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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Touring Mohammed bin Salman eyes partners for change

Saudi Arabia's comprehensive economic and social reforms will shore up alliances

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has overseen sweeping reforms in the Kingdom, including to the military. Bandar Algaloud / Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court / Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has overseen sweeping reforms in the Kingdom, including to the military. Bandar Algaloud / Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court / Reuters

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has become the face of contemporary Saudi Arabia. Yesterday he took his modernising vision on the road as he began an international tour – his first since his promotion – to export that image to the world. He began in Egypt, reaffirming with that decision the cooperation that has seen Cairo support Riyadh’s foreign policy and huge grants and loans flow in the other direction. He will fly to the UK and US to discuss security and investment with the leaders of both countries and finish his trip in France. The malign influence of Iran in the Middle East will no doubt be on the agenda at these meetings. Meanwhile the Kingdom’s modernisation drive, launched by King Salman and overseen by Prince Mohammed, will attract further praise from these allies. “Saudi Arabia has introduced exactly the kind of reforms that we have always advocated,” wrote UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in a column last week. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt expressed on Twitter his intention to discuss “how the UK can contribute to the Saudi Vision 2030 programme of social and economic reforms” with Prince Mohammed. At a pivotal moment for the Middle East, alliances like these are more important than ever.

After decades of deeply traditional leadership, the pace of change in Saudi Arabia has been astonishing. A root and branch anti-corruption drive late last year detained 400 people and raised $106 billion. “You have a body that has cancer everywhere, the cancer of corruption,” Prince Mohammed told The Washington Post last week. “You need to have the chemo, the shock of chemo, or the cancer will eat the body.” This shock-therapy approach has characterised the other reforms the Saudi leadership have implemented. In the last six months, Saudi Arabia has announced it would allow women to drive, attend sports events, register businesses and serve in the military. Last month, Tamadur bint Youssef Al Ramah was appointed Deputy Labour Minister, becoming the first woman to serve in the government. Cinemas will open this year after a more than 35-year ban. Prince Mohammed previously stated that he wanted to foster moderate Islam and open the country to multiple religions. He appears to be meeting words with deeds.

Prince Mohammed’s international tour comes at a time of great flux in the Middle East. In May, elections will take place in Lebanon and Iraq. The gruesome conflict in Syria staggers on. The war to restore the legitimate government in Yemen amid Iran-backed Houthi aggression will soon enter its fourth year. If Saudi Arabia is to thwart Iran’s growing influence and promote stability, it will require international support. The modernising Crown Prince is best-placed to forge such alliances. And as he begins his tour, international partners rightly like what they see.

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