Explainer: Can Mohammed Bin Salman deliver change in Saudi Arabia – and does the UK care?


The de facto leader of Saudi Arabia has balanced multiple agendas at home and abroad while pursuing his reforms… so far

MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is a man with a vision.

‘Vision 2030’ is an ambitious modernisation plan which outlines Saudi Arabia’s planned transition from a petroleum-dependent economy to a more technocratic, post-industrial model, written in concert with the American consultancy firm McKinsey & Company – a fact which reflects the Western support Bin Salman expects for his planned reforms.

It may not be Bin Salman’s personal vision then, but it is a plan he is personally well-placed to implement, given his position not only as Crown Prince, but as First Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and President of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.

This combination of roles within a government built around absolute monarchy, in addition to some well-judged power-plays within the Saudi state, have rendered Bin Salman – often known simply as MBS – the nation’s de facto leader, leaving him with the authority to impose such a grand design upon the country.

By contrast, his father, the 82-year-old King Salman, has increasingly withdrawn from public engagements, amidst widespread rumours that he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and has been targeted for ousting by other members of the Saudi royal family. This state of affairs has left Bin Salman relatively unencumbered in presenting himself as the public face of Saudi Arabia.

READ MORE: UK’s Saudi arms sales violate humanitarian law, campaigners say

Speaking in the aftermath of Vision 2030’s announcement in 2016, Jonathan Woetzel, Director of McKinsey Global Institute, the research unit of the consultancy, argued that change in Saudi Arabia would not only be dramatic, but sudden: “Because of the demographic pressure and the ticking clock on oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s change is being accelerated,” said Woetzel. “A transition in the economic model that had been expected to take 10 or 20 years is now expected to happen in just 3 to 5 years.” 

Questions remain over whether Vision 2030’s planned economic reforms – which includes boosting non-petroleum revenue, building a Saudi workforce and increasing government transparency – can be delivered so quickly; according to Forbes, the petroleum sector accounts for approximately 87 per cent of Saudi budget revenues, 42 per cent of its GDP and 90 per cent of its export earnings. In addition to this, much of the Saudi economy depends on a vast migrant workforce.

Against this background, Bin Salman is keen to reassure international investors and gain support from foreign governments for Vision 2030’s reforms. This is part of the reason for his much-publicised visit to the UK.

The UK Government is keen to increase the economic component of the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia, which has largely focused on security and defence – Prime Minister Theresa May has said that Saudi intelligence has previously saved British lives, which Saudi Arabia has secured huge arms sales from the UK, much of which has been employed during Saudi Arabia’s brutal intervention in Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

During the widespread protests against Bin Salman’s UK visit this week, the war in Yemen – which has seen widespread civilian casualties and accusations of war crimes levelled against Saudi Arabia – have been a frequent point of controversy, as have British arms sales and the Saudi record on human rights. So it is unsurprising that Bin Salman prefers to focus not only on changes to the Saudi economy, but the political reforms he has overseen.

READ MORE: Unwelcome visit: Pressure mounts on Theresa May to question Saudi human rights abuses

The position of women in the deeply religious and conservative Saudi society – for decades condemned by international feminist and human rights groups – has undergone some slight alterations that appear dramatic when compared to the recent past: they are being allowed to drive and attend football matches. In addition, there has been some slight liberalisation of laws concerning culture, and a highly publicised clampdown on corruption within the Saudi state.

However, those reforms appear largely superficial when compared to the authoritarian strictures still in force across Saudi Arabia, the human rights record of which has been condemned throughout much of the world.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry argued that the rate of executions in Saudi Arabia has doubled in the past six months, which roughly corresponds with figures compiled by Human Rights Watch.

Writing in Deadspin in 2016, the American commentator Felix Biederman argued: “I doubt Mohammad bin Salman really wants to change Saudi society all that much, after decades of deliberate effort by his own family to make it as hard to change as possible.”

Bin Salman and Prime Minister Theresa May have reportedly agreed to work together to intensify reforms, “particularly on women’s rights and universal human rights, according to a statement from a Downing Street spokesperson on 7 March.

However, with no indication that the UK will end arms sales to Saudi Arabia while the war in Yemen continues, and with the UK Government reportedly having agreed to a £65bn trade and investment target with Saudi Arabia – which the UK may rely heavily upon in an uncertain post-Brexit future – it is entirely possible Bin Salman will not be pressed too heavily for further reforms.

Picture courtesy of James N. Mattis

Look at how important CommonSpace has become, and how vital it is for the future #SupportAReporter