Marking five years since the launch of his modernisation campaign, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman gave a lengthy interview to a Saudi satellite channel, reviewing what had been achieved and describing future moves. Bold reforms in Saudi Arabia began right after King Salman assumed power in early 2015 following the death of his predecessor king Abdullah Bin Abdul- Aziz. Some modernisation steps were timidly taken under king Abdullah, but the pace of change accelerated with the launch of Prince Mohamed’s reform plan, Vision 2030, in April 2016.
Unprecedented measures were introduced as the prince, who first held the post of defence minister, became crown prince in June 2017. The religious police, Muttaween, was all but abolished, women were given the right to drive and move around without a male guardian, and more work opportunities were created. Entertainment, tourism and other non-oil sectors of the economy were also rapidly developed.
Some of the bolder moves were not welcomed by Saudi conservatives, especially fundamental religious groups. But the younger generations support the crown prince and aspire to more.
Though economic reform took up much of the TV interview, Bin Salman also talked about other aspects of Saudi domestic and foreign policy. A change of tone towards arch-rival Iran was widely quoted all over the globe. It took place against the backdrop of a reported meeting between Saudi and Iranian officials in Baghdad early in April. Neither Riyadh nor Tehran confirmed the reports.
“Iran is a neighbouring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran… We do not want Iran to be in a difficult situation. On the contrary, we want Iran to prosper and grow. We have interests in Iran and they have interests in the kingdom to propel the region and the world to growth and prosperity,” the crown prince said, adding that his country is working with regional and global partners to find solutions to Tehran’s negative behaviour. He also highlighted problems arising from Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes and support for proxies around the Middle East: “We hope to overcome them and build a good and positive relationship with Iran that would benefit everyone.”
On the economy, Bin Salman reiterated the main theme of Saudi Arabia’s vision: diversifying the economy to be less dependent on oil revenues. He said that Saudi Arabia’s non-oil revenues have increased by more than 200 per cent since the Vision 2030 plan started five years ago. “If we look back, oil has helped to develop our country for centuries so we’ve always had the impression that we need to depend on oil… But the increase in population will not allow us to depend on oil production at the rate we are going… Oil is still the main source of income for the state… My intention is to make sure that the country is secure, safe and has a better future to look forward to,” he said in the 90-minute interview.
Despite global hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Saudi crown prince said he believes his country is back on track in terms of growth. He firmly stated: “We are close to achieving the overall aims and goals of Vision 2030. We are on the right track… We will see a strong rebound in our economic performance and achievements this year... Our goal is to ensure that the [Public Investment] Fund achieves growth. We aim to increase the fund’s assets to 10 trillion riyals [$2.65 trillion] by 2030.”
But in an article last week, The Economist described these targets as too ambitious. “On March 31st the crown prince announced a plan to invest 27trn riyals ($7trn) in domestic projects over the next decade. These numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt. Saudi Arabia’s GDP last year was 2.5trn riyals; Prince Mohamed’s target would mean absorbing an annual investment the size of the kingdom’s entire economy,” the report said. It concluded that Prince Mohamed is venturing into “a rapid transfer of wealth: money that has accumulated for generations in state coffers will flood the Saudi economy in a decade. The urgency is needed after decades of sluggish policymaking. But it is a risky bet. So much investment might help industries such as tourism and tech. But it might just as well empty the PIF’s coffers simply to buy a herd of white elephants.”
These cool-headed economic analyses might not be relevant to millions of young Saudis who have been keen on change for decades. “Even if bold changes are seen by academics and religious fundamentalists as far-fetched, we see it as the best way forward for our country”, a Saudi university lecturer told Al-Ahram Weekly. He is confident that his generation and younger generations are in favour of what the crown prince is doing.
“The interview couldn’t go without annoying interventions by extremists and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and others. They twisted what Bin Salman said to launch a social media campaign claiming the crown prince is deviating from true Islam - in fact, they meant their interpretation of Islam.”
What the prince said was that “Extremism in all things is wrong”, in a direct condemnation of those groups who are practising terrorism under religious slogans. “Being an extremist in anything, whether in religion or our culture or our Arab identity, is a serious matter based on our prophet’s teachings, life experience and from the history we read… These people should not be representing our religion, nor our divine principles in any way, shape or form,” Prince Mohamed said.
Actually, the bold changes led by the crown prince are mainly steering the kingdom away from the rigid Wahhabi course and reclaiming true Islam, as the Saudi lecturer said. In his interview, Bin Salman said that opening up Saudi Arabian society does not mean long-held traditions are being jettisoned. He reiterated, “the Holy Quran is our constitution and the government’s policies and statutes depend on it.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly