Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has long been sidelined on the world stage, but as he prepares to celebrate five years as de facto leader, he is finally coming out cold.
US President Joe Biden’s visit next month will complete the international rehabilitation of the 36-year-old prince, who was widely condemned over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden’s visit – oil prices soaring after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine piled on the economic pain – was followed by visits from 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 as the successor to his father King Salman, 86, on June 21, 2017.
And in a sign of further improvement in relations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that the crown prince will be there next week on his first visit since the assassination of Khashoggi.
In his time as the unofficial ruler of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, “MBS” has liberalized many aspects of daily life while claiming strict control over others.
Yet his campaign to transform the conservative state ran the risk of being overshadowed by Khashoggi’s assassination, an act so abhorrent that Biden’s visit – a routine move for previous US leaders – sparked controversy. .
Saudi agents killed and destroyed Khashoggi, an insider critic, at 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.
The planned meeting with Biden is a major recognition of Prince Mohammed, following visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Turkey’s Erdogan.
“Washington was the center of opposition to MBS when it comes to official public statements and mobilization in the West,” said Yasmin Farooq of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This is exactly what MBS was aiming to achieve for the past year and a half: a meeting and a photo with Biden as a counterpart,” said a Riyadh-based diplomat.
women at the wheel
When he arrives, Biden will get the seal of Prince Mohammed almost everywhere. But no group has been affected more than Saudi women.
The axing of infamous rules about what women can wear and where they can go is the focus of the new story of Saudi liberalization.
Abaya clothing and hijab headscarfs are now optional, women are no longer banned from concerts and sporting events, and in 2018 they gained the right to drive.
The state has also relaxed so-called guardianship rules, meaning women can now obtain passports and travel abroad without the permission of a male relative.
Yet the story hasn’t been entirely positive for women, especially those who dare to speak up.
In 2018, authorities arrested at least a dozen female activists, most of them just before the ban on female motorists was lifted.
The move was preceded by a clampdown that struck princes and senior officials suspected of corruption or betrayal, dozens of whom were locked up at the luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh in November 2017.
“With an equally dramatic concentration of political power, Prince Mohammed has combined his dramatic and complete cultural, social and artistic revolution from top to bottom,” said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Next step ‘serious’
Some of Prince Mohammed’s most striking policies have gone beyond the borders of his country.
Two months after his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015 and Prince Mohammed was named defense minister, Riyadh allied to intervene in war-torn Yemen.
The conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels has directly and indirectly killed hundreds of thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of famine.
More recently, the state has adopted what analysts call a somewhat conciliatory approach in the region, for example engaging in talks with rival Iran. Prince Mohammed has also referred to Israel as a “potential ally”.
Perhaps the most important element of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform agenda is his bid to remake an economy long dependent on oil.
Christian Ulrichsson of Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States said the Crown Prince now owns Saudi Arabia’s reform process and his legacy will depend on its success.
“After making so much of the fact that he, and only he, can transform Saudi Arabia by 2030, the next several years will be crucial for Mohammed bin Salman as he seeks to deliver concrete results.”
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