Riyadh—Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has long been sidelined on the world stage but as he prepares to mark five years as de facto leader, he is finally coming in from the cold.
Next month’s visit by US President Joe Biden will complete the international rehabilitation of the 36-year-old prince, who was widely reviled over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden’s trip—after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices soaring, piling on economic pain—follows visits by the leaders of France, Britain, and Turkey.
It represents an unqualified victory for Prince Mohammed, who has led his country on a rollercoaster ride since being named the heir of his father King Salman, 86, on June 21, 2017.
In his time as unofficial ruler of Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, “MBS” has liberalized many aspects of daily life while asserting stern control over others.
Yet his drive to transform the conservative kingdom risked being completely overshadowed by Khashoggi’s murder, an act so abhorrent that Biden’s trip — a routine move for past American leaders — has sparked controversy.
Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, an insider turned critic, in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018.
US intelligence concluded that Prince Mohammed “approved” an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, a charge he denies.
Following the visits by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the planned meeting with Biden is a major validation of Prince Mohammed.
“Washington was kind of the hub of opposition to MBS when it comes to official public statements and mobilization in the West,” said Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This is exactly what MBS was aiming to get through the last year-and-a-half: a meeting and a picture with Biden as a counterpart,” said one Riyadh-based diplomat.
Women at the wheel
When he arrives, Biden will find Prince Mohammed’s stamp almost everywhere. But no group has been affected more than Saudi women.
The axing of notorious rules concerning what women can wear and where they can go is a centerpiece of the new Saudi liberalization narrative.
Abaya robes and hijab headscarves are now optional, women are no longer banned from concerts and sporting events, and in 2018 they gained the right to drive.
The kingdom has also eased so-called guardianship rules, meaning women can now obtain passports and travel abroad without a male relative’s permission.
Yet the story for women has not been entirely positive, especially for those who dare to speak out.
In 2018, authorities arrested at least a dozen women activists, most of them right before the ban on female motorists was lifted.
The move was preceded by a clampdown that hit princes and senior officials suspected of graft or disloyalty, dozens of whom were rounded up in November 2017 in Riyadh’s luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Prince Mohammed “has coupled his dramatic and thoroughgoing cultural, social and artistic revolution from the top down… with an equally dramatic concentration of power politically”, said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Next phase ‘critical’
Some of Prince Mohammed’s most striking policies have played out beyond his country’s borders.
Two months after his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015 and named Prince Mohammed defense minister, Riyadh rallied a coalition to intervene in war-hit Yemen.
The conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iran-aligned Huthi rebels has gone on to kill hundreds of thousands of people directly and indirectly and drive millions to the brink of famine.
Signs of a more muscular Saudi foreign policy were also seen in a three-year blockade of Qatar that began in June 2017, the same month Prince Mohammed became heir.
More recently, the kingdom has adopted what analysts call a somewhat conciliatory approach in the region, for example by engaging in talks with rival Iran. Prince Mohammed has also referred to Israel as a “potential ally”.
Perhaps the most significant element of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform agenda is his bid to remake an economy long dependent on oil.
The effort includes a push for some 30 million foreign tourists annually by 2030, some of them lured by mega-projects like NEOM, a $500 billion futuristic megacity complete with robot maids and flying taxis.
Other changes, such as drawing more Saudis into the workforce, are less flashy and, like other recent moves, were discussed before Prince Mohammed’s rise.
“He is the powerhouse, but he didn’t do something that wasn’t already the subject of discussion in the public sphere,” said Farouk, referring to the reforms generally.
Nevertheless, Prince Mohammed now owns Saudi Arabia’s reform process, and his legacy will hinge on its success, said Kristian Ulrichsen of Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States.
“Having made so much of the fact that he, and only he, can transform Saudi Arabia by 2030, the next several years will be critical for Mohammed bin Salman as he seeks to deliver tangible results.