by Robbie Corey-Boulet and Haitham El-Tabei
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has long been sidelined on the world stage, but as he prepares to mark five years as de facto leader, he is finally coming back from the cold.
US President Joe Biden’s visit next month will complete the international rehabilitation of the 36-year-old prince, who was widely reviled in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden’s trip – after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices skyrocketing, piling on economic pain – follows visits by the leaders of France, Britain and China. Turkey.
It represents an unqualified victory for Prince Mohammed, who has been leading his country on a roller coaster since he was named heir to his father, King Salman, 86, on June 21, 2017.
And in another sign of reestablishing ties, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday the crown prince would travel there next week on his first visit since Khashoggi’s murder.
In his time as the unofficial ruler of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, “MBS” liberalized many aspects of daily life while affirming severe control over others.
Yet his drive to transform the conservative kingdom risked being completely overshadowed by the murder of Khashoggi, an act so heinous that Biden’s trip – a routine move for former US leaders – sparked controversy.
Saudi agents killed and dismembered insider-turned-critic Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
US intelligence has concluded that Prince Mohammed “approved” of an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, a charge he denies.
After visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Turkey’s Erdogan, the scheduled meeting with Biden is a major validation of Prince Mohammed.
“Washington was sort of the hub of opposition to MBS in terms of official public statements and mobilization in the West,” said Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“That’s exactly what MBS has been aiming to get across for the last year and a half: a meeting and a photo with Biden as his counterpart,” said a Riyadh-based diplomat.
– Women at the wheel –
Upon his arrival, Biden will find Prince Mohammed’s stamp almost everywhere. But no group has been more affected than Saudi women.
Removing notorious rules about what women can wear and where they can go is a centerpiece of the new Saudi liberalization narrative.
Abaya dresses and hijab scarves are now optional, women are no longer banned from concerts and sporting events, and in 2018 they won the right to drive.
The kingdom has also relaxed so-called guardianship rules, meaning women can now obtain passports and travel abroad without permission from a male relative.
Yet the story of women has not been entirely positive, especially for those who dare to speak out.
In 2018, authorities arrested at least a dozen activists, most just before the ban on female drivers was lifted.
This decision was preceded by a crackdown that hit princes and senior officials suspected of corruption or disloyalty, dozens of whom were arrested in November 2017 at the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
Prince Mohammed “coupled his dramatic and deepening top-down cultural, social and artistic revolution…with an equally dramatic political concentration of power,” said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
– Next ‘critical’ phase –
Some of Prince Mohammed’s most striking policies have taken place beyond his country’s borders.
Two months after his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015 and appointed Prince Mohammed defense minister, Riyadh has assembled a coalition to intervene in war-torn Yemen.
The conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels has killed hundreds of thousands directly and indirectly and driven millions to the brink of starvation.
Recently, the kingdom has taken what analysts call a somewhat conciliatory approach in the region, for example by engaging in talks with rival Iran. Prince Mohammed also called Israel a “potential ally”.
Perhaps the most important element of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform program is his attempt to remake an economy long dependent 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 insisted so much that he, and he alone, can transform Saudi Arabia by 2030, the next few years will be crucial for Mohammed bin Salman as he seeks to achieve tangible results.” – France Media Agency
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