Saudi Arabia's sweeping social and economic changes were hardly conceivable a year ago
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's dynamic year of reform
In his frenetic first year as crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has led unprecedented reforms aiming to pair economic independence from oil with a more liberal interpretation of the kingdom’s conservative social norms.
That Saudi Arabia would willingly undertake such a sweeping social transformation was inconceivable when the 32-year-old royal, who is commonly referred to by his initials MBS, was appointed last June.
Officially second-in-command to his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Ruler of Saudi Arabia and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the crown prince also serves as defence minister and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.
The pace of reform has been startling, shaking up previously sclerotic institutions across the Kingdom.
The showpiece policy document outlining his plan for Saudi Arabia’s future is Vision 2030, which lays out an audacious scheme to wean the Kingdom off a dependence on oil by diversifying and overhauling its economy.
It is of course not the first time Saudi Arabia has attempted to implement sweeping reforms but no plan has been more ambitious, nor its execution more bullish than what has been seen in the past year.
While Vision 2030 is couched is largely economic terms, many of the proposals include broad social changes and political developments. It is these reforms which have attracted the greatest attention by far.
Perhaps his crowning achievement during his nascent tenure has been empowering an increasingly enterprising and well-educated segment of Saudi society: women.
As half of the Kingdom’s potential workforce, women in Saudi Arabia have been highlighted as a pivotal source of change for the kingdom as it attempts to develop non-oil sectors.
Lifting the ban on women driving next week is an integral part of the Kingdom’s plan to increase engagement of this key segment of the potential Saudi workforce. “It will jump start half the population,” said London-based Malik Dahlan, Principal of Institution Quraysh for Law and Policy, a transnational law and policy think tank.
The move, which was announced without warning, is seen as a representation of the direction the kingdom is headed towards. “It was a restriction placed on women as a result of intolerant interpretations and misunderstanding the intention of Islamic law,” said Mr Dahlan. “I do think this is a powerful underlying message that is happening internally and externally in Saudi Arabia.”
Part of the driving force behind the long overdue reforms is Saudi Arabia’s extremely young population. In the past Saudis could expect cradle to the grave government social welfare. But with nearly half its rapidly growing population under the age of 25, this kind of state largess will be unsustainable in the near future, despite the country’s vast oil reserves.
Two thirds of Saudis currently work in a swollen public sector, providing more government jobs in the future is regarded as unfeasible given the youth bulge. Saudi Arabia hopes to create jobs by fostering jobs in the much smaller private sector through entrepreneurship.
Under the young crown prince, the youth of Saudi’s population is increasingly being reflected in new appointments. Many of those appointed in the past year are half the age of their predecessors.
But change has not come easy for Saudi Arabia. Late last year a sweeping crackdown on corruption saw more than 300 of the Kingdom’s elite, including royals and billionaire businessmen, held accountable for what was said to be $107 billion embezzled from government funds. Many outsiders interpreted the move as a way for the crown prince to enforce change.
For the crown prince to effectively implement his reforms, he will need to consolidate power in government at the same time that he reins in the power of the religious police.
The force, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, was once notorious for its powers to dictate how people conducted their daily lives, such as by forcing women to cover up if they were found to be too scantily dressed.
But a decision taken last year limits their power to make arrest. Now the force has been tasked with a more limited and focussed role, with speculation that its may be absorbed into the Islamic authority.
“Their powers have been curbed in ways previously inconceivable for anyone who spent time in Saudi. Empowering women socially and economically, while curbing the excesses of some in the religious establishment, are at the heart of the crown prince’s vision for the country,” said Firas Maksad, Director of Arabia Foundation.
During a panel discussion at a summit in Riyadh in October organised to showcase the Vision 2030’s economic plan, the Crown Prince said the country wanted to go back to “what we were before”.
“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that's open to all religions. We want to live a normal life .... coexist and contribute to the world,” he said.
Since then he has hinted at further changes aimed at preventing the use of religion as a political tool. Perhaps one of the less obviously striking reforms was the establishment of the King Salman Complex for the Prophet’s Hadith.
The centre, which was established a week before the Crown Prince made his statements regarding the return of moderate Islam is tasked with monitoring interpretations of Prophet Mohammed’s Hadiths to prevent extremists from using them to justify terrorism, a potentially monumental reform.
“This is one of his ways to make sure that this custodianship is expressed in a different way, as you know in the past with the challenges of this idea of Wahhabis and how it affected the kingdom in the past,” said Dr Dahlan.
But the need to diversify and develop the kingdom's economy has put serious pressure on the highest levels of governments to make the long-overdue changes needed for Saudi Arabia to progress.
“Women's role in society, reduction of religious control, emphasis on the growth of the private sector in the Saudi economy are all aspects of a dramatic shift in the nature of Saudi society that will affect every Saudi citizen and become irreversible over time,” said former ambassador Gerald Feierstein, director for Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute.
As far as regional politics are concerned, the Crown Prince is confident in his country’s role in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government of Aburabu Mansur Hadi. He has said in the past that he could defeat Houthi rebels within weeks but that humanitarian concerns restrained the Arab coalition.
Saudi Arabia said Iran is responsible in arming Houthi rebels in Yemen in violation of UN resolutions, including with missiles that the rebels have launched at Riyadh and other Saudi cities. Tehran denies this accusation, despite UN investigations and other independent bodies proving that the missiles and other weapons used by the rebels came from Iran.
His approach to Iran’s ambitions in the region has been more aggressive than his predecessors. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal while on his three-week tour of the US, Prince Mohammed said that a war could break out unless the international community took a tougher stance on Iran.
But whether at home or abroad, the Crown Prince’s reforms include an easing of social restrictions that he said was intended to make Saudi Arabia more attractive to foreigners.
“MBS's greatest achievement over the last year is the Crown Prince's ability to transform the Kingdom despite all odds,” said Dr Theodore Karasik Senior Advisor, Gulf State Analytics.
The past year, with its dynamic changes, is regarded in the Kingdom as year one for Vision 2030. The mood in the Kingdom is that the coming 12 years could prove equally momentous.