Is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia really undergoing a transformation under the stewardship of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman?

His supporters, including women and youth, state that the Prince is committed to the mission he has set for himself. His critics, many tuned to the traditional ways, suggest that the Prince’s moves are merely designed to consolidate the power that came to him when he was named Crown Prince in 2017 after pushing aside his cousin Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef. They talk of him being reckless and foolhardy involving the Kingdom in unnecessary adventures like the Yemen war and the standoff with Qatar.

The Mission that the Crown Prince has undertaken is spelt out in the Vision 2030 document that he released last year. Among the objectives that he has set for himself and the country are the return of "moderate Islam" to modernise the Kingdom; fighting radicalisation and terrorism; reducing the reliance on oil revenues and diversifying the economy; providing moe rights to women; and fighting corruption and bringing in transparency; strengthening the defence forces; and ensuring a foreign policy that would make the Kingdom less reliant on Western powers like the United States for its security.

Dubbed by some as the “Prince of Vision” members of the royal family are said to be wary of Salman’s projects and ultimate ambitions. They are known to have complained about his army of well-paid foreign consultants and image-makers and the creation of a media cell inside the royal court to promote his initiatives, both foreign and domestic as well as the use of foreign lobbyists.

If one is to go by recent happenings in Saudi Arabia it would be easy to conclude that the Crown Prince is sticking to the charter he has defined. In a move that made the world sit up and take notice the anti -corruption authorities under the Prince arrested, and subsequently released, Prince Miteb bin Abdallah, a former National Guard commander who was once a prospective heir to the throne; Ibrahim al-Assaf, a board member of state-run oil giant Aramco; Adel Fakieh, the reformist minister of economy and planning; Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the Saudi Binladin construction group; and many others, including key royal family figures.

One of the most well known arrested figures was billionaire Al-Waleed Bin Talal who was accused of money laundering, bribery and extortion. The signal was clear—henceforth the Kingdom's economy would no longer be the exclusive preserve of a small group of senior Saudi princes.

In the words of Crown Prince Salman "You have a body that has cancer everywhere, the cancer of corruption. You need to have chemo, the shock of chemo, or the cancer will eat the body." He said the Kingdom couldn't meet budget targets without halting the looting. Recently King Salman ordered the establishment of specialised departments in the public prosecutor’s office to investigate and prosecute corruption cases.

His call for moderate Islam in the Kingdom witnessed the arrests of many conservative clerics and purge of ideological foes of reform, including clerics active on social media and vocally opposed to women's rights.

The religious police, traditionally feared in the Kingdom, especially by women, was stripped of its right to carry out arrests. The ultra-conservative religious establishment was forced to endorse his moves, including greater freedom for women, in a bid to survive and retain some degree of influence.

Another symbolic move was responding to Belgian complaints and handing over the grand mosque and Islamic Centre in Brussels, Europe's largest, tarnished by negative perceptions of its support for ultra-conservatism, and appointing Tamer Abou el Saod, a 57-year polyglot Luxemburg-based, Swedish consultant with a career in the food industry as Imam of the Mosque.

The House of Saud has survived because of its partnership with the Salafist and Wahhabist establishment. The Crown Prince might, however, be persuaded, given the way the youth, increasingly restive and not in sync with the established order, are receiving his reforms, that the Royal family no longer needs religious legitimacy.

Many are not convinced that the Crown Prince’s effort to moderate Islam in the Kingdom will cross the Kingdom’s borders. The Algerian media has been detailing Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim. In the foreign sphere Saudi Arabia continues to see ultra-conservatism as the primary ideological antidote to Iranian revolutionary zeal.

Saudi Arabia is said to have invested an estimated $100 billion over the last four decades in globally promoting ultra-conservatism in a bid to counter the Islamic republic. The campaign has contributed to greater conservatism and intolerance in Muslim communities and countries and in some cases fueled sectarianism.

Whether the move towards moderation will affect the lives of the minorities particularly the Shias remains to be seen. Saudi Arabia has in the past systematically discriminated against its Shia citizens, who constitute 10 to 15 percent of the population. The Kingdom views the Shias as a fifth column for its rival Iran. The Kingdom executed an outspoken Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr leading to protests in Iran.

This discrimination reduces Shias’ access to public education and government employment. They do not receive equal treatment under the justice system, especially with regard to religious freedom. Shia rarely receive permission to build mosques and, unlike their Sunni counterparts, do not receive government funds for religious activities.

The Shia-dominated Eastern Province, particularly the Qatif region, has been the scene of peaceful demonstrations since February 2011. Protesters have been demanding reforms, freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, and an end to economic and religious discrimination against the oil-rich region.

Bringing in moderate Islam in Crown Prince Salman’s words, at an economic forum in Riyadh last year, would entail “.. returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,”. Whether his promise fructifies into reality remains to be seen as it is likely that bringing freedom of religion and worship for all might see the conservative elements rise up in country wide protests.

Women have been perhaps the main gainers of the Crown Prince’s initiatives. In addition to placing restrictions on the religious police, the Kingdom has diluted the old Guardianship system now allowing women in Saudi Arabia to open their own businesses without the consent of a husband or male relative. In June 2018 women would also be allowed to drive.

For the first time hundreds of women were allowed into a sports stadium to mark Saudi Arabia's national day celebrated with a raucous of concerts, folk dance and fireworks. It has also been decreed that the municipality of the holy city of Madinah will be run by women. The women-only branch of the municipality will provide all the regular services offered by municipalities. For the first time, girls in public schools will be allowed to play sports and get physical education. New gyms for women are opening; female entrepreneurs are operating food trucks; and female sports fans are attending public soccer games as part of what the Crown Prince has called "shock" therapy needed to modernize the Kingdom's cultural and political life. The Kingdom has ordered that women be allowed to serve in the armed forces. An Industrial Training Institute for Women is being established in Jeddah and a businesswomen’s committee has been formed to discuss government policies and procedures that will help women participate in nation-building. The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce recently established the “Khadija bint Khwailid Center” to provide services for businesswomen, facilitate business opportunities and provide guidance to encourage women to run their own business.

But unlike women the media has not been so fortunate. The Saudi government tightly controls domestic media content and dominates regional print and satellite-television coverage, with members of the royal family owning major stakes in news outlets in multiple countries.

Freedom of expression is alright if taboo subjects like the Royal Family are left untouched. The Saudi leadership continues to deny the public all forms of free expression. This practice has coercively worked in the past, but can it continue at a time when 70% of the Saudi population is under the age of 30? They are educated, social media savvy, well-informed about violations of their rights and aware of diverse global support for their human rights causes.

Human Rights activists continue to focus on the arbitrary detention of journalists and human rights activists with the international media having extensively covered the case of Raef Badawi, a human rights activist and founder of the website Liberal Saudi Network, who was given a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes on charges of “insulting Islam,”.

Saudi youth, who are known to chafe under the Kingdom’s restrictions, are a primary focus of Prince Salman’s reforms. Saudi Arabia has announced plans to spend billions on building new venues and flying in Western acts, in a total overhaul of its entertainment sector as Saudi youth were known to visit neighbouring countries and international hot spots for relaxation.

The Kingdom has also announced plans to build a massive entertainment city in Riyadh as part of the programme to overhaul the entire entertainment scene in Saudi Arabia. The Red Sea project, which aims to offer an unparalleled tourist destination, will be developed along with leading global hospitality firms and will not be subject to the Kingdom's conservative rules.

Crown Prince Salman has set up the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation "MiSK" as a non-profit foundation devoted to cultivating learning and leadership in youth for the future. MiSK focuses on the country's youth and provides different means of fostering talent, creative potential, and innovation to create opportunities in the arts and sciences.

The Foundation is seeking to educate youth in Education, Media & Culture to support and advance the country's future. MiSK believes that enabling the Saudi people to learn is a means to develop and drive advances across the business, technological, literary, cultural, and social spheres.

The foreign policy of an establishment under Crown Prince Salman was succinctly defined by him when during a recent visit to the United Kingdom he was reported to have included Turkey and Iran in his definition of evil. He said that Saudi Arabia was seeking to end the close relations between Iran on the one hand and Russia and Syria on the other.

The Saudis see Iran as the major hurdle to their complete superiority in the Muslim world and recently Saudi State Television had broadcast a film projecting a Saudi takeover of Tehran. Iran and Turkey have been lumped together since they oppose Saudi backed forces in Yemen and Syria. Saudi Arabia is also incensed with the role that Hezbollah plays in Lebanon and the recent resignation, later withdrawn, of Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri announced from Saudi territory was in some ways a Saudi signal to the Lebanese.

On the Palestinian question, after President Donald Trump's announced decision to shift the American Embassy to Jerusalem, Saudi King Salman reaffirmed Saudi support for an independent Palestinian state and their desire to have Jerusalem as their capital, in a telephone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

It is highly unlikely that Crown Prince Salman would depart from this position which has served Saudi Arabia well but done little to help the Palestinians achieve their goals. Meanwhile the standoff with Qatar which Salman accused of supporting terrorism because of the presence of Muslim Brotherhood members still continues.

Since foreign policy is often closely linked with a country’s defence preparedness, Saudi Arabia continues to be on a buying spree. During his recent visit to the U.K. the two countries signed a letter of intent to finalise talks on a multi-billion-pound order for 48 Typhoon aircraft made by BAE Systems (BAES.L).

The deal had been under discussion for years. Britain which credits Saudi intelligence-sharing with saving British lives has licensed billions of pounds of weapons and ammunition sales to Saudi Arabia. Since good equipment alone is not the answer to an effective military force Saudi Arabia has put a western-trained fighter pilot at the head of its military.

Crown Prince Salman had been Defence Minister and given his present status it was probably at his behest that Saudi King Salman had replaced top military commanders including the chief of staff via royal decrees. The project of an Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, with 41 countries reportedly participating, that the Prince had initiated during his tenure as Defence Minister had caused embarrassment at its first meeting.

A video at the first meeting caused a stir after using footage of Palestinian fighters during the Second Intifada to depict the threat of 'terrorism'. Social media objected. Some social media users said the images shown in Riyadh "normalised" Israel's occupation, while others said it showed Saudi Arabia's "moral decline".

On the economic front the Crown Prince plans to create a $500 billion business and industrial zone extending to Jordan and Egypt. The 26,500 sq km city, known as NEOM, will focus on industries including advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, energy, entertainment, food and water. It will be powered entirely with wind power and solar energy.

The Prince has called for a new era of fiscal responsibility, and over the last year, fuel, water and electricity prices have gone up while the take-home pay of some public sector employees has been cut - squeezing the budgets of average Saudis.

He has slashed the state budget, frozen government contracts and reduced the pay of civil employees, all part of drastic austerity measures as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is buffeted by low oil prices. He has also said the government will sell shares of Saudi Aramco, believed to be the world's most valuable company. The economic plan would focus on increasing Saudi employment and improving education, health and other government services. A National Transformation Plan, laying out targets for improving government ministries, has also been prepared.

The question arises:- Is the Crown Prince driven by true democratic and liberal ideals? Unlikely as there has not been a single word from him regarding the introduction of democratic principles of free expression and free participation for every citizen in any sphere of activity.

True democratic leaders are those who respect all their citizens and lead lives as closely akin to the lives of their average citizen. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, while vacationing in the south of France, spotted a 440-foot yacht floating off the coast. He dispatched an aide to buy the ship, the Serene, which was owned by Yuri Shefler, a Russian vodka tycoon.

The deal was done within hours, at a price of approximately 500 million euros. As one commentator said Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was not chosen to reform the monarchy’s oligarchical political system. He was chosen to implement his father, King Salman’s, life-long commitment to ensure the eternal rule of the Saudi ruling family.

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