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How Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went from pariah to pragmatic diplomat

Polly Thompson   

How Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went from pariah to pragmatic diplomat
  • Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to transform the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdom.
  • After a rocky start, he's gained confidence on the world stage and launched bold diplomatic shifts.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is on a mission to transform his country.

He's spending huge amounts of money to reduce Saudi Arabia's reliance on oil revenues and future-proof its economy. But he's also drawing attention for unexpected diplomatic maneuvers and cultural reforms in a still conservative nation.

Here's how Saudi Arabia's effective leader got to where he is today.

Crown Prince Mohammed didn't grow up expecting to rule

Born in 1985 as the seventh son to King Salman and his third wife, Fahda bint Falah al-Hithlain, the crown prince was not far up in line for the throne. Unlike his US-educated brothers, he went to King Saud University, where he studied for a bachelor's in law, before shadowing his father as a state minister.

With limited responsibility at this point, the crown prince spent some of the $1.4 trillion the House of Saud is estimated to be worth on yachts, residences, and art.

In 2015, when King Salman took the throne, he made the country's effective leader — his favorite son — deputy crown prince. Two years later, he became crown prince following the dismissal of Muhammad bin Nayef, the king's nephew. King Salman, 87, gave up the title of prime minister last year and handed it to Crown Prince Mohammed.

The crown prince is a "workaholic" who spends 18 hours a day in his office, The Guardian reported, but he's also known to relax by gaming, diving, or DJing with friends.

'Rash decision-making'

Crown Prince Mohammed has come quite a way since 2015.

From entering what would become a disastrous conflict in Yemen that year, to the dramatic power play two years later when he ordered 400 members of the Saudi elite rounded up and detained in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, his early years as crown prince were characterized by a "spate of rash decision-making," Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said.

Eight years on, the crown prince has grown into his role, Doyle said: "He is more experienced in terms of regional dynamics, his policies are more thought out, and he has decided that Saudi must fix its problems with its neighbors."

Further purges of clerics, intellectuals, and royal-family members have helped cement Crown Prince Mohammed's grip on power.

"I think he's pretty much unchallengeable now, and that gives him a very stable platform to operate from," Doyle added.

Pragmatic diplomat on the world stage

Five years ago, the crown prince attracted global condemnation after the CIA concluded that he'd ordered the assassination of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But after years of receiving the cold shoulder from global leaders, and increasing demand for Saudi oil amid turbulent energy markets, he's found a way back into global favor.

French President Emmanuel Macron has hosted the crown prince, and Saudi Arabia recently joined the BRICS bloc of rising economies. US President Joe Biden, who called Crown Prince Mohammed a "pariah" during his presidential campaign, even paid him a visit in Jeddah last year — which started with a fist bump instead of a handshake.

A visit to the UK by the crown prince that had been expected to take place later this month is now unlikely to happen for some time, possibly next year, Bloomberg reported this week. The reason for the delay is uncertain – but Grant Shapps, the UK defense secretary, said "visits and timetables change all the time."

What is now clear is that Crown Prince Mohammed has re-emerged onto the global stage, confident in pursuing a nationalist, Saudi-first strategy.

He refused Biden's request to lower oil prices, even as critics said that he would be aiding Russian objectives in President Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine. In March, the crown prince made a surprise move again by normalizing relations with Iran, one of Saudi Arabia's biggest foes, in a deal brokered by China. Now even talks with Israel are on the agenda.

"He's trying to deliver a Saudi-first program, and that means that the kingdom isn't going to always roll over and align with the demands of Washington or other Western countries," said Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank.

The impact on energy markets by Russia's war on Ukraine has also emboldened the crown prince's diplomatic stance. Western leaders are having to be more pragmatic and transactional, and "a bit more sober about the importance of partnerships," said Vakil.

Despite denying Biden a reduction in oil in March, at the G20 summit in Delhi last month the two leaders warmly greeted each other with a handshake and smile, a step-up from their awkward first-bump, per The Associated Press.

When asked about his diplomatic moves in a recent interview with Fox News, the crown prince said that if there's an opportunity for prosperity, "then why not?"

His legacy is tied to the success of Vision 2030

On the economic front, the crown prince has devised a hugely ambitious plan called Vision 2030, with the goal of preparing his country for a post-oil future. Big spending on sports, entertainment, and development made Saudi Arabia the fastest-growing G20 economy last year.

International criticism of his moves does not seem to bother Crown Prince Mohammed. As long as sports investment keeps boosting the Saudi economy, it'll "continue to do sports washing," he told Fox News.

"His leadership is underpinned by the economic and social transformation that he's supporting," Vakil told Insider.

While he has a team of advisors, "it's very much connected to him personally," she added.

But she said the success of Vision 2030 was not guaranteed.

"There's huge amounts of infrastructure investment needed for the kingdom to become the tourism hub that it is seeking to be," Vakil said. "And, of course, this is all taking place at a time of $100-a-barrel oil. The question will be, 'Will there be cuts and reductions if oil prices decline?'"

The leader paints himself as a liberal reformer, but experts warn of a darker reality

The crown prince has presented himself as a reformer, pointing to his liberalizing reforms including allowing women to drive and enter the workforce and reopening theaters that'd been dark since the early 1980s following pressure from conservative clerics. Doyle said these changes would have previously been "unheard of" in the conservative Saudi society.

However, concerns about human rights remain.

Duaa Dhainy, a researcher at the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, told Insider that "torture and ill-treatment of detainees, arbitrary arrests, and unfair sentences" continue to create a reality of repression in the country.

She said that despite some reforms, Saudi women had been "subjected to an unprecedented campaign of arrests, torture, and sexual harassment that did not exist before MBS came to power."

In May, three men from the Howeitat tribe were sentenced to death. The tribe usually lives in the area where Neom, the centerpiece of his Vision 2030 strategy, is being developed.

"Despite being charged with terrorism, they were reportedly arrested for resisting forced evictions in the name of the Neom project," the United Nations said.

Saudi Arabia has also faced accusations from Human Rights Watch that hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers had been killed at the border by Saudi guards.

"The world must realize that the image that Saudi Arabia is working to promote is sports and academic washing, but the attempt to attract world stars and companies does not reflect the reality of this regime," Dhainy added.

The Executive Office of the Crown Prince did not respond to a request for comment from Insider.

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