Young prince in a hurry – The Economist
THE Al Sauds once again hold court in Diriya, their ancestral capital that was laid waste by the Ottoman empire and is being lovingly restored as a national tourist attraction. This is where the Al Sauds forged their alliance in the 18th century with a Muslim revivalist preacher, Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab—a pact that to this day fuses the modern Saudi state with the puritanism of Wahhabi Islam. And this is where Muhammad bin Salman (pictured), the 30-year-old deputy crown prince who is the power behind the throne of his elderly father, King Salman, receives foreign guests in a walled complex.
One side of his reception room is decorated with the spears, swords and daggers of tradition. The other is dominated by a large television, showing the casual horrors of the Middle East and the repercussions of his own actions play out on rolling news: the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, (and 46 others accused of terrorism and sedition, mostly linked to al-Qaeda jihadists) led to a mob ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran and, in retaliation, to the kingdom severing diplomatic relations with Iran.
Talking late into the night with the news left on throughout, Prince Muhammad discusses his country’s interventionist foreign policy and its uncompromising response to terrorism and sedition. Asked whether the kingdom’s actions were stoking regional tensions, he said that things were already so bad they could scarcely get any worse. “We try as hard as we can not to escalate anything further,” he says; and he certainly does not expect war. But for his entourage, Saudi Arabia has no choice but to stop Iran from trying to carve out a new Persian empire.
If his defence of Saudi foreign policy was unrepentant, even more striking was his ambition to remake the entire Saudi state by harnessing the power of markets. No economic reform is taboo, say his officials: not the shedding of do-nothing public-sector workers, not the abolition of subsidies that Saudis have come to see as their birthright, not the privatisation of basic services such as education and health care. And not even the sale of shares in the crown jewel: Saudi Aramco, the secretive national oil and gas producer that is the world’s biggest company (see article).
At 80, the newish King Salman is part of the same gerontocracy that has run the country for decades. But he has entrusted much of his realm to Prince Muhammad, who is in a hurry to awaken it from its torpor. He knows that, for all its ostentatious luxury, the country faces huge problems. The oil price has plunged. Arab states all around have collapsed. In the vacuum, Iran, the Shia power that has long alarmed Sunni Arabs, has spread its influence across the region, particularly through the militias it grooms—in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and most recently in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s underbelly. The Arab world is confronted not just by a Shia Crescent, “but by a Shia full moon”, says one confidant of the prince. As well as Shia militants, Saudi Arabia also faces resurgent Sunni jihadists: a revived al-Qaeda in Yemen to the south, and Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria to the north. Both seek to lure young Saudis raised on the same textbooks and homilies that the jihadists use.
Pillars of the House of Saud
The Al Sauds have survived by making three compacts: with the Wahhabis to burnish their Islamic credentials as the custodians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina; with the population by providing munificence in exchange for acquiescence to absolutist rule; and with America to defend Saudi Arabia in exchange for stability in oil markets.
But all three of these covenants are fraying. America is semi-detached from the Middle East. The plummeting price of oil, which provides almost all of the government’s revenues, means the old economic model can no longer sustain the swelling and unproductive population. And the alliance with obscurantists brings threats, because they provide intellectual sustenance to jihadists, and form an obstacle even to modest social reforms that must be part of any attempt to wean the country off oil and create a more productive economy.
Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia’s many critics have dusted off their obituaries of the House of Saud. But for Prince Muhammad the lesson of the Arab spring, and of history, is that regimes that lack deep roots are doomed to be swept away; by implication the Al Sauds are here to stay.
Yet he knows that change must come, and fast. He has injected new energy into government, and is taking huge gambles. What he lacks in experience and foreign travel, he compensates for with confidence, focus and a battery of consultants’ reports. He reels off numbers and policies with ease, pausing only to take a call from John Kerry, America’s secretary of state. He speaks in the first person, as if he were already king even though he is only second in line. Over five hours King Salman is mentioned once; his cousin, the crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, does not figure at all, though he is in charge of internal security and may be biding his time.
