Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has long been sidelined on the global stage, but as he prepares for five years as de facto leader, he is finally coming out of the cold.
US President Joe Biden’s visit next month will complete the international rehabilitation of the 36-year-old prince, who was widely vilified for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden’s journey – after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices soaring and economic pain piled up – follows visits from the leaders of France, Britain and Turkey.
It represents an unconditional victory for Prince Mohammed, who has led his country on a roller coaster ride since he was named heir to his father, King Salman, 86, on June 21, 2017.
And in another sign that ties are recovering, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday the crown prince would travel there next week on his first visit since Khashoggi’s assassination.
In his time as the unofficial ruler of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and home to Islam’s two holiest sites, “MBS” has liberalized many aspects of everyday life while exerting strict control over others.
But his drive to transform the conservative kingdom was in danger of being completely overshadowed by Khashoggi’s assassination, an act so horrific that Biden’s journey — a routine step for past American leaders — has sparked controversy.
Saudi agents murdered and dismembered Khashoggi, an insider turned critic, in October 2018 at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
US intelligence concluded that Prince Mohammed “approved” an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, a charge he denies.
After the visits of French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Turkey’s Erdogan, the planned meeting with Biden is an important confirmation from Prince Mohammed.
“Washington has been sort of a hub of resistance to MBS when it comes to official public statements and mobilization in the West,” said Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This is exactly what MBS has wanted to endure for the past year and a half: a meeting and a photo with Biden as a counterpart,” said a diplomat from Riyadh.
Women at the wheel
When he arrives, Biden will find Prince Mohammed’s stamp almost everywhere. But no group has been more affected than Saudi women.
Doing away with infamous rules about what women can wear and where they can go is a central part of Saudi’s new liberalization narrative.
Abaya robes and hijab headscarves are now optional, women are no longer banned from concerts and sporting events, and in 2018 they were given the right to drive.
The kingdom has also relaxed so-called guardianship rules, meaning women can now get passports and travel abroad without the consent of a male relative.
Yet the story is not entirely positive for women, especially for those who dare to speak out.
In 2018, authorities arrested at least a dozen female activists, most of them just before the ban on female drivers was lifted.
The move was preceded by a crackdown that hit princes and senior officials suspected of corruption or infidelity, dozens of whom were detained in November 2017 at the luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
Prince Mohammed “has coupled his dramatic and profound cultural, social and artistic revolution from above… with an equally dramatic concentration of power in the political sphere,” said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Next phase ‘critical’
Some of Prince Mohammed’s most notable policies have taken place beyond the borders of his country.
Two months after his father, King Salman, took the throne in 2015 and named Prince Mohammed defense minister, Riyadh called for a coalition to intervene in war-stricken Yemen.
The conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iran-linked Huthi rebels has directly and indirectly killed hundreds of thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of starvation.
Recently, the kingdom has taken what analysts are calling a somewhat conciliatory approach in the region, for example entering into talks with rival Iran. Prince Mohammed also called Israel a “potential ally”.
Perhaps the most important element of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform agenda is his attempt to recreate an economy that has long relied on oil.
The crown prince now owns Saudi Arabia’s reform process and his legacy will depend on its success, said Kristian Ulrichsen of Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States.
“Having made so much of the fact that he, and only he, can transform Saudi Arabia by 2030, the coming years will be critical for Mohammed bin Salman as he aims to deliver tangible results.”
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)