A Young Prince is Re-imagining Saudi Arabia

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

A Young Prince is Reimagining Saudi Arabia

Two years into his campaign as change agent in this conservative oil kingdom, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be gaining the confidence and political clout to push his agenda of economic and social reform.

The young prince outlined his plans in a nearly 90-minute conversation Tuesday night at his office here. Aides said it was his first lengthy on-the-record interview in months. He offered detailed explanations about foreign policy, plans to privatize oil giant Saudi Aramco, strategy for investment in domestic industry, and liberalization of the entertainment sector, despite opposition from some people.

Mohammed bin Salman said that the crucial requirement for reform is public willingness to change. “The most concerning thing is if the Saudi people are not convinced. If the Saudi people are convinced, the sky is the limit.” he said.

Change seems increasingly desired in this young, restless country.

A recent Saudi poll found that 85 percent of the public, if forced to choose, would support the government rather than other authorities, said Abdullah al-Hokail, the head of the government’s public opinion center.

He added that 77 percent of those surveyed supported the government’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, and that 82 percent favored entertainment performances at public gatherings. Though these aren’t independently verified numbers, they do indicate the direction of popular feeling, which Saudis say is matched by anecdotal evidence.

“MBS,” as the deputy crown prince is known, said that he was “very optimistic” about President Trump. He described Trump as “a president who will bring America back to the right track” after Barack Obama, whom Saudi officials mistrusted. “Trump has not yet completed 100 days, and he has restored all the alliances of the US with its conventional allies.”

A sign of the kingdom’s embrace of the Trump administration was the visit here this week by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. While the Obama administration had criticized the Saudi war in Yemen, Mattis discussed the possibility of additional US support if the Houthis there don’t agree to a UN-brokered settlement.

(Writer’s note: I traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of the press corps accompanying Mattis.)

Mohammed bin Salman has been courting Russia, as well as the United States, and he offered an intriguing explanation of Saudi Arabia’s goal in this diplomacy.

“The main objective is not to have Russia place all its cards in the region behind Iran,” he said. To convince Russia that Riyadh is a better bet than Tehran, the Saudis have been “coordinating our oil policies recently” with Moscow, he said, which “could be the most important economic deal for Russia in modern times.”

There’s less apparent political tension than a year ago, when many analysts saw a rivalry between Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is officially next in line for the throne.

The deputy crown prince appears to be firmly in control of Saudi military strategy, foreign policy and economic planning. He has gathered a team of technocrats who are much younger and more activist than the kingdom’s past leadership.

Reform plans appear to be moving ahead slowly but steadily. Mohammed bin Salman said that the budget deficit had been cut; non-oil revenue increased 46 percent from 2014 to 2016 and is forecast to grow another 12 percent this year. Unemployment and housing remain problems, he said, and improvement in those areas isn’t likely until between 2019 and 2021.

The biggest economic change is the plan to privatize about 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, which Mohammed bin Salman said will take place next year. This public offering would probably raise hundreds of billions of dollars and be the largest such sale in financial history. The exact size of the offering will depend on financial-market demand and the availability of good options for investing the proceeds, the prince told me.

The rationale for selling a share of the kingdom’s oil treasure is to raise money to diversify the economy away from reliance on energy. One priority is mining, which would tap an estimated $1.3 trillion in potential mineral wealth.

The Saudi official listed other investment targets: creating a domestic arms industry, reducing the $60 billion to $80 billion the kingdom spends annually to buy weapons abroad; producing automobiles in Saudi Arabia to replace the roughly $14 billion the government spends annually for imported vehicles; and creating domestic entertainment and tourism industries to capture some of the $22 billion that Saudis spend traveling overseas each year.

The entertainment industry is a proxy for the larger puzzle of how to unlock the Saudi economy. Changes have begun.

A Japanese orchestra performed here this month, before a mixed audience of families. A Comic Con took place in Jeddah recently, with audience dressing up as characters from the TV show “Supernatural” and other favorites. Comedy clubs feature sketch comedians (but no female stand-up comics, yet).

These options are a modest revolution for a Saudi Arabia where the main entertainment venues, until recently, were restaurants and shopping malls. The modern world, in all its raucousness, is coming, for better or worse.

