Revolution from Above Prince bin Salman Drags Saudi Arabia into Modernity
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to drag his country into modernity. While many of the reforms he has introduced have been broadly welcomed, he is demanding absolute obedience.
Saudi Arabia is a land of strict rules. Elders tell the generations behind them what to do - first in a friendly manner, but then with force if needed. Younger generations, meanwhile, don't contradict their elders, following their dictates and enduring indignities until they are themselves the ones giving orders. This is the path to boshret kheir, say the Bedouins, a better tomorrow. But ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken the reins in Riyadh and begun breaking with the rules of the past, those two words have taken on a new meaning.
Riyadh these days is a city in upheaval. Almost nothing is left of the old order that ruled here until a few months ago, a development that became impossible to ignore last November. That is when the government had hundreds of members of the royal family, businesspeople and other influential Saudis imprisoned in the Ritz Carlton luxury hotel to confiscate their wealth -- wealth which they had allegedly accumulated through corruption.
Although there has always been competition from within the royal family, and criticism of its behavior from outside, the approximately 15,000 princes and princesses and their hangers-on were widely seen as untouchable. That's no longer the case. Perhaps the strangest thing about this uprising against the wealthy and the powerful, though, is that it is coming from above, from a 32-year-old who is rebelling against his own class in the hopes of ultimately being the last man standing.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman is the favorite son of the current ruler, King Salman, who has tapped the designated crown prince to reform the country. In doing so, the king has handed the prince far reaching powers. Recently, MBS, as he is called in his homeland, traveled through the United States, receiving a warm welcome from President Donald Trump in Washington and assurances that Saudi Arabia was a good friend of America's.
Afterwards MBS headed west, where he met with talk show star Oprah Winfrey, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Google mastermind Sergey Brin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush hosted him in Texas. At the heart of the visit was the prince's effort to sell all of them on his reform package known as Vision 2030.
Deep Desire for Power
The visit also provided an opportunity to discuss important foreign policy issues with U.S. officials, such as the Trump administration's hardline against Iran, which Trump's new National Security Advisor John Bolton supports, and the war in Yemen.
To many, the approximately two-week-long visit was reminiscent of a similar trip taken 75 years ago by Faisal bin Abdulaziz, who would go on to become king. That visit marked the beginning of the special relationship between the U.S. and the desert state, which was only founded in 1932.
Like King Faisal, Mohammad bin Salman possesses a deep desire for power. But he also has little experience, which some consider to be a potentially dangerous combination. Since the raids targeting hundreds of influential businessmen and the old political leadership, fear is present in every conversation - the fear of being the next one to be interrogated, arrested or even tortured. Reports from those who were locked up, in addition to reports of a death at the Ritz, indicate that such fears may not be farfetched.
Saudi Arabia is currently reinventing itself and nobody knows if this drastic transformation will succeed. Will the country be able to once again boost its economy, with mid-sized businesses and a service economy of its own? Can it really cast off the chains of the religious fundamentalists?
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Over 86 years after oil was first discovered here - an event that took place just a few years after the nation was founded by Ibn Saud - the country of Saudi Arabia finds itself at the end of an era. For the eight-and-a-half decades it has been living off its oil riches, the ruling family has thought itself secure. Until Prince Mohammad bin Salman came along.
It can be helpful to view the situation in Riyadh from a distance -- from the top of the Kingdom Center, for example, a skyscraper that is considered the city's icon and a symbol of seemingly unstoppable, dizzying progress. The Kingdom Center was built by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a grandson of state founder Ibn Saud. Prince Alwaleed is among those who were arrested and forced to give up a large part of their wealth in the Ritz. It's still unclear how much of this shimmering tower still belongs to him.
Thinner and Grayer
At the top, 302 meters (990 feet) up, the Sky Bridge allows a 360-degree view of the desert plateau upon which today's Riyadh sprawls. In 1950, only about 80,000 people lived here.
