Can Mohamed bin Salman Reshape Saudi Arabia?

The Treacherous Path to Reform

Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris,  June 2015.  Charles Platiau / File Photo / REUTERS

His command of the issues was solid, his delivery even better. His body language signaled confidence, even though he was the youngest and least experienced person in the room. He had charisma. But most important of all, he made a more powerful case for his country than any Saudi official had done before.

To be sure, it would be unwise to form any serious judgments about Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, with whom colleagues and I met in Riyadh for a couple of hours, following a single encounter. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate how the 31-year-old MbS, as he is known in Washington, seems determined to take on his country’s hardest problems at such an early stage in his political career. By spearheading a campaign for sweeping change in Saudi Arabia, he is putting everything on the line. Whether he’s guided by ambition or naïveté is irrelevant. What matters is that he is charging ahead with decisiveness and pragmatism.

MbS’ early moves include cutting various subsidies, raising taxes, selling major state assets, pushing for a culture of efficiency and accountability in the notoriously unproductive Saudi bureaucracy, and making room for the private sector to play a larger role in the economy. Although he is only third in line for the throne, MbS has total control over the country’s oil monopoly, the national investment fund, economic affairs, and the humongous Ministry of Defense. He acquired all these portfolios immediately after his father, King Salman, became ruler in January 2015 and appointed Mohamed bin Nayef (MbN) crown prince and MbS deputy crown prince.

Never before has a member of the royal family spoken for and connected with young Saudis.

To say that MbS’ rapid rise has generated debate in Saudi Arabia, and to some extent in Washington, would be an understatement. To his supporters, he is already hailed as the savior of the Kingdom. To his detractors, who include Twitter-savvy Saudi princes (some of whom live

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