No crisis wasted
Such is Prince Muhammad’s frenetic activity that officials reel and outsiders regard him as a bullock in a china shop. Just weeks after his father made him defence minister, fighter jets from Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s richest state, led a coalition into action against the Houthi militias of its poorest, Yemen. To critics who say he was rash to intervene in a land that has bloodied foreign armies before, Prince Muhammad says the action, if anything, came too late: the Shia Houthis, with Iran’s help, had taken the country and sophisticated weapons, such as jets and Scud missiles. Scuds are occasionally fired at Saudi targets; thousands of Saudis living near Yemen have been evacuated to avoid rockets and artillery fire. In Syria he plans to send special forces against IS. (The crown prince is said to be more cautious, fearing blowback from jihadists).
Prince Muhammad’s most dramatic moves may be at home. He seems determined to use the collapse in the price of oil, from $115 a barrel in 2014 to below $35, to enact radical economic reforms. This begins with fiscal retrenchment. Even after initial budget cuts last year, Saudi Arabia recorded a whopping budget deficit of 15% of GDP. Its pile of foreign reserves has fallen by $100 billion, to $650 billion. Even with its minimal debt of 5% of GDP, Saudi Arabia’s public finances are unsustainable for more than a few years (see chart).
His budget, unveiled in December, cuts subsidies on water, electricity and fuel. These were aimed mostly at big consumers, including the myriad royal princes. “I don’t deserve these subsidies,” he says. Even so, Saudis witnessed the rare sight of people queuing to buy petrol before the prices rose by 50% on January 1st. This month Saudis accustomed to leaving on the air-conditioner when going on holiday will receive dearer electricity and water bills. Within five years, the plan is that Saudis should be paying market prices, probably with compensation in the form of direct payments for poorer citizens.
Ministries have halted expenditure on cars, furniture and showcase projects. The government is scrutinising allowances and overtime claims to save money. Soon Saudis will for the first time pay value-added tax of 5% on non-essentials, in a move co-ordinated with other members of the six-country Gulf Co-operation Council. Prince Muhammad is adamant that there will be no income or wealth taxes, but he plans to balance the budget in five years.
Under his “Transformation Plan 2020”, set for publication by the end of the month, the prince wants to develop alternatives to oil and drastically to cut the public payroll, which acts as a form of unemployment benefit. To do so he wants to create jobs for a workforce that will double by 2030. Ministers speak of doubling private education to cover 30% of students, establishing charter schools and transforming public health care into an insurance-based system with expanded private provision. In addition to Aramco, the prince wants to sell stakes in state assets from telecoms to power stations and the national airline. The government is to sell land to developers, such as the 4m square metres it owns around Mecca, the most expensive real estate in the world. The prince sees huge promise in developing Islamic tourism to the holy sites; he hopes to boost the 18m annual visitors to 35m-45m in five years.
Sceptics abound. Reform has long been talked about but never implemented. Prince Muhammad’s ministers are astute, have PhDs from Western universities and speak the jargon of key performance indicators, but much of the government is deadweight. Even the unemployment figures are subject to doubt. “Few bits of the bureaucracy actually function at a high level,” says a Western diplomat. Even senior advisers question the kingdom’s capacity to find and absorb the trillions of dollars on which the plan is predicated.
In Jeddah, the commercial capital on the Red Sea, some businessmen remain sceptical, and speak more of exporting their wealth than investing it in the country. There is also suspicion of hidden motives. With each new elderly monarch, they say, favoured sons have indulged in self-aggrandisement, leaving courtiers to disguise their acquisitions as privatisations and economic reforms. Media reports of Prince Muhammad’s lavish parties in the Maldives and the crown prince’s house-hunting for a Sardinian villa worth half a billion euros are fodder for social media, of which Saudis are keen users.
