Saudi King’s Son on Sales Jaunt to US, Ruffles Feathers at Home

The deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the king’s son Mohammad bin Salman, ended an approximately two-week state visit to the US on June 24. The official purpose of the trip was to market the “Vision 2030” economic reform plan he launched in April, for modernizing the kingdom’s economy and diversify it away from the excessive dependence on the oil sector, which is subject to sharp price fluctuations.
The plan proposes to expand the private sector from the current 40% of the GDP to 65% by 2030.
The prince’s trip observed the formalities of a royal visit while attending to an impressive business agenda.
The first part was spent on meetings with US President Barack Obama, senior officials and members of Congress to sell his plan.
Our sources report that regional issues such as Iran and Syria, even if they were raised, were not major topics in the talks, possibly because Obama is at the tail end of his term of office, and partly due to opposition inside the Saudi royal family to giving the young, assertive prince (nicknamed “MBS” for short) his head on decisions in the regional or international spheres that would determine the kingdom’s future.
After D.C., MBS headed for Silicon Valley to talk with tech industry leaders, including Microsoft, Facebook and Cisco, who showed him their new technologies. It was then the turn of investment bankers in New York, the corporate elite of Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and the signing of deals with Dow Chemicals, M3 and GE for investment in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi press corps that the prince took with him helped push his economic reform plan to US officials and senior economic figures. Whether he sold it to any big investment banks is not yet clear. It will take months for economic and financial officials to shake out the details and the plan’s feasibility, and decide whether to buy some of the 5% of Aramco stock to be put up for sale in 2017.
MBS used the trip to showcase his personal capabilities in the hope that a positive impression would help boost his prospects as future Saudi ruler. In this, the 30-year old king’s son was successful. People who met him in America saw him as representing a new generation and found him to be decisive, quick-thinking, on top of his ambitious plans, and an easy communicator with a wide range of leaders from all sectors, even though he is not fluent in English.
He was canny enough to dress in the image he wished to convey, dispensing for many of his meetings with the traditional robes of Saudi royals in favor of young Western casual.
The third goal of his American tour the visit was to boost his legitimacy among the royal movers and shakers in Riyadh. Young Saudis have embraced Vision 2030 trusting it to hold out the hope of a better life and more promising future. But MBS has yet to win over the traditional wielders of power, such as:
1. The established Saudi royal family which disapproves of the excessive authority King Salman has reposed in his young son, over the heads of older and more experienced princes. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef whose authority and position are being gradually eroded is his foremost rival. He and Mattab bin Abdullah, son of the last king and head of the Saudi National Guard, feel that they have been sidelined by MBS.
2. The religious establishment that has withheld its support for Vision 2030, fearing exposure of Saudi society to Western culture and the fading of its traditional clout.
3. Local businessmen who are used to heading to traditional family-based firms fear that opening up the economy will undermine their positions of control. DEBKA Weekly’s sources in the Persian Gulf report that some of them have started transferring funds outside the country.
Our Saudi experts say that the young prince’s success hangs on the backing of his father, who at 80 retains his sharp political acumen although rumored to be in declining health.
The king’s next step needs to be to form a coalition of influential figures inside the royal family and the clerical establishment. Without their support, the new ideas put forward by MBS could place Saudi Arabia’s stability and the rule of its royal family at risk.

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