Forget Three Billboards, this week it feels like 300 billboards have been plastered over London with the serene face of an Arab prince looking down on us.
“He is opening Saudi Arabia to the world” the slogan goes.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for the robed man is he, is not one for subtle gestures. Since being elevated to the status of Crown Prince last year, he has embarked upon a liberalisation campaign never before seen in his dictatorial kingdom.
Women will be allowed to drive from June this year. Religious police are disappearing from the streets. Live music is tolerated and cinemas will open next year. American rapper Nelly even had a gig there recently.
Such tiny freedoms to be referred to as “breakthroughs” seems absurd to Westerners. But to Saudis, they are little short of revolutionary.
That is the narrative that “MBS” as he’s known, is here in London to promote. For three days this week, backed by a formidable public relations machine, he is meeting royals, smiling for cameras and, most importantly for British politicians, signing trade deals. Britain and Saudi are expected to sign £65 billion of deals in industries from defence to education this week.
But there’s another side of the story, too, put out vocally this week by Labour and Green politicians, and campaigners protesting against his visit. For them, Saudi remains a dictatorship where women are second-class citizens and human rights are stifled. It is a nation waging a cruel war on its border with Yemen.
So, who is this Arabian prince?
MBS is the son of 82-year-old King Salman. As such, he is heir to the throne and the country’s de facto leader. Just 32-years-old, he is as different from his elderly predecessors as sand is to sea. While he wears the traditional robes on official business, he’s as at home in jeans and sports jacket, having travelled the world extensively, polishing his faultless English.
Where his predecessors were bound to the conservatives in the royal family, the father-of-four dares to provoke with relatively Western, progressive leanings. “He sees himself as a disruptor,” says Chatham House Middle East research fellow Jane Kinninmont. “His ideological heroes seem to be Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.”
Unusually for a Saudi prince, while he’s well-travelled, he was not educated in England or the US, choosing instead be schooled in Riyadh, at the King Saud University. Some see this as a disadvantage, saying his BA in Islamic Law leaves him inexperienced. But to supporters, he’s more in touch with his people than any leader before him.
“He gets what young Saudis want, and that’s because he is a young Saudi,” says Adam Hosier, of Riyadh business incubator AEI Saudi, who is helping promote the Prince’s visit this week.
In a country where 70 per cent of the population is under 30, that is absolutely critical. Like Western millennials, they are seeing a world where their wealth, job prospects and lifestyles are going to be worse than those of their parents.
Where their forebears were cushioned by the sky-high oil price, these days, times are far harder. The well-paid, cushy state-sector jobs are no longer being made available.
As one expat in Riyadh puts it: “Saudis used to be pretty lazy, working a three or four-hour day. This morning, my Uber driver said he’d just done a two-hour shift, was off to do his nine-to-five desk job, then would be doing a couple of hours more Ubering in the evening. Astonishing!”
Many middle-class young Saudis have been educated in the West, and liked what they saw. The country runs the biggest scholarship scheme in the world, which pays for thousands of Saudis to study abroad every year, largely in Britain and the US. They have been returning to “the Kingdom” as it’s colloquially known, with aspirations for the kind of fulfilling careers and leisuretime fun as they saw in London or California.
MBS knows he has to provide at least some of what they want if he is to deal with the potential powder keg of a disgruntled millennial population.
Those who succeed in getting good jobs usually thrive, says one expat. “Not only are they brighter than the fiftysomething blokes in the office, but they’re keener, too. Especially women, who want to prove they’re as good as, or better, than men.”
But, for the bulk of Saudis who weren’t educated abroad, prospects can feel bleak. A second-rate local education system means private companies are often reluctant to hire them, while there has been a freeze in hiring in the public sector, meaning those old, easy jobs are no longer there.
With justification, they blame corruption and the huge inefficiencies in the country’s administration, both of which, ironically, are side effects of the old jobs-for-life culture for state em-ployees that used to be funded by oil.
Supporters of MBS say it was this groundswell of resentment that emboldened him to take his most sensational action to date: the “jailing” of many of the country’s billionaire princes in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton. Dozens of the most wealthy and famous names in the country were rounded up and detained in the luxurious hotel until they paid back the cash the authorities claimed they owed.
The total extracted is believed to be about $100 billion.
MBS is also making a big pitch for Western investors to provide cash and jobs for his potentially restive young population. While his British hosts this week are keen to sell him a range of goods and services, it is much-needed investment to boost his moribund economy that is his priority.
Part of that involves a rolling privatisation programme, the jewel in the crown of which is Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company. He is planning to sell 5 per cent of the $2 trillion giant in a stock market flotation. This is expected to be done in London or New York, where bankers and brokers are smacking their lips at the prospect of fat fees. The UK government is lobbying hard for it to come here as proof that Britain remains appealing to international investors in a post-Brexit world.
Following the lead of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the Sandhurst-educated Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (or MBZ, for short), MBS wants to diversify Saudi’s economy away from oil. Like MBZ, he wants to create a tourist and leisure industry, developing a major sightseeing attraction out of Madain Saleh, Saudi’s answer to Jordan’s ancient ruins of Petra. He’s set up a $63 billion entertainment fund to bring Western (or perhaps Dubai-style) entertainment to the country.
He’s even given the green light to turning a series of islands off the Red Sea coast into holiday resorts without the strict behaviour rules that operate on the mainland. Sir Richard Branson may get involved.
But what of those strict laws? Women are segregated in public places and men’s permission is still required for many basic rights. The lot of women is improving, though. US-raised Princess Reema, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, is the figurehead of a move to allow women to attend sporting events, start businesses without male permission, set up gyms.
Human rights remain a major issue. A few weeks ago, high profile columnist Saleh al-Shehi was jailed for five years for criticising corruption in the royal court. Last September saw large numbers of clerics, academics and businessmen arrested.
Supporters say that while MBS is more willing to ignore conservative voices in the establishment than his predecessors, he does not operate in a vacuum. He has to balance the liberal with the traditional. A backlash against Riyadh street parties on Saudi’s national day last September, where men and women danced as DJs played on the city’s main drag, Tahlia Street, proved that.
Many of the negative aspects of life in Saudi predate his elevation. But critics say he can’t duck responsibility for his part in the war in Yemen. He was defence minister when the Saudi-led coalition embarked on the campaign. It was meant to be a quick intervention to reverse a coup by the Houthi militia, who have ties to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy. But the war has dragged on for three years and become a humanitarian crisis.
MBS is, then, a complex character, determined to break the repressive mould that has contained his nation for generations, but bound by limitations of his own and the conservative elders around him. But overall, as one expat put it: “Saudi was in the dark ages, but under MBS it is emerging, and faster than you’d think.”