As the man who ultimately controls the Public Investment Fund, the destination for many assets to be sold, and who has taken direct oversight of Aramco, the prince is already the subject of some muttering. What is true is that, for all his talk of transparency, his government continues to treat royal and state expenses as one and same; the royal component is a state secret.
A bigger challenge for the reformers is the fact that the prince’s dizzying changes amount to, in effect, a rewriting of the Saudi social contract. Why, mutter some Saudis, should we tighten our belts when the princes continue to enjoy untold riches? And for all his boldness in economic matters, he remains obtuse when it comes to political liberalisation that might help secure consent for the economic revolution. A tiny number of women have recently campaigned for and won seats in municipal elections, under changes brought in by the late King Abdullah; who more than a decade ago had promised Saudis “true democracy” in 20 years. It is nowhere in sight.
Government repression has intensified. “It has never been this bad,” says one campaigner for women’s rights. Indeed, counter-terror legislation passed in 2014 makes virtually all dissent a terrorist offence. The evidence is all around: lawyers representing troublesome clients have found themselves behind bars; preachers who used to pronounce against corruption stick strictly to their anodyne scripts; and stand-up comedians have stopped poking fun at royals. Tellingly, more people have been executed in King Salman’s first year in office than in any of the previous 20.
In a country where concerts, public movies and female performances are banned, the prince talks of the “entertainment crisis”, and about his own children lacking things to do. Here and there, he seems ready to try to loosen the grip of the clerics. His latest education minister, Ahmed al-Eissa, is an academic whose book on the dreadful state of Saudi schools, which he blames in part on the restrictions placed by “religious culture”, remains banned in the kingdom. Private schools, still barred from teaching evolution, would have a freer hand to set their curriculum and choose pedagogic materials beyond those designed by the clerics.
The prince says that he supports women working, not least to reduce the fertility rate: “A large portion of my productive factors are unutilised,” he says. “I have population growth reaching very scary figures.” These days Saudi Arabia has more women in the workplace, but female labour-force participation is still very low, at 18%. Prince Muhammad thinks women are not taking full advantage of the opportunities they already have: “A large percentage of Saudi women are used to the fact of staying at home. They’re not used to being working women.” Still, he is in no mood to challenge the ban on women driving—even though some might want to lay off their chauffeurs in such straitened times. “I do not want to get involved in this issue as it is Saudi society that will decide whether to accept it or not.”
The country’s regional assertiveness also presents a threat to the planned transformation. Spending on defence and security, has grown from 7% of GDP in 2012 to 10% in 2015, and is set to rise again in 2016.
Drumming up allies, including the 34-country counter-terrorism coalition that the prince announced in December (to the bemusement and surprise of some of its putative members) is proving costly. It has recently promised $8 billion for Egypt. Saudi Arabia is financing a proxy war in Syria and waging a full-scale one in Yemen, which has dragged on longer than initially flagged. Nevertheless for some, the sight of Saudi Arabia standing up forcefully for Sunnis against Iran is part of the antidote to the jihadists’ poisonous ideology.
Uncle Sam, we need you
Surprisingly, perhaps, for a Saudi royal with no Western education, Prince Muhammad speaks about America passionately. “The United States has to realise that they are the Number One in the world, and they have to act like it,” he says; the sooner America steps back into the region—even with boots on the ground—the better.
Prince Muhammad’s schemes do not appear to be inspired by ideology. Many of the ideas he is pursuing have lurked in ministers’ drawers for years. Others follow examples from elsewhere, be it charter schools in America, public-private partnerships in Britain or the abolition of fuel subsidies in Egypt (and Iran). Instead they are born of necessity. The conjunction of a fall in oil prices, a geopolitical crisis and a hyperactive prince afford a once-in-a-generation chance to modernise the country.
The Arab spring has shown time and again that post-colonial Arab states are singularly dysfunctional (see page 41). That raises serious doubts about Saudi Arabia’s ability to reform. But the regime has little choice: its survival may depend on it.
Transcript of full interview with the prince: Economist.com/saudi_interview