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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Saudi crown prince banking on younger generation to help reforms succeed

What looks like power play from outside the kingdom is seen as necessary reform within it, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. AP
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. AP

Over the past few days, there has been an unexpected flurry of headlines coming out of Saudi Arabia. A ballistic missile crossed into Saudi territory from Yemen and was shot down outside the capital Riyadh. The Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, in Riyadh, resigned suddenly. A new anti-corruption committee was announced in the kingdom and immediately struck, detaining high profile business people and royals. Saudis waking up on Sunday to the start of the working week were surprised by some of the prominent names on the list.

As defence minister and one of King Salman's closest advisers, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was at the centre of all those headlines. But it was the sudden detention of 11 princes, among them the country's richest man, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, that sparked claims of a power play by the man who will be the next ruler of the Middle East's richest country.

Given the tendency for outsiders to view the politics of Saudi Arabia as essentially a palace drama, it is no surprise that the arrests were interpreted that way. (Twitter, always a great outlet for armchair comedians, dubbed it “a game of thobes”.) And, certainly, there was a shocking quality to the swiftness of the arrests and the seniority of those involved. But for most Saudis, these extraordinary decisions by the young crown prince seem to fit a context of radical change in a society long resistant to it.

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These changes are really driven by an economic reality, one which Prince Mohammed takes every opportunity to emphasise: 70 per cent of Saudis are under the age of 30. They are exposed to the outside world as never before, part of a global conversation – the highest penetration of Twitter in the Middle East is in Saudi – and desperately impatient to be part of it. In the years to come, they will need an economy and a society that meets their needs. At the moment, Prince Mohammed doesn't believe the country provides it.

The crown prince appears to understand that impatience. Young men and women are “bored and resentful”, he said last month. For decades, the instinct of Saudi's rulers, driven in part by a conservative culture and in part by the mere fact that politicians were often older, was to pursue gradual change, to tweak the consensus. But demography and economics have outpaced that era. Prince Mohammed believes swift, even radical, change is necessary – and there is an entire generation of young people behind him who agree; who want change, not in the future, not gradually, but now.

The way to grasp the significant changes taking place in the kingdom is to understand the crown prince as a politician seeking a new consensus for change. Piece together his decisions and it is clear he is courting various aspects of Saudi society, seeking buy-in for these changes.

Foremost is the youth vote. By allowing cinemas and concerts, he is offering them a previously closed social life. By radically scaling back the power of the mutawwa, the religious police, he is offering a degree of freedom. Reducing the impact of guardianship laws on women and allowing women to drive actually has an economic dimension and will mean millions of middle class and poorer women and families will be better off because they will not need to pay for a driver or regular taxis. Taken together, what seem like small changes will have an extraordinary impact on how young Saudis live their daily lives.

Soon after taking over the powerful Council of Economic and Development Affairs, Prince Mohammed spoke of ensuring home ownership did not drop below 50 per cent of the population (where it currently stands) and declared the aspiration that the figure be raised as part of his Vision 2030 plan. This is important because housing in Saudi, as in too much of the developed world, is a huge social and political problem, with the majority of homeowners among the older generation and young people, especially in booming cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, struggling to afford their own homes.

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That, in a society such as Saudi where employment and home ownership are linked to marriage, makes it an incredibly pressing social problem. Even small changes, such as amending banking regulations to make it easier to lend to young couples, can have a significant impact on the quality of life of tens of thousands.

Corruption, the reason given for so many royals being detained earlier this week, resonates with the rural population, not merely because it is the poor and lower middle classes who are most affected by small-scale daily corruption, but because the move to a predominantly private sector economy will necessitate allowing thousands of new businesses to thrive. Corruption was hampering that. Speaking on CNN on Monday, Saudi's foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir was candid that the economy was suffering. “We cannot afford to have corruption and waste and mismanagement reduce our ability to improve the lives of our people,” he said.

So when the crown prince is seen to be acting on these issues, young Saudis believe he is acting on their behalf. By appealing to them and to other sections of Saudi society, Prince Mohammed is seeking support beyond the traditional royal and business elites of Riyadh. He is also banking on the momentum of youth to sweep away the inevitable tide of resistance, whether it comes from the rural population, from the religious establishment or the business elites. In a country like Saudi, that is no small political gamble.

The crown prince is certainly moving fast, in part because he has youth on his side and in part because he appears, for now, to have the country's youth on his side as well.