Mohammed bin Salman, reformist prince who has shaken Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's powerful young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seen in a picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on August 15, 2017
AFP

Riyadh (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, who is set to visit France next week, has shaken up the ultraconservative oil superpower with economic, social and religious reforms since becoming crown prince.

The 32-year-old de facto ruler has overseen the most fundamental transformation in the modern history of the Gulf nation and sidelined all rivals after emerging as first-in-line last June.

Known by his initials MBS, the prince has pledged a “moderate” Saudi Arabia as he seeks to get international investors on board with his grandiose vision to overhaul the kingdom’s oil-reliant economy.

He has taken on the powerful clerics who long dominated Saudi life and struck out at the nation’s coddled elite with a dramatic purge of royals, ministers and business figures that saw hundreds detained in a probe over graft worth $100 billion.

“We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness,” he told international business leaders at a conference in Riyadh last year.

“Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today and at once.”

On the international stage, he has ratcheted up tensions in the Middle East by plunging the usually staid kingdom into the quagmire of regional rivalries.

He has overseen a blistering military campaign in Yemen, ramped up a stand-off with Shiite rival Iran and tried to bring Qatar to heel by isolating it.

– ‘Freed himself’ –

Born on August 31, 1985, Prince Mohammed graduated in law from Riyadh’s King Saud University. The dark-bearded prince with a receding hairline is the father of two boys and two girls.

In a dramatic announcement on June 5, he was named to replace his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the Saudi throne. He had been second-in-line since early 2015.

Prince Mohammed’s drive to create a “moderate” Saudi Arabia could be fraught with risks, but so far he has managed to avoid triggering a public backlash from powerful conservatives.

In September 2017, a royal decree said women would be allowed to drive. The kingdom has also lifted a public ban on cinemas and has encouraged mixed-gender celebrations — something unseen before.

The government last year set up an Islamic centre tasked with certifying the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed in a stated bid to curb extremist texts.

The authorities appear to have clipped the wings of the once-feared religious police — long accused of harassing the public with rigid Islamic mores — who have all but disappeared from big cities.

In tandem with reforms, Prince Mohammed has been shoring up power, culminating in the dramatic detention of some high-profile individuals after he was named head of a new anti-corruption commission.

But the lightning accumulation of authority has sparked fears that Prince Mohammed might have upended the fine balance of powers in Saudi Arabia too quickly and could end up sparking instability.

“He has freed himself to engage in ill-fated confrontations abroad that dilute Saudi power, exposing the kingdom to greater military threats and scaring off investors,” wrote Federic Wehrey, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In February, he oversaw a dramatic shake-up that saw top brass, including the chief of staff and heads of the ground forces and air defence, replaced largely with younger leaders loyal to him, further consolidating his control within the military.

The prince is the architect of a wide-ranging plan dubbed “Vision 2030” to bring social and economic change to Saudi Arabia’s economy.

Among his most prominent positions have also been defence minister and chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, which coordinates economic policy. 

Mohammed is also overseeing plans to sell under five percent of state-owned oil giant Aramco, the crown jewel of the Saudi economy, in what is expected to be the world’s largest initial public offering.

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