The young prince with big ideas will set the course for the modern development of Saudi Arabia well beyond 2030
Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, received a truly royal welcome in London this month. Although the crown prince's three-day visit was not a state occasion (such an honour is reserved solely for heads of state), the programme showed that the full attention of the British political establishment and royal family was given to the young prince, from an audience with the Queen and dinner with the Prince of Wales to extensive discussions with Prime Minister Theresa May, briefings with security and intelligence agencies and meetings with senior business leaders and members of Parliament.
The atmosphere of the short visit was overwhelmingly positive and some $91 billion of mutual trade deals were discussed, including a second batch of Typhoon fighter jets worth about $14bn. This aircraft has proved its capabilities in Yemen with the Royal Saudi Air Force and the British government’s determination to maintain its defence relationship with the Kingdom shows the strength of the UK-Saudi alliance.
I support this relationship because I have seen for myself the ballistic missile threat that the kingdom faces on its southern border with Yemen. If the Iran-backed Houthi militia become entrenched in northern Yemen (as Hezbollah have done in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq), that is a threat to Britain’s security as well as to the security of the GCC.
But security issues did not dominate the visit and disquiet over the Yemen conflict were muted. The media narrative was dominated by the ambition of the crown prince's Vision 2030 – his hugely ambitious plan to reform and diversify the Saudi economy (the largest in the Arab world) and modernise and liberalise its society.
He talked of this when we met. The crown prince is a tall, imposing man with a full beard, firm handshake and broad grin. A workaholic with a restless intellect, endless drive and huge energy, he fizzes with ideas when discussing the future of his country and displays a mastery of detail.
The challenge facing him is huge but what the kingdom needs is strong, youthful leadership. What young people of Saudi Arabia (about 70 per cent of a population of 20 million are under 30) are looking for is freedom from orthodoxy and the social constraints of religious conservatism. Change has begun; women will be permitted to drive this year and entertainment such as cinemas and concerts – which were part of life in the kingdom until the 1970s – are making a comeback. Prince Mohammed's reform is balanced against the need to appease religious conservatives in the Kingdom and he cannily pitches his reform agenda as a return to a more traditional, moderate form of Islam. As he said: “There were musical concerts in Makkah in the 1970s. Does that mean those people were not good Muslims? No. Our people want to return to a normal way of life. I am a family man, I want the same thing.”
He is winning out against more stifling conservatism and is not afraid to take on the elite. Corruption is being stamped out, starting with members of the extended royal family, who were detained at the Ritz Carlton. The crown prince's approach is popular among Saudis I have spoken to. “If you want to clean the stairs, you start at the top,” said one.
The kingdom is an essential ally for Great Britain and the visit succeeded in showing the crown prince that we want to turbo-charge our relationship with the Kingdom and help him succeed in reforming his country.
But it is the Saudi-US relationship that will be the defining one for his leadership – and the 20-day duration of his stay is a clear marker of the importance he places on it. In Donald Trump, the crown prince has found a natural ally who shares his strategic priorities for the Middle East: containing Iran and defeating terrorism and religious extremism in all in forms, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
These shared objectives will bring the Kingdom and the US closer than ever before, an alliance that will not be undermined by US concern over either the Qatar dispute or the Yemen intervention. Now that John Bolton is National Security Adviser and Mike Pompeo Secretary of State, Mr Trump will have space to follow his hawkish instincts to the full. Nor will Congress provide a block. The Senate voted down a resolution brought forward by Bernie Sanders last week to stop US support for Saudi operations in Yemen.
Indeed, seeing Mr Trump with the crown prince reminded me of the meeting between the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud (the crown prince's grandfather) and former president Franklin Roosevelt in February 1945, on board USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. Back then, the terms of the relationship were clear: Saudi oil for American security. Defence is still a critical part of the relationship (as the $12.5bn arms sales on Mr Trump’s picture board showed when they met) but the terms of the relationship are now broader. Prince Mohammed needs American support to modernise the kingdom and move the Saudi population from being consumers to producers.
His plan will set the course for the modern development of Saudi Arabia well beyond 2030 and perhaps for the next half-century. His time in London and the US has shown the world he has the willing allies he needs to make it a reality.
Leo Docherty is the MP for Aldershot and a member of the defence committee in the House of Commons.
Updated: April 1, 2018 08:45 PM