King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh hosted a Monster Jam last month with souped-up trucks. There are plans for a Six Flags theme park south of Riyadh.

Maya al-Athel, one of the dozens of young people hatching plans at the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, said in an interview that she’d like to bring a Museum of Ice Cream, like one she found in New York, to the kingdom.

“We want to boost the culture of entertainment,” said Ahmed al-Khatib, a former investment banker who’s chairman of the entertainment authority. His target is to create six public entertainment options every weekend for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is “spreading happiness.”

The instigator of this attempt to reimagine the kingdom is the 31-year-old deputy crown prince. With his brash demeanor, he’s the opposite of the traditional Bedouin reserve of past Saudi leaders. Unlike so many Saudi princes, he wasn’t educated in the West, which may have preserved the raw combative energy that is part of his appeal for young Saudis.

The trick for Mohammed bin Salman is to maintain the alliance with the United States, without seeming to be America’s puppet. “We have been influenced by US a lot,” he said. “Not because anybody exerted pressure on us — if anyone puts pressure on us, we go the other way. But if you put a movie in the cinema and I watch it, I will be influenced.” Without this cultural nudge, he said, “we would have ended up like North Korea.” With the United States as a continuing ally, “undoubtedly, we’re going to merge more with the changes in the world.”

Mohammed bin Salman is careful when he talks about religious issues. So far, he has treated the religious authorities as allies against radicalism rather than cultural adversaries. He argues that extreme religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni radicals later that year as a reaction to the Shi’ite radicalism.

“I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” the prince said. “We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era,” he concluded. “That age is over.”

The Washington Post

US Releases $221 Million Fund To Palestine

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Middle East

US Releases $221 Million Fund to Palestine

USAID

Ramallah – US has announced the release of the $221 million for Palestinians, which President Donald Trump had previously frozen and put under review after former US President Obama had ordered at the “last minute” of his presidency.

US State Department had confirmed that the money will be used for services in the West Bank and will not go directly to the authorities’ treasury.

A Palestinian official told Asharq Al-Awsat that most of this money had been allocated to foreign organizations working within the Palestinian territories.

Speaking during a press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that to his understanding the money had been released, but also said that the issue was still under review.

“220.3 million that was released was for West Bank programs such as water, infrastructure, education, renewable energy, civil society, municipal governance, and the rule of law, as well as Gaza recovery. And a smaller amount was to go directly to Israeli creditors of the Palestinian Authority as well as East Jerusalem hospitals. None of the funding was to go directly to the Palestinian Authority,” explained Toner.

The official stated that these funds were never assigned to the authority and were not a donation from former President Obama.

“We don’t know why Trump decided to freeze them, and then released them,” said the official.

He added that the majority of these funds will be given to international organizations in Palestine. “Most of the money will be given to United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for projects within the Palestinian authorities,” according to the official.

The funds included $180 million from USAID, $25 million to support Palestinian hospitals and $45 million to pay for fuel purchased from Israel.

He then explained that the funds were supposed to be given before the end of 2016, but they were delayed until Obama ordered the transfer, few hours before leaving the White House.

On January 20, and just few hours before Trump’s inauguration, Obama informed the congress that he will send the money. The money was frozen after the Congress’ recommendation as a punishment for the authorities’ attempts to join UN organizations and for instigation.

Though it is not legally binding, the White House abode by the Congress’ decision. Hours before Trump’s arrival, former US secretary of state John Kerry informed the Congress of the transfer.

Trump’s administration then announced it had frozen the grant in order to make adjustments to ensure it complies with the new administration’s priorities.

The relations between Trump’s administration and the Palestinian authority are not exactly strong, despite the few meetings made. Major conflict rose when Palestine stated it won’t accept any solution other than the two-state solution, while Trump declared it is not the only solution available.

Palestinians are afraid Trump will transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, warning that this will be an admission that Quds is Israel’s capital, thus ending any US role in the peace process.

Yet, Palestinians are seeking better relations with the US. Chief of Palestinian Intelligence Majid Faraj met with US security officials.

Then, US Director of CIA Mike Pompeo met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. But, till now, no contact has been established at the level of the White House or the State Department.