If you read last week’s Egyptian newspapers you will find them filled with articles about Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
Of course, it was only natural for the Egyptian press to cover His Excellency’s visit to Egypt. It was marked by banner headline news, from the prince’s announcement that he intended to extend his “Neom” city project into Egypt, to his visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo and his meeting with Pope Tawadros II, marking a major precedent in Egyptian-Saudi relations.
Between these two high points, the prince’s meetings with Egyptian officials were filled with good news.
According to news reports, all this generated considerable positive energy among the Egyptian people and I imagine that the same applies to the Saudi people, as well.
The media was also more effusive than usual on such occasions. Newspapers were filled with columns and commentaries welcoming the crown prince warmly and, more importantly, optimistically, with numerous forecasts of a brighter future for Egyptian-Saudi relations.
A markedly unique feature of this visit was the approximately three-hour long meeting with the crown prince arranged by Saudi Ambassador Ahmed Al-Qattan who regularly invites Egyptian intellectuals, writers and media journalists to his “Riyadh Al-Nil” political and literary salon, a tradition he sustained from the “Wednesday assemblies” hosted by his predecessor, Ambassador Hisham Al-Nazer.
While the speakers at the Riyadh Al-Nil gatherings, which are held at the ambassador’s residence, are Egyptian, numerous Saudi intellectual and officials have attended them from time to time.
On this occasion, it was attended by 32 Egyptian figures. Most of these were regular salon participants but others were talk show celebrities who had to arrange their busy schedules so that they could meet the prince and then rush off to the TV studios to meet their broadcasting deadlines.
Their attendance helped create a convivial atmosphere for the prince, as he knew all of them apart from the ones relatively new to celebrity status. The problem was how so many people would be able to speak with the prince or ask him a question.
I believe that all of them had tried to obtain an exclusive interview with him, as they would all be aware of the impact created by the interviews granted to columnist Thomas Friedman, Bloomberg news and major representatives of the Western press.
The eagerness to interview Mohamed bin Salman had to do, above all, with the fact that he has become the symbol of a major development: the modernisation of Saudi Arabia.
He has introduced reforms in the kingdom that no one in the world had ever imagined possible.
Many other countries in the world have undergone sweeping reform processes.
However, they generally had to do with the economy, politics or changes in the political-economic elites. In this case the sweeping reform includes, on top of the foregoing, the cultural and religious dimensions. From the journalistic perspective, the dosage is overwhelming.
Egyptians date the modernisation of Egypt from the beginning of the reign of Mohamed Ali in 1805.
Since then, the process has gone through various phases and many ups and downs, reaching its most recent stage under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who has been more radical in his approach with respect to both the economy and society and, specifically, society’s relationship with religion, the Copts and women.
In Saudi Arabia, the task is at once more difficult and more complicated in view of the kingdom’s conservative history.
Perhaps it was no coincidence, therefore, that the prince opened his remarks by addressing the need for Islam to “retrieve” its authentic benevolent principles which advocate horizons that are expansive, open and illuminating, rather than ones that are closed, confining and oppressive.
He offered a convincing narrative of how the Arab and Islamic world reached its current pitiful state.
In this history, 1979 marked a crucial turning point. That was the year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution and the occupation of the Kaaba by terrorists.
In that year, Egypt struck a kind of truce with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that would ultimately assassinate President Sadat. In Saudi Arabia, there was a general move towards embracing the ideas of such groups and restricting society.
If 1979 marked the shift towards such trends, do 2017 and 2018 mark the shift to the era of major transformations in the reform direction?
In these two years, Prince Mohamed bin Salman said, Egypt attained stability and bolstered development, the so-called “Islamic State” was defeated and the Iranian regime failed to achieve its ends in Yemen, as the legitimate Yemeni government now controls 90 per cent of the country.
The crown prince, through his youthful energy, eloquence, logic and diplomacy, if necessary (when the competition began over which speaker would get to speak first), succeeded in remaining a focal point in that large audience of 32 Egyptians eager to speak.
But this was also natural. Firstly, the audience was delighted by the prince’s story of change in the kingdom.
Secondly, his positive testimony concerning the change in Egypt was heartening.
Thirdly, his assessment of Egyptian-Saudi relations inspired enthusiasm.
Fourthly, he was vigorously upbeat, not just about the present, but also about the future.
This latter point is very important. The prince spoke, not of poverty management, but of wealth management.
Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia were wealthy in their resources, he said. He did not see an Arab region that was a victim of conditions characterised by failed states, Iranian domination of Arab capitals and foreign penetration into Arab lands.
Rather, he saw a region in the process of transformation in the framework of an Arab consortium binding Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Iraq, through a gradual and wise reconstruction process.
The prince, in short, sees the cup that is half full. He points to the money, energy, water, oil, gas and other assets above and below ground that we possess and that, with capable and effective leadership and management, will turn the balance of powers in favour of the Arab moderates, reformers and builders.
The crown prince also puts things in their proper perspective. The situation with Qatar is not the crisis that Doha says it is. The matter does not merit more than one official to handle it, one who ranks lower than a minister!
There was much in the crown prince’s remarks that gave me great pleasure, personally. His assessment of the Qatari situation was much as I have described it in this column on a number of occasions.
His depiction of the current Arab order confirms that the concept of a “Concert of Arabia” is no longer just a writer’s dream but an idea that is being translated into practical steps and programmes.
All of this comes as good news in a world that has grown accustomed to so much bad news.
Under such a state of optimism, the imagination soars, hopes multiply, dreams thrive and expectations rise. That is all very good, but only if we know how to rally a backbone of popular opinion behind it and safeguard it from despair and fear.
Intellectual elites have the ability to sustain the positivity and the ideas and strategies it generates.
Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s visit to Egypt was propitious, not least because his meeting with a group of Egyptian elites opened many eyes to a reality changing quickly in a positive direction.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly