The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been thought of as a "senile monarchy," with most predictions regarding its future and that of its rulers conjuring a black and white image of the late Soviet Union and its doddering aged leadership.
That image, however, has experienced a complete makeover in the two years since its current monarch, King Salman, ascended the throne. The kingdom, dominated by restrictive traditions for decades, witnessed an unforeseen tsunami of accelerated changes that shocked even the most optimistic of observers.
The catalyst for this spectacular change is Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The young crown prince, bestowed with wide warranties, is considered to be the strongest man on the current Saudi political scene, and the most popular as well! It is the first time in the Kingdom's history that the line of succession has shifted from a father to a son, since King Saud succeeded his father, King Abdulaziz, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, more than 70 years ago. When the time comes for the young crown prince to ascend the throne, it will be the first instance in the Kingdom's history that it is ruled by a King that is both a son and grandson of a king.
This anticipated scenario relays a great deal about this new chapter in the Saudi story.
King Salman will be the last son of the founding King's sons to rule, and his departure will signal the end the reign of the Al Saud elders, the founding fathers that witnessed the inauguration of the Kingdom, and its tectonic shift from rags to riches.
The last King to have been born and spent his childhood in a humble mud hut, to have experienced the people's struggles before the oil boom. One who flew on economy class before there were privet jets, and picked up a bit of English in his early youth. His is an analogous biography of the kingdom itself and its progression in all its phases.
Now, a new generation is being assured to the helm. A generation that grew up in the age of oil-fueled prosperity and wealth. Their life experience will naturally dictate a different style of governance to that of the old generation.
Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power spells the end of the Islamic Awakening (Sahwa) in Saudi, the reactionary fundamentalist movement, and the Sunni answer to the seismic Shia Khomeini revolution in Iran. It seems the young crown prince is resolute in doing whatever is necessary to close the chapter on this period, counter its extremist ideology, and adamant on opening the door to modernization.
The prince works long hours every day, holding exhaustive meetings to the point of wearing down some of his ministers.
The Kingdom's foreign policy has changed dramatically since his rise to power. This correlated with a recession in the US involvement in the region during the Obama administration. This propelled the crown prince to fill in the resulting power vacuum.
He launched Operation Decisive Storm military intervention campaign, to combat the Iran-backed Huthy militias in Yemen. Founding the anti-terrorism Islamic Military Alliance, he sought to isolate Iran and sequester its influence in the Islamic Word. He, also, elected a hard-line policy in dealing with Qatari interference in the region and its support of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
The greatest change of all, however, is his Saudi Vision 2030 project. A strategic project to relieve the Kingdom's economy of its dependence on Oil and integrate with the world economy. This vision will change the face of the entire Kingdom both economically and socially, increasing women's presence in the job market, and opening the Kingdom's economy to foreign investment.
The project has been a cause for concern for many. Indeed, the reforms appear to be harsh but, ultimately, would ensure a future for the Kingdom independent of the oil economy, and liberate its leadership form the volatility of oil prices.
The crown prince is a charismatic, practical and progressive personality. Highly relatable to the Kingdom's young generation, who constitute 70% of its population, they see in him and reflection of themselves. They are his political base that grants a new source of legitimacy to a new sort of Kingdom, unlike the one founded over 80 years ago. The times have changed and there is no turning back.
There is a great push towards openness in Saudi, and this will demand a great deal of reform in the theocratic institution, neutralizing disgruntled clerics to give way to a new breed of moderate clerics.
Women are expected to start driving cars and movie theaters are soon to open their doors in the Kingdom. The country is on the cusp of a drastic transformation from a poster child for extremism to a haven of openness. This no doubt will have an enormous impact on its economy.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman routinely conducts secret visits across the Kingdom to prospective areas of tourism development projects and likely locations for successful investment projects. He operates in a similar manner to a CEO of an international corporation. He even spent several days in the Empty Quarter desert with presidents of a number of international companies to incentivize investment. His presence, although behind the scenes, is felt everywhere.
Yes! He is expected to ascend the throne, soon!
But who will be his Crown Prince?
That is the big question in the Kingdom right now. His father elected to be the last monarch of Abdulaziz's sons. Will Prince Mohammed be the last of the grandsons?
The succession regulations were amended by the Allegiance Commission, prohibiting a consecutive succession from the same house within the dynasty. This means that his favored brother and Saudi's ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman, will not be crown prince. Nevertheless, he is expected to have a major role in the Kingdoms future.
Will he, then, choose his cousin, the young Deputy Prince of Riyadh, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman? Or will the line of succession shift to the fourth generation, appointing The Minister of Interior, Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud? Or will it be Deputy Prince of The Eastern Province, Prince Ahamed bin Fahad. Another possible candidate is Deputy Prince of Jawf Province, Abdulaziz bin Fahad bin Turky. This would open the door for the Crown Prince's own son, Prince Salman, to play a future role in Saudi politics.
No one knows, except for Mohammed bin Salman himself.
Prior to assuming their duties, young princes undergo long hours of training, from 7 am, at The Royal Court. For several months, a number of princes, some of which have now been assigned to prominent positions and others who are expected to assume similar ones, have been observed receiving training for their positions.
Still, the process remains and has always been, vague. The succession process of the Saudi monarchy has long been shrouded in mystery. As soon as you assume that they have understood it, you realize that you have understood nothing! Regardless, the monarchy has always exercised a high level of responsibility that maintained the Kingdom stability.
So far, there does not seem to be any substantial challenges to the young prince's future prospects. No one knows much about his health record but there are no indications of any illness. He succeeded in forming a network of coalitions with the young generation of princes, which secured him the approval of their fathers, and he has a strategy put in place for dealing with extremist clerics.
The greatest threat to his future, however, might be the oil barrel; that its price would drop before his ambitious plans come to fruition or that corruption would derail his mega project Saudi Vision 2030.
*A Saudi author and journalist, Editor in Chief of Riyadh Post Newspaper.
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