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Mohammed Ben Salman, the reformer with two faces

The rapid ascension of the Saudi heir, Mohammed Ben Salman is accompanied by controversies.

Mohammed Ben Salman, the thirty year old, who re-opened cinemas and authorised women to drive in the Saudi Kingdom is dealing with two crises and a war in the Middle East all within three years in charge. Mohammed Ben Salman, second in charge, to the ailing 82 year old Salman Ben Abdel Aziz, will, on becoming 32 years old be the King of Saudi Arabia following his father's five decades as monarch.

No one believed that on being nominated King in 2015 with the support of his father, and, noted as being frustrated and impulsive and when nominated as Minister for Defence, was not taken seriously. His mentor, Mohammed Ben Nayef, the Minister for the interior, an expert in security, maintained the Saudi Kingdom free of jihadistes during the year 2000s was appreciated by the US administration.

The first doubts appeared two months later following the Saudi Arabian intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen, perceived in Riyadh as the Iranian Trojan Horse, their rivals for supremacy in the region. Prince Mohammed took a stand against Shiite expansionism. In April 2015, King Salman appointed Prince Mohammed as vice heir Prince second only to Mohammed Ben Nayef thus elevated to the dignity as dauphin, Prince Salman became second in the succession although unknown 6 months earlier.

Born in Jeddah in 1985, the son of the third wife of King Salman, he was considered his favourite, yet despite a tradition of Saudi Princes being educated abroad Prince Salman secured a Law degree in Riyadh University, yet speaks poor English. Oddly he secured his title of the preferred son.

In spring 2016 Prince Salman unveiled his 'Vision 2030'. This vast plan overturned the Saudi reliance on black gold, a response to the reduction in the price of petrol and reducing the role of religion in society. Liberals applauded. Soon all the technical ministers came under the guidance of Prince Salman. The executive was under the control of the two Mohammeds - Mohammed Ben Nayef and Mohammed Ben Salman. During a visit to Facebook, Prince Salman posed in jeans with a virtual reality mask so demonstrating his desire for modernity. Vision 2030 must overcome the generous subsidies generated by the oil industry which supports the public sector and currently discourages the spirit of enterprise and must deal with youth unemployment. Confronted with a haemorrhaging budget which is caused by currently a $30-40 price of a barrel of oil reduced from $110 in 2014. Prince Salman reduced subventions on water, food and electricity, reducing officials bonuses and impositin of the TVA tax, the first such tax in Saudi Arabia. Prince Salman promoted key officials and soldiers and made provision for modest housing. The Wahhabist clergy so long the ultra-rigorous religion of the Saudi people ensured Prince Salman now monitors the moral police, the Mouttawa. New sources of finance including a jazz concert in January 2017 was the first such concert in 25 years.

In June 2017, Prince Salman replaced Mohammed Ben Nayef who was fully relieved of his duties and placed in a detention centre. The creation of swimming centres on islands in the Red Sea by 2022 where women can swim is unimaginable in the rest of Saudi Arabia. The rift with the Wahhabist sect with women allowed to drive gives the impression of a clash with the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.

Neom, a Saudi megalopolis, is proposed for the north of Saudi Arabia, replete with robots, clean energy, green spaces and women unveiled with a moderate Islam and open to the world.

In diplomatic matters, his intervention in Yemen has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, 20 million Yemenis need food aid with 7 million facing starvation. Since 2003 Iran has encroached on Saudi interests in the Middle east without retaliation until their intervention in Yemen. Since June 2017 Saudi Arabia in concert with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt ceased relations with Qatar due to their collusion with Iran. The affair Hariri last autumn with the Lebanese Prime Minister detained in Saudi Arabia where Prince Salman wanted to interdict Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon turned the Lebanese people against the Saudis and Hezbollah secured 40% of the seats in parliament as a direct result. The Ritz Carlton in Riyadh incarcerates princes, business magnates and others detained until they return moneys gained illegitimately. Prince Salman has many enemies.

Saudi Arabia supplied 19 of the 20 plane hijackers on September 11, 2001, all wahhabists. Saudi Arabia, commencing in Bosnia Herzcegovinia, pays for the construction of mosques throughout Europe well beyond the capacity or needs of their recent Muslim populations. Wahhabists are ultrareligious adherents to Islam.

Source: MBS, réformateur aux deux visages, Le Monde International, Dimanche, Lundi Avril 9, 2018

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