject of intense and passionate interest in internet cafes and online chatrooms.

Educated, but feeling cut off from access to good jobs, stuck in their parents' homes whilst looking for alternatives that are elusive, frustrated with the passive acquiescence of the older generation to a system that is no longer working for them - and Mohammed bin Salman, with his bold vision is, for young Saudis, a burst of fresh air blowing hard through a kingdom grown stale.

He has committed to resolving the housing crisis, building 300,000 new homes a year. He wants to get the youth, including women, into the workforce, in fulfilling and productive jobs. He is attacking the network of corruption and cronyism that for so long has dictated the stuttering pace of change.

This comes with a cost, however, especially with oil prices predicted to remain low for several years. So the comfortable social contract that provided everything from subsidised food, water, energy and electricity to healthcare and education is in the process of being ripped up.

Public sector wages will be frozen, subsidies in key sectors are being slashed, healthcare and education will be largely privatised. There will even be a so-called "sin tax" on items such as cigarettes and fizzy drinks.

Even as MbS walks a tightrope of his own making, he seems to be thoroughly enjoying... shaking up the old order

The task MbS has set himself and the government is hugely daunting. Deadlines - such as ending the kingdom's reliance on hydrocarbons as the primary source of revenue by 2020 - are exceedingly, and critics say needlessly and foolishly, tight.

However, as long as Mohammed bin Salman can deliver on the twin challenges of jobs and housing, he will, amid a ruthless austerity drive, carry young Saudis with him. And without a doubt, they will prove extremely useful allies while he vies to position himself as the logical successor to his father, King Salman.

This young man in a hurry, with his roadmap for change, has already raised huge expectations within his youthful constituency. 

The risk is that he will fail to meet those expectations; young Saudis will lose hope and turn away from the deputy crown prince. It is then that his rivals, chief among them Mohammed bin Nayef, would strike back.

For now, though, even as MbS walks a tightrope of his own making, he seems to be thoroughly enjoying the experience, shaking up the old order, demanding an end to the tired ways of doing business "the way it’s always been done".

That too is something young Saudis admire in their prince. But, like the ambitious goals of Vision 2030, the timeframe for delivery is short. Miss the opportunity to secure the promises of housing and jobs and the economic revolution he began has every possibility of morphing into a messy political revolution - with consequences that are very unpredictable indeed.

Bill Law is a former BBC Gulf analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @Billlaw49

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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