Mohammed bin Salman: The last real hope for change in the Middle East?
Prince Mohammed Bin Salman might be the most important political figure in the Middle East today. Since his father was crowned King of Saudi Arabia in 2015, Prince Mohammed has effectively assumed political power, instituting reforms intended to modernise the country’s economy and society, and reduce the Saudis’ reliance on oil through his Vision 2030 programme.
He has launched a drive against corruption that has seen around 200 officials arrested,
including several prominent members of the royal family. One prominent target was Prince al-Waleed Bin Talal, the largest shareholder of Twitter. The purges will have the twin effects of marginalising political opposition to Prince Mohammed’s rule, and bringing in an estimated $100 billion in revenue for the state secured through plea bargains, with the arrested officials
surrendering as much as 70% of their wealth. Abroad, Prince Mohammed has stepped up Saudi attempts to exclude Iran from the Arabian Peninsula. The aggressive military intervention in Yemen is one demonstration of this, as is the recent blockade of Qatar, intended to force Doha to cut ties with Tehran.
Bin Salman has also begun something of a transformation in Saudi social policy, particularly
around women’s rights, which have been gradually improving in the last few years. As of June 2018, women will be able to drive, allowing them some degree of independence from their families, and last month, the Prince announced the re-opening of cinemas for the first time since the 1970s. These moves mark a significant turn away from the royal family’s traditional reliance on the country’s religious establishment to underpin its legitimacy. According to Prince Mohammed, changes like these are increasingly demanded by a population that is young (around 70% of Saudis are below 30 years of age) and keen to move away from restrictive Wahhabi Islam. However, the ability of young people and women to take advantage of these new opportunities will still be largely dictated by whether they are allowed to do so by their families, which are generally patriarchal and highly conservative.
Deeper issues plague Saudi Arabia. The country is incredibly reliant on foreign labour for
both skilled and unskilled jobs, and amongst native Saudis unemployment is chronic and culturally-ingrained. To secure the acquiescence of the population, the royal family relies on handouts of social welfare, funded by revenues from Aramco, the state oil company. However, the low global oil prices which have persisted since 2014 are making this difficult, and maintaining the welfare system is draining Saudi Arabia’s foreign reserves, which stand at around $477 billion, down from $737 billion in 2011. The religious establishment still retains significant authority, and it is unlikely that it will continue to tolerate social reform without putting up serious resistance. Meanwhile, the royal family continues to spend prolifically on yachts, mansions and other luxuries, something that Prince Mohammed himself is guilty of. With all of that said, his reforms are the final chance for Saudi Arabia to resolve the social and economic tensions that have been accumulating since the Second World War, and are likely to reach boiling point within the next decade.