Saudi Arabia’s young and powerful Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, continues to lead the conservative Kingdom through a wave of unprecedented reform and change. From economic and political changes through to entertainment and civil rights, the 32 year old Prince is pushing the nation’s highly conservative religious establishment back in sweeping reforms that have been largely welcomed by the country’s youthful population. Despite these largely positive changes, Saudi Arabia remains a divided nation in the midst of a dangerous stand-off with Iran and embroiled in a bloody three-year war in Yemen, and there are those within the Kingdom who would seek to upset the Prince’s ambitious plans. In this piece, we examine the strategy driving mass changes to a usually glacial nation.


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Mohammed Bin Salman has many qualifications that he can boast of; at 32 years old, he is the world’s youngest defence minister and the first in line to a throne that has typically been held by octogenarians. Beyond this, he is reported to be keenly intelligent, well-educated and generally likable. Despite this – and the support of his powerful father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud – the young Prince’s sweeping changes to a normally slow-to-change nation may be overambitious.

Recent changes can broadly be broken down into four key areas.

Military Reshuffle

Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has now entered its 3rd year, with the conflict turning into a bloody quagmire that has seen little progress. It is estimated that the Saudi-led coalition has suffered close to 1,000 casualties in the war, in addition to 10 captured soldiers, additional contractor deaths, close to 20 downed aircraft, dozens of destroyed armoured vehicles and the near-sinking of two naval vessels. Beyond this, the toll on Yemen’s civilians has been monstrous, with an estimated 13,000 killed in conflict-related deaths and as many as 50,000 children having died in 2017 alone from the famine that has in part been caused by the war.

While the stalled war in Yemen is likely to be a significant factor in the reshuffles, they also follow a broader pattern of activity in Mohammed Bin Salman’s modernisation efforts in that they see older, more traditional players replaced with younger, more dynamic officers.

This war, combined with the wide-ranging tensions now playing out between Saudi Arabia and Iran on nearly all compass points from Riyadh, have prompted several significant reviews of the Kingdom’s military. This has led to domestically controversial discussions with Israel over the Iron Dome missile defence system, and internationally controversial air defence procurement overtures towards Russia. Additionally, the controversy surrounding civilian casualties in Yemen has prompted Saudi Arabia to seek out additional suppliers for several different marques of military hardware.

The most recent changes to the Kingdom’s well-funded military is an overhaul of military leadership, issued officially by King Salman, but almost certainly coordinated by the Crown Prince from his seat as Defence Minister. The Chief of Staff of the Saudi Arabian Army, General Al Bunyan, has reportedly been replaced by Lieutenant General Fahd bin Turki (who formerly commanded the country’s ground forces). While some reports indicate that the replacement was a dismissal of Al Bunyan due to strategic failures, other chatter indicates that the General has been posted as a consultant to the royal court instead, suggesting a more amiable reshuffle. Commander of the Saudi Air Force, Mohammed al Otaibi, is also reported to have been retired, to be replaced by General Fayyadh al Ruwaili.

While the stalled war in Yemen is likely to be a significant factor in the reshuffles, they also follow a broader pattern of activity in Mohammed Bin Salman’s modernisation efforts in that they see older, more traditional players replaced with younger, more dynamic officers. This is unusual in a nation that respects age and experience above most other qualifications, but is not unusual for the Crown Prince’s plans.

Social Changes

Socially, the Crown Prince has made more visible changes than in any other sector of governing the nation, and this changes have proven to be the most surprising when it comes to public acceptance. Saudi Arabia is well known as an extremely conservative nation in the social, religious and legal senses, and it is in these areas that Bin Salman has pushed to bring change, most likely believing that social change will allow economic progress.

The key challenge for Bin Salman throughout all of this is balancing a pressing need for economic reform with the triplicate threats of an emboldened expansionist Iran, growing Sunni extremism and continuing Shi’a unrest in the Kingdom’s Eastern and Jizan provinces.

At the same time as the recent military reshuffle, several political appointments were announced, including the surprising appointment of a female deputy minister of labour and social development, Tamadar bint Yousef al Ramah. By placing a woman in a key ministerial role, Bin Salman is demonstrating his commitment to mobilising the nation’s women into the workplace, and liberalising the nation’s values. This follows the recent announcement that women will be issued with driving licences and given the freedom to move around without the traditionally-required male guardians. Simultaneously, senior clerics (most likely operating under pressure from the Crown Prince) have announced that the Abaya is no longer a mandatory item of clothing for women, and even issuing statements confirming that valentine’s day does not contradict Islam.

Bin Salman also continues to pump money into the newly formed Saudi Arabian entertainment sector, with a $64 bn investment planned over the next 10 years. This is due to see the opening of previously-banned commercial cinemas, music venues and even live acts from overseas. While controversial amongst the nation’s hardcore conservatives, the creation of a new Saudi entertainment sector has been welcomed by the country’s youth, who previously would have to travel abroad even when seeing Saudi live acts.

