Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

The 30-Year-Old Saudi Revolutionary

| May 11, 2016

It is testing time for the House of Saud. Until last year, the monarchy had been treading water for half a century under the leadership of the increasingly aged and infirm sons of its founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Then a 29-year-old grandson, Mohammed bin Salman, was named deputy crown prince by his father, King Salman, and put in charge of the economy, national defense and the Saudi oil giant, Aramco. In late January, on the anniversary of his ascension to power, he began opening the curtains on his sweeping vision to transform his country -- and his countrymen.

That vision includes reducing the country's dependence on oil; privatizing the economy, including a slice of Aramco; turning Saudi citizens from dependents of the government into self-reliant individuals; expanding work opportunities for women; creating more jobs for young people; imposing taxes for the first time; encouraging a more-moderate form of Islam; and even sanctioning various forms of public entertainment -- this, in a country that bans cinema. The prince's vision is little short of revolutionary.

There is no shortage of skeptics within and beyond the royal family, with its more than 7,000 princes, many of whom are devoutly conservative and fear any change that upsets the established order and princely privileges.

And not only princes are discomforted. For generations, Saudi citizens have been brought up in the belief that the kingdom's unique social compact guaranteed them security and prosperity in exchange for loyalty, or at least acquiescence, to the Al Saud royal family. What are Saudis to make of a vision in which they are to take responsibility for themselves and for producing their own prosperity? And, if that part of the compact has been changed, what degree of loyalty will they still extend to the Al Saud? These fundamental questions invite another: What is the future of Saudi Arabia?

Mohammad bin Salman, now 30, is not oblivious to the risks and seems to understand the stakes. Given the challenges the kingdom faces -- greatly reduced oil revenue, widespread unemployment among restive Saudi youth, continuing threats from a hegemonic Iran and the appeal of Islamic State terrorism -- he clearly has concluded that the risks of radical change pale beside the risks inherent in the status quo.

"Our ambition is for the long term," he said in announcing Vision 2030 in late April. "It goes beyond replenishing sources of income that have weakened or preserving what we have already achieved. We are determined to build a thriving country in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions." On the subject of oil the prince said, "We don't care about oil prices -- $30 or $70 a barrel. It is not my battle."

Stability since the founding of the modern Saudi state in 1932 has rested on three pillars: the Al Saud royal family; its handmaiden, the Wahhabi religious establishment; and oil wealth that has bought loyalty. The young prince is shaking two of those three pillars to their foundations.

Espousing the goal of a more-moderate and tolerant Islam is diametrically opposed to the harsh and intolerant Wahhabi religious philosophy.

Saying that the price of oil is inconsequential turns on its head 50 years of Saudi economic history in which oil has provided roughly 90% of the country's treasury.

In a country where for generations almost nothing changed, everything now suddenly seems up for grabs. Saudi Arabia is very far from a democracy, so there are no public referendums on the new agenda. But there are at least three groups whose views will matter if Mohammad bin Salman's plans have a chance of succeeding.

The first and most obvious are those in the royal and religious elites who are potentially most threatened. This includes at least some royal uncles and cousins for whom the status quo is fine and who resent the power that the young and inexperienced Mohammed bin Salman has so suddenly been granted by his father, King Salman. Were the king to die without having installed his son as crown prince, replacing Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, the young deputy crown prince likely would be jettisoned by the new king along with much of his vision. This group of potential opponents also includes die-hard conservatives within the Wahhabi religious establishment, though they have been loyal to King Salman.

Second, there are those influential Saudis, including some princes, business people and technocrats, who support some of Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ideas but are dubious that such a sweeping vision can be transformed into effective plans, and plans into constructive action. Over the years, far less ambitious reform agendas have died on the shelves of government ministries. The prince has yet to offer details about what he intends, but he continues to fire ministers, reorganize ministries (including oil) and take concrete steps to create a government that can execute the changes he envisions.

Third, there are Saudi young people. Seventy percent of the Saudi population is, like the prince, 30 years of age or younger. Many are unemployed. Even more are frustrated and ready for change. Some want a more open, modern and moderate society; others, though fewer, want Saudi Arabia to return to its religious Wahhabi roots and view the Al Saud as puppets of the West. Among these are the targets of Islamic State recruiters. But the prince and his agenda seem to have the support of most young people, who like his informality, energy and enterprise.

Regardless of potential opposition, the deputy crown prince is pressing ahead. One senses that he sees himself as the modern-day equivalent of his illustrious grandfather, Ibn Saud, who fought a 30-year civil war to subdue rival power centers and reclaim Arabia for the Al Saud, founding the third Saudi state more than 80 years ago.

Mohammed bin Salman's challenge is no less arduous. He wants to found a fourth Saudi state distinct from that of his grandfather's. And success -- if he achieves it -- is likely to take him as long as it took his grandfather.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen Elliott.“The 30-Year-Old Saudi Revolutionary.” The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2016.

The Author