Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the Saudi royal charged with undertaking the most radical reform agenda in his country’s history, is the epitome of a human dynamo.
Not content with transforming Saudi Arabia’s long-standing dependence on its vast oil wealth, the Crown Prince is simultaneously embarking on an overhaul of the country’s social norms.
And, as the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad, or MBS as he is known, prepares to make his first official visit to Britain on Wednesday, he is enthusiastic about the wide-ranging impact that Vision 2030, his ambitious programme to restructure the country’s economy, will have on his its future direction.
People need to be able to move freely, and we need to apply the same standards as the rest of the world. After Brexit there will be huge opportunities for Britain as a result of Vision 2030."
- Mohammad Bin Salman | Saudi Crown Prince
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph, the Crown Prince said he hoped British businesses would be able to benefit from the profound changes taking place in his country after the Brexit negotiations are complete.
“We believe that Saudi Arabia needs to be part of the global economy,” he explained. “People need to be able to move freely, and we need to apply the same standards as the rest of the world. After Brexit there will be huge opportunities for Britain as a result of Vision 2030.”
Prince Mohammad, looking relaxed in a long, flowing brown robe, was speaking at his palatial residence in the exclusive suburb of Irqah to the west of Riyadh.
Previously when I have met the Crown Prince, he has spoken mainly in Arabic. But in a sign of the heir apparent’s growing confidence, on this occasion he chose to answer my questions in English.
“The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Britain is historic and goes back to the foundation of the kingdom,” he said. “We have a common interest that goes back to the earliest days of the relationship. Our relationship with Britain today is super.”
During his three-day visit to Britain, he will meet Theresa May and other senior ministers, as well as meeting members of the Royal family.
The Crown Prince, who was appointed last June to his new position by his father, King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, has been given the daunting task of driving through a wide-ranging package of reforms designed to address the needs and aspirations of Saudi’s restless, and predominantly young population.
The constant mantra you hear in Riyadh these days is that 70 per cent of the country’s 30 million population is under the age of 30 and, with many of them having received their education in Western countries such as Britain and the US, are anxious for change.
To this end, he has already implemented a number of reforms aimed at making the country more socially liberal and gradually easing restrictions on women’s rights.
Apart from being allowed to drive from June, women will now be allowed to run their own businesses and attend football matches, while young couples will be allowed to enjoy simple pleasures such as going to the cinema together.
“People in Saudi Arabia have changed a lot because they travel to countries like Britain and see a different way of life,” he explained.
The seismic social changes were certainly in evidence during my visit to interview the Crown Prince. In the 30 or so years I have been visiting and writing about Saudi Arabia, I was familiar with the conservative Islamic code that governs all aspects of social life, in particular the rigorously enforced ban on unmarried men and women mingling in public places.
As one diplomat explained, the social transformation taking place in Saudi goes hand in hand with the economic Vision 2030 programme for the country. “They are inextricably linked,” the diplomat said. “If anything, the economic reforms are driving the social reforms.”
These changes have certainly gained the approval of British ministers. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, argues that critics do not understand properly the changes that are taking place in the country, saying that the Saudi government is now making “exactly the kind of reforms that we have always advocated”.
But there will also be a hard-nosed business dimension to the Crown Prince’s visit to London this week as he seeks to sell the Vision 2030 programme to British heads of industry. One of the key linchpins of the Vision 2030 agenda, whereby the Saudis plan to diversify their economy away from its traditional dependence of oil, is to raise funds on the international markets by selling a stake in the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, which financial experts believe could raise around $100 billion (£72.3 billion) for the kingdom.
The London Stock Exchange is making a strong bid to handle the float, although it is facing strong competition from other bidders, in particular New York.
Saudi officials say no decision will be announced during Crown Prince Mohammad’s visit this week. But there are growing hopes that, if the visit goes well, it will enhance London’s prospects, as well as strengthening UK-Saudi trade ties.
British diplomats point out that the UK trade with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states stands at about 10 per cent of total commercial transactions — more than the total amount of trade with China. This figure could grow dramatically if British firms and businesses take full advantage of the benefits that could be afforded by Vision 2030.
Another important dimension to Prince Mohammad’s visit, of course, will relate to cooperation on defence and intelligence issues, one of the enduring mainstays of the UK-Saudi relationship.
The Crown Prince is due to have private meetings with the heads of MI5 and MI6, as well as being invited to attend a meeting of the National Security Council — a rare privilege for a visiting foreign dignitary.
“The British and Saudi people, along with the rest of the world, will be much safer if you have a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Prince Mohammad believes that, by promoting a more moderate Islamic outlook in his own country, Saudi Arabia can play a prominent role in defeating Islamist-inspired extremism.
“The extremists and the terrorists are linked through spreading their agenda,” he said. “We need to work together to promote moderate Islam.”
He also believes economic growth in Saudi Arabia will benefit the rest of the region, thereby helping to defeat extremism. “We want to fight terrorism, and we want to fight extremism because we need to build stability in the Middle East,” he said. “We want economic growth that will help the region to develop.
“Because of our dominant position, Saudi Arabia is the key to the economic success of the region.”
While Prince Mohammad has won plaudits for his ambitious approach to driving through his reform agenda, he is not without his critics, who accuse him of being naive and trying to do too much too soon.
Last year around 380 members of the royal family were detained in an anti-corruption purge.
The Crown Prince also replaced the head of the country’s armed forces.
The Saudi government’s controversial approach to dealing with rival regimes, such as Iran and Qatar, have raised concerns that it might provoke a new regional conflict. The Crown Prince was dismissive of such claims, and said he was working closely with the British government to resolve these issues.
“Britain is very supportive of our concerns regarding Iran and other regional security issues. It is always trying to help us and to fix things when there are issues.”
The Crown Prince concedes, though, that his country needs to do more to improve its human rights record, but asks critics to be patient. “We do not have the best human rights record in the world,” he said, “but we are getting better, and we have come a long way in a short time.”