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Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman will have a lot to do to modernize Saudi society

After the spectacular "anti-corruption" operation carried out last week, all eyes are once again on Saudi Arabia. An unprecedented "purge" took place in the kingdom: 200 personalities were apprehended, including princes, ministers and businessmen. The punch operation, decided by the young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, questions by its magnitude: what are the intentions of the man nicknamed “MBS”, and to whom many observers willingly attribute hegemonic ambitions?

In Washington, after the noisy congratulations tweeted by a Donald Trump believing that the Saud father and son "know exactly what they are doing", the time has come for caution. The head of American diplomacy, Rex Tillerson, has since expressed “some concerns” raised by this wave of arrests. If "the intention is good," said the Secretary of State, uncertainty remains about the fate of those arrested.

The prince against the religious establishment

However radical it may be, this dragnet is not surprising. On the contrary, it is an extension of the efforts recently made by the crown prince to modernize a Saudi society that has remained, in many respects, deeply archaic.

The subjects of MBS indeed aspire to changes, they who are seven out of ten to be aged under 30, in a country long corseted by a religious conservatism less and less compatible with the march of the world. The prince understood this generational issue, he who made sure, thanks to this necessary sweep, to be surrounded only by officials of his age. Place for youth. Moreover, we must not deny the geo-economic dimension of this resumption of control of the business world: weakened by the collapse of crude oil prices and the now lasting competition from American shale oil, the Saudi government wanted to resume the control of certain economic resources, in particular natural ones: this forced modernization will go through the IPO of certain public giants such as Aramco.

A signal to foreign investors

This frontal attack against the second generation of the Sauds continues the one carried out against what the specialist in the monarchies of the Gulf, Fatiha Dazi-Héni, describes as “the religious establishment”. These conservative circles have in fact governed Saudi society since the 1980s. And profess a rigorous vision of Islam, with which MBS intends to complete the break. "We are not going to spend another XNUMX years of our lives accommodating extremist ideas, and we are going to destroy them now and immediately," he told an economic forum. And to speak out for a return to "a moderate, tolerant and open Islam".

The prince's objective is twofold: by addressing Saudi youth and particularly women, he strengthens the popular support he needs to consolidate his power. By donning the clothes of a reformer fighting against religious influence, MBS is also sending a strong signal to foreign investors, which his country will need more than ever with the scarcity of its fossil fuel reserves.

Wahhabi ultra-conservatism is simply no longer in phase with Saudi youth connected to the world, who very often study abroad and return to the peninsula with ideals of openness and tolerance. And skills, which Saudi Arabia will need more than ever if it intends to succeed in the challenge of economic diversification and the post-oil era.

“Vision 2030”: a change in the economic model

Changing the Saudi economic model: this is indeed Riyadh's second project, inseparable from social modernization. Faced with falling oil prices and forced to adopt budgetary austerity measures, the kingdom must at all costs reduce its extreme dependence on hydrocarbons, which represent 90% of its exports and 70% of its income. To do this, MBS piloted a gigantic national transformation plan, entitled “Vision 2030” and launched in April 2016.

If the plan includes measures to increase the place of women from 22% to 30% in the Saudi working population, it plans above all to make the energy sector more competitive, for example by developing renewable energies. The share of exports of non-oil products should increase from 16% to 50% of GDP.

Towards a Saudi Silicon Valley

The Saudi model, dominated by the public sector, will also give more room to private companies, which were to create 450 jobs by 000. Foreign investment will be encouraged, and new sectors invested, such as leisure or digital. MBS has also put 2020 billion dollars on the table to create a futuristic city, called NEOM, a Silicon Valley in the Gulf twice as large as Ile-de-France...

So make no mistake about it: if the transformations under way in Arabia have everything of an interventionist, even authoritarian operation, they respond to real issues. For the kingdom, whose former rulers now dismissed have thought for too long that it could eternally be content to live on its income, the moment is crucial. France cannot afford to miss this turning point, as it has an interest from the point of view of its internal security to support this fight against religious rigorism. Relations with Riyadh will be key to the big game in the Middle East over the next few years. Those who rightly criticized Riyadh's immobility and conservatism should not today be too quick to denounce a method which seems to be the only possible way of putting an end, precisely, to this inertia.

Source: © Saudi Arabia: France must support the revolution in motion – Talker

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