Economic Reform

Central to the Crown Prince’s plans has been economic reform, and a desire to wean the nation’s treasury off of petroleum. While decades of rising oil prices had seen the nation’s cash reserves grow rapidly, the 2015-2016 oil price crashes saw a budget deficit appear for the first time. This prompted Bin Salman to launch his ambitious and internationally-lauded “Vision 2030” plan, which saw simultaneous investment in new sectors alongside cuts to the cripplingly expensive civil service and state budgets.

The key challenge for Bin Salman throughout all of this is balancing a pressing need for economic reform with the triplicate threats of an emboldened expansionist Iran, growing Sunni extremism and continuing Shi’a unrest in the Kingdom’s Eastern and Jizan provinces. Given the Kingdom’s track record of leveraging its vast wealth to buy off such threats with cash subsidies, ambitious defense spending and generous state employment programs, the Crown Prince will now be forced to find more cost-efficient means of creating stability in these financially-tight times.

Graft Crackdown

One of the most visible elements of the Crown Prince’s reforms was the wide-reaching corruption crackdown launched last year. On November 4th, Saudi Arabian media reported that dozens of key players, including members of the extensive 10,000-strong House of Saud, had been arrested as part of a mass anti-corruption drive being spearheaded by the Crown Prince.

Corruption is endemic in the Wasta-centric business world of the Arabian Peninsula, and as such the detention of 381 people is a relative drop in the ocean.

Among those detained were:

  • Prince Mitaab Bin Abdullah (Minister of the National Guard)
  • Adel bin Mohammed Faqih (former Labor Minster and current Economy and Planning Minister)
  • Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal (owner of The Kingdom Holding group)
  • Prince Turki Bin Abdullah (Former Governor of Riyadh)
  • Prince Turki Bin Nasser
  • Waleed Ibrahim (Owner of MBC Media)
  • Khaled Al Tuwaijri (Former President of the Royal Court)
  • Omer Dabbagh (Former president of the General Investment Authority)
  • Saleh Kamel (Saudi Billionaire worth an estimated $2.2B US)
  • Saud Al Tobaishi (Head of Royal Ceremonies and Protocols)
  • Ibrahim Al Assaf (Former Finance minister and current State Minister)
  • Bakr Bin Laden (Owner of Bin Laden Group)
  • Saud Al Dawish (former CEO of Saudi Telecoms)
  • Khaled Al Mulhem (former Director General of Saudi Arabian Airlines)

While the crackdown is now being reported as largely over, with the luxurious detention centre at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton now open for business again, some figures remain in detention. This includes the former Riyadh governor Prince Turki, who is believed to still be held pending an agreement with the authorities over supposed illicit gains. In total, the investigation questioned or detained 381 people, and the government claims that $100 billion of corruption-linked assets have been seized. While the credibility of the corruption purge remains questionable, it has seen Saudi Arabia move up five places in Transparency International’s Corruption Index, where it now sits as 57th of 180 countries.

While publicly the arrests were solely graft-related, it is also highly likely that political motivations ran deep in the choices of those detained in the Ritz-Carlton. Corruption is endemic in the Wasta-centric business world of the Arabian Peninsula, and as such the detention of 381 people is a relative drop in the ocean. The political allegiances and orientations of those on the list is possibly a more relevant factor, which would make the crackdown a powerful tool by the Crown Prince to assert his power and shake up the tribal cliques of the House of Saud.

The corruption crackdown, whatever the motivations, has been largely well-received in the Kingdom. Prior to the arrests, many in Riyadh were seen as “untouchable” in the eyes of the law, and in seizing and reallocating these assets for state use, the Crown Prince has been applauded by many in the nation’s youth and middle classes.

Overall Strategy

Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a nation that progresses at a glacial pace. With octogenarian Kings, politicians, clerics and business leaders, the nation has languished under oppressive conservatism and backwards social policies. While in its early days, the House of Saud was seen as a liberalising force that had Dubai-like ambitions of petroleum-funded modernisation, the 1979 Siege of Mecca saw a fundamental shift in the nation’s power balance towards the Islamic clergy. The nation, which still struggles with entrenched extremism and militancy, was essentially hostage to the religious establishment and the all-powerful Mutaween. The Crown Prince now appears to be reversing this shift, and placing the religious establishment on the back foot.

By pushing rapid social, economic, military and political reform all at once, he has cleverly made it extremely difficult for the conservatives to criticise individual factors of change. By criticising them all, they are by extension criticising the King (who stands firmly behind his son’s ambitions); the biggest taboo in the Kingdom.

It is likely that the Crown Prince has deliberately embarked on such a bold multi-pronged approach to reform in order to overwhelm conservative resistance. By pushing rapid social, economic, military and political reform all at once, he has cleverly made it extremely difficult for the conservatives to criticise individual factors of change. By criticising them all, they are by extension criticising the King (who stands firmly behind his son’s ambitions); the biggest taboo in the Kingdom.

The Kingdom must now be carefully watched. It sits on the verge of significant economic potential, but at the same time remains in a dangerous strategic position. The Crown Prince’s rapid changes will also have made him enemies within the powerful clergy and even within the Palace, and while he has moved swiftly to insulate himself from the risk of a coup, the Great Game of Arabia is a dangerous place to make enemies.

Suggested books on this topic:

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

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