A Kingdom Full of Youth
Saudis have a young Crown Prince — only 31 years of age — who has loomed large in the Arab world for the past two years.
With the appointment of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, vertical transition — the transfer of power from father to son — has been restored in Saudi Arabia, granting the kingdom vitality and stability. Most monarchs across the world follow this trend, mostly due to the fact that horizontal transition — that is, from brother to brother — has a tendency to sow instability and cause friction within the ruling family. For over a century, transition of power in Saudi Arabia has been an affair among the offspring of the kingdom’s founding father, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud — until Mohammad bin Salman dramatically, yet peacefully and consensually, broke the streak. The shift was welcomed by senior princes who work to safeguard the continuity of the ruling system.
It is fitting that a young person be groomed to take the helm in a country in which 65 percent of the population is under the age of 29. Policies the young prince has championed reflect the sensibilities and aspirations of the country’s youthful majority. Saudi youth tend to be more open-minded toward contemporary global norms. They also respect contemporary approaches to governance — such as the use of performance indicators, a mainstay of Mohammad bin Salman’s “Vision 2030.”
Before Prince Mohammad bin Salman became heir apparent, a question was often posed: What happens to the regime when the founding father’s offspring all pass away? This question no longer bears the same importance, as the entire structure of the ruling authority has changed. Now the Prince will do his utmost to safeguard the third historical epoch in modern Saudi history, and populate government with new talent.
A young government in partnership with its young society can develop programs, strategies, and results that achieve prosperity. King Salman’s first cabinet in 2015 brought numerous young voices into the upper echelons of government for the first time. The Crown Prince, for his part, understands that Saudi Arabia’s youth bulge, today a source of promise and potential, will one day pose a great challenge. In 30 years, a vast swath of the population will reach retirement age all at once and require social security and added health care.
The smooth transition of succession to Mohammad bin Salman should also provide assurance that a steady hand is co-navigating the region’s political and economic volatility.
Iran’s government of clerics has meanwhile been betting on the probability of a palace coup if King Salman were to appoint his son Crown Price. Now it has lost that bet. The transition was rendered smooth not only by the consensus and legitimacy offered by the Allegiance Council and senior clergy, but also with the blessing of the people. It was also enhanced by the trust and goodwill Prince Mohammad bin Salman has accrued over the past two years as a new strategy was quickly forming. He won points for granting greater authority to younger figures, and for the popularity of changes to the cabinet and leadership positions in the areas where he achieved a steering role.
Over the past two years, as the Prince began to mobilize government to implement new policies, he revealed aspects of the model of administration he prefers. As noted above, he has implemented performance indicator techniques to measure outcomes. He holds his deputies accountable, and implements swift personnel changes according to their performance. In doing so, he sends a clear message to officials: Their only job security lies in delivering results for the population. His ministers have therefore been compelled to work harder. Each strives to impress. The energy in the cabinet manifests through the bold ideas that arise from their deliberations.
A further dimension of the Prince’s political realism and strategic decisiveness manifests in the way he has managed various foreign files, notably with respect to Qatar and Yemen. The leadership in Doha has posed successive political dilemmas to Saudi Arabia which have been accumulating for years. Prince Mohammad bin Salman has formulated a clearcut position that it is no longer acceptable to sweep these matters under the rug. To outside observers, Saudi Arabia’s bold moves vis a vis Qatar may appear out of character. Saudi Arabia has long taken a conciliatory approach in its relationship with all its Arab neighbors, in particular the Gulf. In any conflict, it has always been the first to deescalate. But Qatar’s crescendoing antagonism to Saudi Arabia has become an obstacle to the latter’s vision to confront terrorism in the region. The Prince chose to turn the tables and set a new precedent in intra-GCC policy. In doing so, he has confused Qatari calculations.
In the economic realm, the Prince has forged a new doctrine, built on the best practices for modern economic development that have been tested and honed in numerous countries. He has stopped the bleeding of the national wealth, so common in patriarchal systems of authority. Within the coming years, government institutions are expected to develop into platforms sustained through taxes that are recycled into services. The Crown Prince understands that in order to normalize the practice of taxation in Saudi Arabia, a cultural process is in order to wean a spoiled society off its feeling of entitlement. It will begin with taxes on luxury items, particularly those that are also health hazards, namely cigarettes. The Prince’s ministers will be studying the psychological impact of the evolving tax regime and tweaking the rollout as required.
The international community has come to accept Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his visions as compatible with positive reforms in the region and a peaceful international order. In launching the “Islamic Coalition Against Terrorism,” he made it clear to the international community that he wants Saudi Arabia to be a principal actor in combating political doctrines that use religious slogans. These groups, in his view, have harmed the perception of Islam and Muslims. After U.S. President Donald Trump visited Riyadh in May, he said that the Saudis have serious plans to eradicate the roots of terrorism. The economic cost of this coalition will be high, but the young prince believes that Saudi Arabia bears responsibility to forge Muslim unity in tolerance, and end the dynamic that has caused Westerners to associate Islam with terrorism.
In sum, decisive economic and tax reform, and decisive management of the Saudi cabinet all speak to the prince’s determination to achieve reform. The Prince realizes that there is much to change in his country. He must revitalize the society and open the public discussion to diverse voices. In establishing a government committee to develop entertainment in the kingdom, he will end the sucking of billions of Saudi riyals out of the country and into the tourist havens of Dubai and Bahrain. A hallmark of success will be the opening of movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, many Saudis hope and expect that the Crown Prince will review all the country’s most pressing social issues through a progressive lens — beginning with the cause of women’s rights. Ending the ban on women driving will of course be a welcome step.