Down below, broad avenues lead in all directions. What begins as King Fahd Road in the heart of Riyadh ultimately leads to the region of Qassim, which is home to the city of Buraidah, a stronghold of the conservatives who share power with the royal family. King Khalid Road goes to the two most important holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. And King Abdullah Road heads northeast to Dammam. That's where the oil is. The trio of main arterials are named after the kings that transformed the desert into a modern metropolis using petrodollars, steel and cement. Today, Riyadh is home to over 6 million inhabitants.
Before his arrest on November 4, Forbes listed Prince Alwaleed in spot 45 of its list of the world's billionaires with a fortune of $18.7 billion. The 62-year-old holds stakes in Twitter and the Four Seasons hotel chain and was the richest private businessman in the Arab world. A call from the king reached him in a desert camp that night and he made his way to the Ritz without knowing what was in store for him.
When he was finally released from captivity after almost three months, the billionaire was thinner, having lost 5 kilograms (11 pounds), and his hair was grayer. To this day, nobody knows for sure what took place in the five-star hotel. In an interview, the prince denied rumors of torture, coercion and abuse: "I had everything, it was almost like being at home." A confidante of the businessman, however, told DER SPIEGEL the prince was forced to relinquish control over a large part of his holdings, including his majority stake in the Rotana Group media company.
Prince Alwaleed's most ambitious project exists in miniature at the entrance to his office - a silver, pyramid-shaped skyscraper. It was supposed to become the tallest building in the world, with an estimated price tag of $1.2 billion. Now, though, it will apparently not be allowed to be built - at least not by him. Instead, Prince Alwaleed's Kingdom Holding is to invest in Neom, the city of the future, one of MBS's favorite projects. The prince has publicly denied these rumors as well.
Neom is to be built on the territory of three countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - a kind of laboratory to show how people want to live in the future. The $500 billion project is being planned by former Siemens head Klaus Kleinfeld.
Something Has to Change
"It is a time of great insecurity and uncertainty," says a business associate of Prince Alwaleed. Through the forced expropriations, he says, important assets have come under state control. Nobody knows, he continues, what the future management of Kingdom Holding and other, globally operating companies will look like or what rights and functions their former owners still have. Foreign investors are "extremely concerned," says the associate, who is in regular contact with the prince.
It has become clear, however, that something has to change. Oil prices have been low for over three years, largely a function of the U.S. having become increasingly independent of the Middle East thanks to fracking. And the kingdom's foreign currency reserves are melting away as a result - from $700 billion a short time ago to only about $500 billion today. The budget deficit this year will likely be at least $50 billion.
As such, Saudi Arabia needs to move away from oil and transform into a society that produces goods itself. The country desperately needs jobs: About 19 percent of Saudis are between 15 and 24 years of age, which means that over 5 million people will soon be leaving schools and universities looking for jobs and apartments. But the economy, dependent as it is on government subsidies, isn't prepared for them. Seventy percent of the employed in the country work for the state, where they cost a lot and don't work much. Street building, housing construction, gardening, cleaning: All of that is taken care of by Filipinos, Pakistanis and Indians. Over 12 million foreigners work here for just a few hundred dollars per month.
Now, though, the guest workers are to leave. A new tax system is making their employment increasingly unappealing and some foreigners have already begun departing the country. Restaurants, supermarkets and small construction companies are closing. But will the Saudis really begin washing their own cars and mowing their own lawns? Will they become plumbers and work on construction sites?
Fahad Al-Deghaither is sitting in a tastefully decorated garden house in Riyadh, with windows looking out onto a well-tended estate. The tall, svelte 60-year-old manager with graying hair also has a home in Los Angeles. He supports the crown prince's new strategy. "What the king and prince have done for this country is priceless," he says. "They have brought Saudi Arabia back to life from the brink of bankruptcy."
An End to the Unbearable Tedium
Deghaither began his career 40 years ago scrubbing the floors of a grocery store. He ultimately ended up managing one of the largest supermarket chains in the country. It is a past that helps explain his enthusiasm for humble beginnings and entrepreneurial pragmatism. When it comes to work, he says, you sometimes have to get your hands dirty.
