Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Over the past week, Mohammad Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has laid out a progressive and futuristic vision of how he believes the kingdom will evolve economically, socially and technically.

It’s a daring plan, one that envisages a huge business and economic zone, extending into Jordan and Egypt, based on $500 billion (Dh1.83 trillion) investment in infrastructure and technology. It also falls into the scale of changes outlined by the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne in his Vision 2030, released in April 2016.

As well as detailing the economic project, Crown Prince Mohammad, last week, also laid out his determination to change the nature of Saudi society, reforming it, and returning it to a path of religious and social moderation. Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, it’s rare for a political leader to be so transparent in addressing that nation’s social, economic and political standing.

A little more than a month ago, at the urging of the crown prince, Saudi Arabian women were given the right to drive — a right that changes fundamentally the relationship in society and the family unit. If that in itself is the sole change, it would represent a shift in thinking that is a rare reform in Saudi society.

It is not.

Tentative first steps are also being taken, as Gulf News reported last Sunday, for the nation to move to permitting cinemas, and the movie theatres will soon be permitted as part of ambitious reforms for a post-oil era that will shake up the austere kingdom’s cultural scene. Reviving cinemas would represent another paradigm shift in Saudi Arabia, which is promoting entertainment as part of Crown Prince Mohammad’s Vision 2030.

The reform bus

Yes, the social reforms are opposed by conservatives, who view cinemas and women behind the wheel as a threat to the cultural and religious identity that has hardened since the 1980s. So far, the authorities seem to be shrugging off the threat, with some comparing Saudi Arabia’s reform drive to a fast-moving bus — either people get on board or risk being left behind. And right now, that reform bus is being driven by Crown Prince Mohammad. In a series of interviews last week, Crown Prince Mohammad made it clear that he intended to return the kingdom to the path of “moderate Islam” and was seeking global support to transform his nation into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors. “We are a G20 country,” he told the Guardian. “One of the biggest world economies. We’re in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world. So, this is what we’re trying to do here. And we hope to get support from everyone,” he added.

Few outside Saudi Arabia had heard of Prince Mohammad before his father became king in January 2015. Since then, he has been elevated to the position of Crown Prince, replacing his cousin, Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef. Crown Prince Mohammad was born on August 31, 1985, and is the eldest son of Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and Princess Fahdah Bint Falah Bin Sultan. He gained a Bachelor’s degree in law from King Saud University in Riyadh, and was appointed special adviser to his father in 2009, who was then serving as the governor of Riyadh.

A pivotal role

Crown Prince Mohammad was appointed Defence Minister and was a driving force behind organising the international coalition of Arab nations that is acting on United Nations Security Council resolutions — and in which the UAE is proud to be playing a pivotal role — to restore that legitimate government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Yemen, after it was overthrown by Iranian-backed and armed Al Houthi rebels.

Those who have met Crown Prince Mohammad say he insists Saudi Arabia must be more assertive in shaping events in the Middle East and confronting Iran’s influence and interference in the region — whether in Yemen, Syria, Iraq or Lebanon.

Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at Washington’s Centre for American Progress, who had met him in Riyadh earlier this year, told the New York Times: “His main message is that Saudi Arabia is a force to be reckoned with.”

Indeed, it’s a point Crown Prince Mohammad reiterated last week in explaining the need for economic and societal change. “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia,” he told the Guardian. “What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”

Combating extremist thoughts

For the crown prince, part of the solution is embracing moderate Islam. “We are simply reverting to what we followed — a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. Seventy per cent of the Saudis are younger than 30. Honestly, we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

This desire for real change, combined with his Vision 2030, represents a fundamental shift in thinking — and action. Vision 2030 aims to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism — as well as cutting a generous system of subsidies — and the partial privatisation of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco.

Official Saudi development plans for decades have called for reducing the dependence on oil and increasing Saudification in the workforce to little effect. But the need now is greater than ever — oil is half the price it was in 2014 and hundreds of thousands of young Saudis are entering the job market.

The crown prince has called for a new era of fiscal responsibility and fuel, water and electricity prices have increased while public-sector salaries have been restrained and reduced. By next year, Crown Prince Mohammad says, Saudi Aramco will be ready for an initial public offering — a move that could value the company at more than $2 trillion. The sale of around 5 per cent of the company will mark a significant milestone in the 15-year drive towards Vision 2030. Crown Prince Mohammad is firmly in the driver’s seat.