Summary: a grand plan to wean Saudi Arabia off oil. Testing time for MbS.
On 25 April the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the King’s son Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), unveiled an ambitious programme of change and reform for Saudi Arabia “Vision 2030”. There is an English text published by the Saudi Press Agency at link though it appears it may be faulty; there is no text on pages 38 and 39, though the illustration
on page 38 suggests that there might be a section on women. The Arabic text at link appears to be the same.
The broad thrust of the report is that Saudi Arabia is to be weaned off its dependence on oil. There is much comment in the mainstream media on the proposals. Most commentators emphasise the great difficulty of moving Saudi Arabia away from dependence on oil. Examples of summaries of the main proposals and comment are those by Bloomberg (link and link), the Economist, the Financial Times, and Reuters (link and link).
Change and reform have almost always been on the agenda in Saudi Arabia, notably during the reigns of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud (founding of the kingdom to 1953), Faisal (1964 to 1975), Fahd (1982 to 2005) and Abdullah (2005 to 2015). It has faced strong opposition from the conservative heartland of Saudi Arabia and often from the religious and in particular from the Al al-Shaikh, the clan of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab which has been the essential ally of the Saudi family since the beginnings in the eighteenth century. Reform has always therefore been slow, conducted with great deliberation and subject to many setbacks.
This initiative has two striking new features. First it has been presented with a fanfare of publicity (mainly addressed to the international audience), starting with the title “Vision 2030”; the Economist refers to “manic optimism”. Secondly, although the King’s portrait is of course up front, it is presented as the initiative of MbS. In particular although he appears in a photograph with the King and MbS, the name of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif is nowhere mentioned, either in the text or in the publicity; see for example the Saudi press agency reports of the Cabinet decision approving the proposal, and the interview given by MbS yesterday 26 April.
It is an open question whether MbS can be more successful than previous Kings in implementing reform, and some commentators emphasise the political difficulties. The Tribune website quotes the economist Jason Tuvey in one briefing paper: “Given that the authorities will be coming up against significant vested interests within the royal family, the business elite and the religious establishment, we think that political concerns rather than oil prices are more likely to determine whether the government’s plans come to fruition,” and another analyst: “We do not know how much MBS can take the rest of the royal family with him.” Al Jazeera quotes another expert: “To implement some of these [new rules], you need the collaboration of society. For example, if you want to increase the empowerment of women, you need to liberalise your society.” A BBC report attempts to summarise positive and negative comments from Saudi Twitter users.
This is of course not the first time MbS has taken a daring initiative. As minister of defence he has the prime responsibility for the Yemen war, which could yet be a disaster for Saudi Arabia. In a report in the Financial Times on the collapse of the Doha oil talks on 18 April Roula Khalaf describes how he redirected Saudi oil policy, killing off the idea of a freeze on output and sidelining the experienced technocrat Ali al-Naimi, oil minister for more than twenty years, and concludes that “in the new Saudi reality, MbS’ influence is expanding and, once he speaks, only his father can contradict him.” There have been a number of reports suggesting that Saudi Arabia has been flirting with Israel (principally because of their common hostility to Iran).
There are other indications of tension between the government and the conservative establishment. The government recently took steps to rein in the religious police, removing their power of arrest. This may have triggered the arrest of a well-known and respected religious figure Shaikh Abd al-Aziz al-Tarifi (a report of the arrest on the website of the Dubai-based Gulf News appears to have been removed), although another report suggests that it was triggered by his accusation that the government is kowtowing to President Obama.
A “National Transformation Plan” which is to spell out more about the plan is due to be released in May or early June. The longer term future is uncertain. King Salman is eighty, and his health is poor. MbS’ position as effective CEO under his father has been consolidated in the last year (the anonymous commentator on Saudi affairs Mujtahidd expects him to be named Prime Minister). According to the rules Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif should succeed him. So it is not surprising that MbS is moving quickly.