Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

Where is Crown Prince Mohamed?

| Feb. 11, 2019

This is the winter of Mohammed bin Salman’s discontent. The young crown prince is beset on all sides by problems that would depress or deter most leaders, but there is no sign that his optimism or energy are flagging. Whether sheer determination will be enough to secure his success, however, seems more in doubt than ever.

Many of the crown prince’s challenges come from overseas. His international reputation is stained by the killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The U.S. Congress is increasingly determined to block arms sales to Riyadh for its stalemated war in Yemen. Then there’s the Saudis’ festering feud with Turkey, and their cold war with Iran. Finally, a global economic slowdown could erode oil demand, lower prices and diminish the revenue the kingdom badly needs to fund its biggest budget ever.

But the crown prince’s international challenges pale in comparison with those at home. His Vision 2030 plan to transform the kingdom foresees a vibrant private sector to wean the country off its dependence on oil revenues and its citizens off dependence on government. This vision—the product of more than $1 billion in consulting fees—already is proving overly ambitious in scope and time.

Over the past two years, consumer spending has collapsed and more than a million migrant residents have returned to neighboring South Asian countries as a result of the crown prince’s reforms. The Saudi private sector, long dependent on government contracts, was knocked to its knees by the government’s decision to halt contract payments to assess corruption. Riyadh’s moves to slash energy subsidies and raise non-oil revenues—by imposing levies on foreign workers as well as assessing a value-added tax on most sales—have also hit the economy hard.

In the capital, the heady optimism of previous years is giving way to a realization that change won’t be quick or painless. “We are trying to correct 50 years of bad policies in three to five years,” says one businessman. “It can’t be done.” An economist says of the crown prince: “The consultants sold him a development plan that can’t be done on the timetable given. It took South Korea 30 years to develop, why should Saudi think we can do it in 15?”

The crown prince has two responses to the dimming prospects of his reform program. On one hand, he seeks to distract Saudis with circuses. He has imported rock stars for concerts, has started construction near Riyadh of a new entertainment city three times the size of Disney World, and is developing a tourist industry that could open Saudi Arabia for the first time to millions of foreign visitors. These initiatives risk offending the most conservative Saudis while frustrating middle-class families for whom the new entertainment is unaffordable. Tickets to see Mariah Carey perform last month went for $80 to $500. The average office manager earns $4,000 a month but ordinary workers earn half that.

Yet while the crown prince gives with one hand, he takes with the other. Saudi Arabia has never been an open society, but the current government is clamping down on almost every form of actual and potential opposition. The space for public discussion—much less criticism—has over the past two years narrowed to nonexistent, even on social media. A liberal Saudi who used to tweet regularly says he has quit for fear that anything could lead to arrest. A conservative Saudi notes that “such exaggerated security control makes people ready to explode.”

But neither dread nor circuses are solving the problem. One father tells me he abhors that bargain. His teenage son has been in prison for two years because teachers reported to authorities a remark deemed treasonous. “When I visit him, I see Saudi mothers dressed in tight jeans and bare faces visiting their sons in prison,” he says. “I wonder, do they believe the freedom to dress like that is a fair trade for their sons having no freedom to speak?”

To be sure, not all Saudis feel alienated. Young women, especially, enjoy a measure of personal freedom that seemed unimaginable a year ago. More are moving into significant jobs. Crown Prince Mohammed is personally popular with progressive young Saudis who want the kingdom to enter the 21st century. Many have his smiling face as the screen saver on their iPhones.

Even businessmen disappointed with the pace of progress still credit the crown prince with his economic reform—notwithstanding the wreckage in the private sector along the way. The young ruler also has the support of the two men who matter most: President Trump and King Salman, who has given no indication of abandoning his ambitious son.

Since the Khashoggi killing, the king has assumed a more active public role, meeting foreign dignitaries without his son at his side. But by all indications the crown prince remains entirely in control of the levers of power. Government ministers still are hauled in regularly to report to him. Some are fired for failing to meet the targets of the Vision 2030, plan, whose 1,300 initiatives are tracked and reported quarterly to him by a new government entity.

The kingdom’s religious conservatives have been silenced if not entirely subdued. And members of the extended Al Saud family have been reduced to playing roles in a supportive chorus or sitting silently in their palaces. A royal relative as prominent as Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, who once strutted on the Saudi stage, now appears publicly as a hapless courtier. No one has failed to grasp the message the crown prince sent by incarcerating his royal relatives in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in November 2017 and freeing most only after taking $106 billion.

If the royal family is quieted, normal Saudi families face a new type of tension. This is a society in which men traditionally have ruled while women and children obeyed. No longer. Male domination is under challenge as more women seek financial independence. When men object, women can and do cite royal decrees affirming their rights to work and drive without a male guardian’s consent. “On the outside we hear change, change,” says a Saudi sociologist. “But inside the walls of every house there is war about who gets to make decisions.

This is the winter of discontent not only for the crown prince, but also for the society he rules. Still, the chaos in surrounding states seem to resign most Saudis to grudging patience with their prince.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen.“Where is Crown Prince Mohamed?.” The Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2019.