Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman recently concluded his three-week tour across the United States. He courted America’s tech giants, in hopes they will bring their booming business to Saudi Arabia. The Crown Prince met with Apple, Google, and Amazon, with the desire to convince the latter into building a tech hub in their kingdom through generous subsidies. Mohammad bin Salman—MBS for short—is reinventing the oil-rich desert kingdom.
The Crown Prince’s trip is a part of a broader plan to restructure Saudi Arabia’s economy in the coming years. The Saudi Arabian government published a proposal to change the Kingdom’s economy and strategic situation in the coming decades called “Vision 2030.” It has three primary goals. First, it plans to make Saudi Arabia to the center of Middle Eastern tourism. Next, MBS wants to attract massive foreign investment. Lastly, it wants to take advantage of its strategic location between Asia, Europe, and Africa. All of these programs will work to divert Saudi Arabia’s economy away from their dependence on oil revenues.
Through Vision 2030, Mohammad bin Salman wants to bring the Saudi Arabian economy to its full potential. In a recent interview with Time Magazine, he commented on the changes in the Kingdom: “We believe that Saudi Arabia until today used only 10 percent of its capacity, and we have 90 percent to go…We are shaping our economy based on our strengths: oil downstream petrochemicals, materials, mobility, transportation, minerals, and gas.”
Historically, Saudi Arabia focused solely on drilling its oil-rich land for its economy. As a leading member of OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, it manipulated the global oil market in its favor. OPEC is a cartel of oil giants that agree to change their output of oil to maximize their profits. Saudi Arabia’s shift away from an oil-based economy underscores the growing weakness of the organization.
Saudi Arabia and OPEC’s diminished dominance of the global energy market comes during America’s shale revolution. In the past decade, American natural gas exports have exploded because of the discovery of shale across the nation and new technology to make “fracking” cheap. This surfeit of natural gas has driven down oil prices and the market’s sensitivity to changes in output from OPEC. Without its control over the global oil market, Saudi Arabia is forced to diversify its economy.
Mohammad bin Salman’s ambitious plans do not stop with Saudi Arabia’s economy. His foreign policy strategy has been bolder than his predecessors. Primarily, he has taken an aggressive stance against Iran in their regional conflict. Across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran struggle for dominance.
One prominent example of Saudi Arabia’s confrontational approach to Iranian ascendancy is the proxy war in Yemen’s civil war. In the civil war, Saudi Arabia supports the pro-government faction and Iran funds the Houthi rebel group. To the chagrin of the United States and other countries, Saudi Arabian support has been part of a humanitarian disaster in the war; its blockade of the nation has starved the populace of relief. Saudi Arabia has said it will take measures to allow aid and resources into devastated areas.
More recently, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry may soon extend into Saudi Arabia. On April 16, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States asked Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries friendly to the US to replace American troops in Syria. America’s force in Syria was used to eliminate the Islamic State; now that IS has been effectively defeated, the Trump administration wants to cease direct American involvement in the civil war.
If Saudi Arabia were to agree to replace American presence in the region, it could accelerate Saudi-Iranian tensions. Israel highlighted Iran’s support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria on April 17, when it released locations and images of Iran’s air bases that dot the Syrian landscape. Saudi Arabian troops would work near the Iranian military. Although America’s support in Syria was to destroy IS, Saudi Arabia may be tempted to undermine Iranian operations. If they were to do so, the states would risk direct conflict.
MBS’ adventurous policies also extend into the social and cultural customs of Saudi Arabia. Last year, the Kingdom lifted its ban on driving for women. This change will take effect in June of this year. Saudi Arabia hopes that this will brighten their international image. On April 18, Saudi Arabia ended its ban on movie theaters by screening “Black Panther.” The viewing allowed men and women to sit together, a landmark change.
Mohammad bin Salman’s shifts on women’s rights may be instrumental in bringing success to the Vision 2030 plan. Critical to the strategy is to attract the world into Saudi Arabia, which may be impossible while the Kingdom continues its ultra conservative policies. American tech giants may be hesitant to build in Saudi Arabia without significant gains on women’s issues.
Time Magazine also asked MBS about his work on liberalizing the Kingdom’s culture. He said: “We want to drive the best talent…you have to have good social and cultural standards. You cannot have bad livability standards and cultural standards if you want to grow and to be much bigger economically…in the last three years, Saudi Arabia did more than in the last 30 years.”
The Crown Prince’s immense power within Saudi Arabia stems from a dedicated effort to consolidate power within the ruling class to MBS. Most notably, MBS imprisoned many of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest business owners until they paid hefty fines in an anti-corruption campaign. To do it, Mohammad bin Salman established a new graft-fighting council with himself at the helm. Similar to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crusade against corruption, this move allows MBS to target individuals suspected of disloyalty to the Crown Prince. With potential opponents to MBS subdued, he now has full reign to reform Saudi Arabia in his image.
Mohammad bin Salman has worked to restructure the governing system of the Saudi Kingdom. Before MBS’ purges against his rivals, policymaking was a slow process. All members of the royal family—which was a large family—had to come to a consensus before any significant decisions could be made about the Kingdom. The Crown Prince removed those barriers in order to centralize all power into his hands. As a result, any resistance to MBS or his policies will be directed toward him.
The Crown Prince is taking considerable risks by centralizing power in a historically consensus-driven state. His rivals within the government and business owners may work to regain their influence, preceding internal turbulence. While many powerful individuals may be against MBS’ work, the anti-corruption campaign is popular among the young population. As the young of Saudi Arabia grow along Mohammad bin Salman’s popular economic and social policies, they will push to keep him in power.
Mohammad bin Salman is taking Saudi Arabia on a radical path toward modernization which could spell disaster or success for his tenure. A favorable outcome for the Crown Prince will depend on many factors inside Saudi Arabia and other international actors’ reactions to MBS’ policies.
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