Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Washington on Monday to begin what’s been described as a cross-country road show to lure American firms and investment to Saudi Arabia – a crucial component of his “Vision 2030” plan to wean the ultraconservative kingdom’s economy off its reliance on oil.
The trip will be MbS’s first since being named crown prince in June by the aging King Salman, MbS’s father. In an unexpected decision last June, Salman revoked the title from Mohammed bin Nayef, a 57-year-old nephew of the king, while also firing him from his post as Interior Minister.
Since being appointed heir to the thrown, MbS, 32, has embarked on what fawning US media have described as an “ambitious” reform agenda. He has earned-widespread praise for lifiting restrictions on women driving while loosening rules around male-female interactions and also reining in the country’s religious police.
In an effort to wean the Kingdom off of its dependence on oil, MbS launched his Vision 2030 initiative – a plan that relies on foreign investment.
However, MbS has only managed to mitigate, not end, the repression that permeates Saudi culture. Furthermore, MbS’s authoritarian tendencies have led to speculation that decades of Saudi rule by consensus has come to an end.
In perhaps his most controversial decision to date, MbS late last year authorized the jailing of hundreds of royals and wealthy Saudi businessmen, locking them in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton, in what the state described as a crackdown on rampant corruption. Others have been less charitable, describing the crackdown alternatively as a purge, and a naked cash grab to help offset the country’s massive budget deficit. Whatever his motives, the crackdown was a success: the Saudi state said it raised more than $100 billion – though it refused to disclose details of the settlements.
In yet another example of US media obsequiousness toward the Saudi ruler, CBS “60 Minutes” published MbS’s first interview with a US television network on Sunday. The interview was widely panned, with some calling it a “crime against journalism” for the interviewer’s irrepressibly positive tone. MbS should be hailed as a reformer bold enough to bring about “revolutionary” change inside the ultraconservative kingdom.
One of the most prominent themes from the interview is that MbS is trying to make a clean break from the past, characterizing contentious issues like the Kingdom’s horrendous human-rights record and its exporting of terrorism largely as sins of the older generation. The kingdom’s demographics help support this: Roughly 70% of the kingdom’s population is under 35.
This criticism also applies to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s laudatory column about MbS published last year.
Mohammed bin Salman in English: There’s a lot of challenge. I think the first big challenge that we have is do the people believe in what we are doing.
Norah O’Donnell: There is a widespread perception that the kind of Islam practiced inside Arabia is harsh, it’s strict, it’s intolerant. Is there any truth to that?
Mohammed bin Salman: After 1979, that’s true. We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal.
The crown prince traces most of Saudi Arabia’s problems to the year 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini established an Islamic theocracy next door in Iran. The same year, religious extremists in Saudi Arabia took over Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In order to appease their own religious radicals, the Saudis began clamping down and segregating women from everyday life.
Norah O’Donnell: What has been this Saudi Arabia for the past 40 years? Is that the real Saudi Arabia?
Mohammed bin Salman: Absolutely not. This is not the real Saudi Arabia. I would ask your viewers to use their smartphones to find out. And they can google Saudi Arabia in the 70s and 60s, and they will see the real Saudi Arabia easily in the pictures.
Forbes published a roundup of seven meetings MbS has scheduled – or is rumored to have scheduled – during his visit.
Uber: The Saudi Public Investment Fund invested $3.5 billion in Uber back in 2016 in what was one of the largest-ever investments in a privately held startup (Japan’s Softbank, meanwhile, spent $10 billion, most of which went to previous investors who were looking to cash out.
Hollywood: It’s been reported that MbS will meet with studio executives in Los Angeles to deliver a pitch about filming in Saudi Arabia. Movie theaters had been outlawed throughout the country until recently, when MbS lifted the ban.
Of course, KSA still has strict restrictions on sex and anything that would offend hardliners – rendering most Hollywood blockbusters off limits.
Oil Services Companies: MbS is reportedly stopping in Houston, Texas, the capital of the US oil industry. However, the purpose of his visit is unclear.
The New York Stock Exchange: Given recent developments, we wouldn’t be surprised if this meeting was called off.
Amazon: It has been reported that Amazon is in talks to open an Amazon Web Services center in the Kingdom. During his visit to Seattle, MbS is also expected to meet with Boeing.
GE: MbS will reportedly visit Harvard and MIT during his visit, and – while he’s in town – it’d make sense to pop in for a quick meeting with GE executives to discuss the Kingdom’s nuclear-power ambitions. Energy minister Khalid al-Falih met with the CEO of GE, John Flannery, just last week. MbS is also tentatively scheduled to meet with executives from defense contractor Raytheon. Last year, President Trump signed the largest single arms deal in US history, worth some $350 billion, with the Kingdom.
Trump: His first – and most important – stop will be at the White House, where he’ll meet with President Donald Trump. The two are expected to discuss possible reinstatement of sanctions against Iran. The US is presently engaged in negotiations with the other signatories to the deal over revising its terms, though Iran has resisted any changes. MbS has been engaged in a years-long war in Yemen that’s essentially a proxy conflict between the two regional rivals. The conflict has been rife with atrocities.
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MbS’s trip could be overshadowed by reports that Aramco, the massive state-owned Saudi oil company widely believed to be among the world’s most valuable firms, has shelved plans for an offshore offering that could’ve been worth up to $100 billion – translating into hundreds of millions of dollars in fees for investment banks.