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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and His Battle Against Conservatism: a New Path for Saudi Arabia
Material posted: Publication date: 29-12-2019

It is not for nothing that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), a young and ambitious son of the Saudi King, is considered to be the most powerful, though controversial, leader in the Gulf region nowadays. Having become a crown prince, bin Salman set himself the seemingly unachievable task of transforming the international image of Saudi Arabia as an extremely conservative and religious country into the image of a modern state pursuing progressive agenda.

In 2017, the Saudi political landscape was shaken by the appearance of a new star, Mohammed bin Salman, who was appointed as the heir of the Saudi throne in circumvention of the historical tradition to transit the power to the sons and brothers of the first Saudi King Abdulaziz (known as Ibn Saud)[1]. Over a three-year period, bin Salman has succeeded to concentrate the levers of power in his own hands. Nowadays, due to the age and poor health of his father King Salman, 35-year-old Mohammed bin Salman acts as a de-facto ruler of the Kingdom. Political ventures of bin Salman, who seeks to strengthen his positions both within the country and on the international arena at whatever the cost, meet with a mixed reaction of the inner circle of the King and religious clerics. Not without a reason, however, since the reforms carried out by MBS not only clearly signal autocratic notes in the young heir’s rule, but also demonstrate bin Salman’s desire to carry out the transition of the country to a new, more progressive and innovative life.

Much has been said about the adventures of the Saudi crown prince in foreign policy. Nevertheless, his extravagant and surprising decisions related to the domestic affairs cannot be underestimated. Straight after his appointment as the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman underlined that he welcomes «a more moderate Islam»[2] in the Kingdom. Consequently, his reforms on women rights were reasoned in this context. For the first time in Saudi history, the women were granted a right to drive a car. This was a revolution for the conservative Saudi society, which is being repeatedly critisized because of the status of women.

That was just 2017. In 2018, Mohammed bin Salman has made another progressive decision. The Saudi women were allowed to travel without a male guardian; in addition, they were guaranteed the opportunity to register birth of their children and file for divorce without the consent of a male - truly unthinkable measures for the Saudi people. The same year, Saudi football stadium welcomed women for the first time ever[3]. In 2019, MBS rushed to the next reform, aiming at limiting gender segregation. In December, the Saudi women were granted the right to visit restaurants together with men, as separate entrances and spaces were not longer allowed[4].

Thus, Mohammed bin Salman has actively ploughed into the process of tackling a traditional problem for Saudi Arabia - the situation with the women rights. But the progress was not limited to this issue. Mohammed bin Salman decided to carry out total «re-branding» of Saudi lifestyle patterns. Following this, in 2017 Islamic religious police in Saudi Arabia was prohibited from detention of the citizens; Saudis were allowed to go to the cinemas; in August some of the most fanatical mosque imams were dismissed[5]. The economic sphere was impacted as well, when the crown prince introduced a new national strategy «Saudi Vision 2030». The main objectives of the «Vision» cover modernization of the economy, promotion of innovations and eradication of KSA’s dependence on oil. MBS believes that «…we [the Saudi people] can survive without oil» in the nearest future[6].

What is more, Mohammed bin Salman has set the goal to make Saudi Arabia a popular tourist destination. In 2019 a truly surprising decree was issued: for the first time in history, the Saudi government decided to issue travel visas for foreigners (earlier the visas were issued only for those performing a so-called hajj - pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina)[7] . The decision is implemented in «innovative» style: visitors from 49 approved states (including Russia) don’t need to visit embassy to apply for a visa. Instead, an e-visa can be issued via the website in an hour and a half. Besides, the Saudi authorities have launched a media campaign on social media. The campaign promotes Saudi attractions and cultural heritage under the hashtag #visitsaudi. In addition, Saudi Arabia has changed its dress code for foreign women - they are not required to wear hand scarf or traditional abaya anymore. In 2018, for the first time ever, Saudi capital Riyadh hosted E-Prix championship - an alternative to traditional Formula-1. The same year, foreign singers and artists were allowed to perform in the Kingdom.

