Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got a standing ovation when he visited a gathering of Saudi youth last month. Last week, after hearing about his economic plans in a meeting with religious leaders, one of the kingdom's most conservative sheikhs tweeted a smiling selfie of himself with the prince. Whether the 31-year-old son of King Salman will achieve his goal of modernizing the kingdom's economy is the subject of animated debate on social media, in office buildings and at coffee shops here. The plans, aimed at ending dependence on oil by 2030, require shaking up a bureaucracy that has stymied changes in the past, challenging powerful religious conservatives and building up a private sector currently reliant on state spending. Diplomats and economists say the program, which relies on the private sector driving growth and providing new sources of revenue to the state via new taxes and fees, will be exceptionally difficult to implement. "Saudi Arabia is far away" from its economic goals, said Steffen Hertog, an economist at the London School of Economics (LSE) who studies the kingdom.
The prince's close aides acknowledge the difficulties. Some ruling family members fear too rapid economic changes could cause social unrest or tension inside the Al Saud dynasty, Saudi analysts say. Yet in this country of 20 million Saudis and 10 million expatriates, the rise of Prince Mohammed, who runs economic, defense and oil strategy, underscores a dramatic shift towards a leadership seemingly more in tune with the needs of a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30. It is the first time that effective power has passed from the royal gerontocracy of 70- and 80-something rulers to a third generation of a family founded by the prince's grandfather, known as Ibn Saud. King Salman still has the final word, but he has delegated nearly unprecedented powers to his son. That has meant changes in style and substance. Prince Mohammed works 16-hour days, unlike the more sluggish schedules of his older predecessors, and has appointed business people and economic experts instead of other royals to top jobs.
Few had heard of Prince Mohammed before his father, 80-year-old son of modern Saudi Arabia's founder, became the kingdom's 7th monarch in January 2015. Today, Prince Mohammed is second in line to rule behind Mohammed bin Nayef, a cousin who is crown prince and, as Interior Minister, head of internal security. Unlike many other royals, Prince Mohammed did not go to school abroad but graduated from King Saud University with a law degree. Informed Saudis who follow royal affairs say he is the favored son of King Salman, who made him his personal adviser at a very young age.
Last week, Prince Mohammed officially unveiled Saudi Vision 2030, his blueprint to move the economy decisively from that he called its "addiction to oil" towards the private sector. The phased removal of subsidies on fuel, water and electricity, part of the welfare lavished on Saudis, of whom about four out of five workers hold public sector jobs, is already underway. The new plan includes earning non-oil income from private investment and privatization and setting up the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. The idea is to create millions of new jobs and raise the participation of women in the workforce from 22 currently to 30 percent by 2030. The plans also include selling a stake of less than 5 percent in Saudi Aramco, the state oil giant, and placing the proceeds and the company in the Public Investment Fund (PIF), along with other assets that could eventually create an investment vehicle worth up to $3 trillion. Another ambitious target is to locally source 50 percent of Saudi military procurements, part of the third largest defense budget in the world, by 2030, up from a mere 2 percent now. Many diplomats, analysts and economists say the magnitude of the goals, including the primary one of ending dependence on oil by 2020, defy credibility.
There are social challenges because some of Prince Mohammed's ambitions, including giving women a bigger economic role, will anger religious conservatives, the source of the most dangerous threats to Al Saud rule since the kingdom was founded. Some had hoped, for example, that Vision 2030 would include moves to lift the ban on women driving, which it did not. Answering a question on it, the deputy crown prince said the issue was a social rather than religious question, therefore it was up to society to decide. Moreover, the country's education system is traditionally regarded as under the thumb of religious fundamentalists who, among other things, insist on the cloistering and segregation of women, hindering their ability to enter the workforce. Some older Saudis, ruling family members and Saudi businessmen fear that Prince Mohammed's plans to streamline the kingdom's bureaucracy could cause social fractures if they fail to maintain comfy living standards or soothe conservatives. And MbS's meteoric rise has also prompted rumors among some Saudi analysts of friction with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 56, a veteran security chief and a favorite of Riyadh's top ally, the United States. So far, both men have appeared careful in public, with the younger prince showing deference and respect to his cousin, diplomats say. Prince Mohammed and his close advisers appear fully aware of the entrenched resistance they will face, and are working to overcome it.
Last week, right after announcing 2030 Vision to reporters, he met a group of religious and intellectual leaders in the next room and directly assured them that he would not go too far. When asked about the issue of women drivers, he turned specifically to look at the religious leaders and said it would not happen yet, a person present said. Young people say they like MbS's business-like approach of announcing systemic plans, rather than speaking in generalizations as many of his predecessors did.
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