Many young Saudis like Mohammed bin Salman. He is young and he put an end to the unbearable tedium in this country where no fun was allowed, including going to the movies, sitting in a café with a girl or boy, listening to music or throwing parties. Now, the religious police have been disempowered and women are being encouraged to earn their own money, to go out, to have a life. It is a revolution from above, even if it has authoritarian elements.
For 35 years, movie theaters were banned. Now 300 are to be built. International stars are suddenly coming to Riyadh, with the American rapper Nelly and the actor John Travolta already having made visits. Women sing and dance on stage, and even wear tight clothing, all of which was unthinkable just a short time ago. The biggest stars of the Middle East are also making more appearances. Tickets for the concert of Egyptian singer Tamer Hosny on March 30 sold out in two hours, though the small-print on the ticket noted that no dancing was allowed.
And as of June, women will be permitted to sit behind the wheel. Within three days, 165,000 people applied for a spot at one driving school for women.
One wonders: Why has everything started moving so fast? And why aren't the ultra-conservative powers-that-be resisting this loosening of morals, as many have often said they would? The truth is that most of the religious leaders are on the government payroll. The royal family can turn down the volume on extremist clerics whenever they want.
Those religious leaders who refuse to submit, meanwhile, are in jail, including prominent preacher Salman al-Ouda. He has over 14 million followers on Twitter - but he hasn't sent out a tweet since September 2017.
Many of the reforms that MBS has introduced are long overdue. And he is implementing them at a breathtaking speed, showing no scruples. He is also attacking corruption head on, long one of the main sources of income in the kingdom, though his approach is frequently arbitrary. For decades, it was normal to personally enrich oneself off contracts, with the governor skimming off a few percent, as did the head of the local hospital when ordering new beds. Every year, says the crown prince, 10 percent of state expenditures disappear due to corruption.
Serious Human Rights Violations?
The population's anger with the ruling class is considerable, which helps explain why the "anti-corruption raid" in the Ritz Carlton was well received by most Saudis. Few people are bothered by its lack of transparency, the absence of formal charges and the lack of proof against the accused nor are they concerned that serious human rights violations may have occurred.
What, though, does such a disregard for the rule of law mean for a country that is in the process of redefining itself? And how secure is the money of foreign investors, funding which Riyadh badly needs to fund its enormous plans?
Most Saudis are not rich and don't have golden faucets in their apartments. Fathers work two jobs to support their families and there are plenty of women trapped in poverty, single mothers and young Saudis who can't find a job. Their greatest hope is MBS. But he is also their only hope. He is not, after all, planning to implement a parliamentary democracy that protects the freedom of expression and basic human rights. The current "absolute monarchy" model is not going to transform into a "constitutional monarchy," a fact activists ignore at their peril if they wish to remain free.
Since the events in the Ritz Carlton, Mohammed bin Salman has held control over four key areas that could secure his control over the kingdom for the next decades: the security forces, private business, the media and the religious establishment.
But long before the raid that led to the Ritz, the crown prince took command over the police and the intelligence agency, sidelining his rival, the former Interior Minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. The latter has supposedly been under house arrest ever since. Prince Mutaib, the former head of the National Guard, was also arrested in November. He has now been set free after paying a monetary penalty of, it is said, over $1 billion. As son of the king, who died three years ago, Prince Mutaib belongs to a rival part of the Saud family that competes with King Salman's sons.
There are now analysts in Riyadh who no longer dare write down their predictions for the kingdom because they are afraid of falling from grace themselves. Doing so, after all, would mean asking what the Saudis are getting in exchange for the up to $400 billion deals MBS negotiated with the Americans last year. Is it protection from enemies, like the Iranians, for example? Or they would ask whether the war in Yemen, which has been going on for three years, is really helping the country or harming it due to its expense and the damage to Riyadh's image.
They would surely also like to know whether the state oil company Saudi Aramco delayed going public because they didn't want to open the books of Saudi Arabia's crown jewel to investors. And, of course, they wonder whether the many victims on the path to these drastic reforms - the de facto overthrow of the way things were - will someday seek their revenge.
The Bedouins say that time heals all wounds and that everyone returns once they have overcome their injuries. But they also say that, while things are forgiven, they are never forgotten.