Obviously, Mohammed bin Salman, having adopted the best practices of KSA’s neighbour the UAE, decided to turn the Kingdom into a technological hub. Under his directions, the Saudi government has launched an ambitious project on building a «city of future» called NEOM, that promises to become the main centre for innovations in the Middle East[8]. It is believed that NEOM would represent a smart city and popular tourist attraction and would be built by 2025. It is interesting that in 2017 Saudi Arabia was the first state to grant a citizenship for a robot[9]. By the way, from now on, Saudi Arabia is allowed to grant citizenship for foreigners, to be exact, for particular groups of foreigners - inventors, scientists, specialists in technologies, innovations and medicine. Earlier the Saudi society couldn’t even imagine such a decision being made, since in the Gulf region it is nearly impossible to become a citizen[10].

So we can admit that over a three-year period passed since the MBS’ appointment as crown prince, Saudi Arabia has taken a huge step forward in its development, as the young heir seeks gradual rejection of conventional and religious Saudi lifestyle, breaking stereotypical views on KSA. Nevertheless, despite of progressive reforms, bin Salman faces a range of problems.

For example, in terms of women rights, there still exist many laws limiting these rights. Women in Saudi Arabia, especially activists and human right advocates, are still subject to inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention and unfair trial. As for tourism, many specialists suppose that the Kingdom is not ready to become a tourist hub, in comparison with, for example, the UAE.

In general, the reforms are regarded as a facade used to cover actual state of things in the conservative Saudi society that opposes fundamental changes. The reforms carried out by the young but extremely ambitious crown prince meet with rejection and criticism of clerics and members of the ruling family and powerful clans. At the current stage, the candidacy of Mohammed bin Salman as a Saudi King is unlikely to be accepted by many tribes. For this reason, peaceful transition of power is questionable in the event of death of current King Salman. There is every likelihood that Saudi Arabia would be dragged into chaos because of the race for power and the desire of some members of the society to get rid of MBS.

Anastasia Ilyukhina

 

[1] تعيين محمد بن سلمان وليا للعهد ذروة قيادة ثورة في السعودية [Appointment of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown Prince –the peak of the revolution in the Saudi government]. URL: http://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-40353620

[2] Saudi crown prince promises 'a more moderate Islam’. URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/10/24/middleeast/saudi-arabia-prince-more-moderate-islam/index.html

[3]Saudi football stadium welcomes women for the first time. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/12/saudi-football-stadiums-prepare-welcome-women-first-time

[4] السعودية تلغي تخصيص المطاعم لمدخلين منفصلين للرجال والنساء [Saudi Arabia abolishes the division of spaces restaurants on the basis of gender] https://www.dw.com/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D9%84%D8%BA%D9%8A-%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%B5%D9%8A%D8%B5-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B7%D8%A7%D8%B9%D9%85-%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%AE%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%86%D9%81%D8%B5%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%AC%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%A1/a-51581147

[5] Restructuring-Saudi. What reforms to expect from the future king of Saudi Arabia URL: http://carnegie.ru/commentary/75125

[6] “I Think in 2020 we will be able to live without oil” URL: https://www.vedomosti.ru/business/characters/2016/04/26/639099-dumayu-2020-smozhem-zhit-bez-nefti

[7]Saudi Arabia invites tourists: what you need to know https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/27/travel/saudi-tourist-visa-questions.html

[8] There's no place like NEOM. The Economist, 2017, 425 (9064), 45-46

[9] Saudi Arabia becomes the first country to grant citizenship to a robot. URL: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/10/26/saudi-arabia-first-country-grant-citizenship-robot-sophia-technology-artificial-intelligence-ai/

[10]Saudi Arabia to grant citizenship to people innovative https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/saudi-arabia-to-grant-citizenship-to-innovative-people-1.947128


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