JEDDAH: The “sky is the limit” for Saudi Arabian society if people are willing to embrace the change, the Kingdom’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said.
In a wide-ranging interview with American columnist David Ignatius, the deputy crown prince reflected on the ground-breaking changes presently taking place in the Kingdom under the Vision 2030 plan.
He told Ignatius that the crucial requirement for reform is public willingness to change a traditional society, saying the era of extreme religious conservatism is over.
“If the Saudi people are convinced, the sky is the limit,” he was quoted as saying.
David Ignatius, who was in the Kingdom this week as part of the press corps accompanying US Defense Secretary James Mattis, wrote about Saudi Arabia in an in-depth opinion article for The Washington Post.
The article drew heavily on his 90-minute conversation with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Two years into his campaign as change agent,” the deputy crown prince “appears to be gaining the confidence to push his agenda of economic and social reform,” Ignatius wrote.
“Change seems increasingly desired in this young, restless country,” he wrote. He quoted a recent poll which indicated that 85 percent of the public, if forced to choose, would support the government rather than religious authorities on policy matters.
The article also reveals that 77 percent of those surveyed supported the government’s Vision 2030 reform plan, and that 82 percent favored public music performances attended by men and women.
During the conversation with Ignatius, the deputy crown prince was optimistic about President Donald Trump; the prince described him as a president who will bring America back to the right track.
“Trump has not yet completed 100 days, and he has restored all the alliances of the US with its conventional allies,” Ignatius quotes the deputy crown prince as saying.
The article talks about the growing ties between Saudi Arabia and the US as evidenced in the discussions with Mattis during which the possibility of additional US support was discussed “if the Houthi insurgents in Yemen don’t agree to a UN-brokered settlement.”
The deputy crown prince favored a relationship of equals between Saudi Arabia and the US. “We have been influenced by you in the US a lot,” he told Ignatius. “Not because anybody exerted pressure on us — if anyone puts pressure on us, we go the other way. But if you put a movie in the cinema and I watch it, I will be influenced.” Without this cultural nudge, he said, “We would have ended up like North Korea.”
Explaining to Ignatius about why Saudi Arabia has been wooing Russia, the deputy crown prince said: “The main objective is not to have Russia place all its cards in the region behind Iran. (We have been) coordinating our oil policies (recently with Moscow) in what could be the most important economic deal for Russia in modern times.”
The deputy crown prince also talked about the pace of economic reforms, which he says “appear to be moving ahead slowly but steadily.”
The prince said that the budget deficit had been reduced; non-oil revenue increased 46 percent from 2014 to 2016 and is forecast to grow another 12 percent this year. Unemployment and housing remain problems, he said, and improvement in those areas is not likely until between 2019 and 2021.
Ignatius describes the deputy crown prince as “the instigator of (the) attempt to reimagine the Kingdom,” and observes that “unlike so many Saudi princes, he wasn’t educated in the West, which may have preserved the raw combative energy that is part of his appeal to young Saudis.”
According to the deputy crown prince, “extreme religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by Sunni radicals later that year.”
“I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” he told Ignatius. “We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in for the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era,” he said. “That age is over.”