The Guardian | Editorial: Everyone knew Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman was a young man in a hurry. Every step necessary for his advancement had been made in the two years since his father assumed the kingdom’s throne. Some judged him to be already the country’s de facto ruler. But at 31 his public triumph has come perhaps a little more quickly than anticipated. This week King Salman made him crown prince, supplanting his vastly more experienced cousin Mohammed bin Nayef. The new heir’s elevation has erased the kingdom’s image as a cautious, rather dull gerontocracy (the horizontal system of succession has passed rule from brother to brother; even his former rival looked young at 57).
Change is long overdue, and some have applauded the new crown prince as an energetic reformer. But it is clear he has no plans to meddle with the country’s nature as an absolute monarchy intolerant of dissent, let alone challenge the foundational partnership between the House of Saud and conservative Wahhabi clerics. Saudi’s religious leadership – according to reports – has been vocal in recent days about protecting autocracy from democracy. And the dramatic economic and foreign initiatives he has spearheaded have had dismal results.
His “Vision 2030” plan to overhaul the Saudi economy, end its dangerous dependence on oil and embrace the potential of its youth was in large part a package of wishful thinking and hype underpinned by privatisation and above all austerity. The kingdom’s plan to slash public spending was an invitation for social unrest; subsidies have been plentiful and most working Saudis are employed by the government. It undermined the House of Saud’s deal with ordinary Saudis: rigid political control in exchange for a guaranteed living. He has offered circuses rather than bread; opening cinemas and allowing all-male concerts is unlikely to prove adequate compensation. Suggestions of a very modest increase in some personal freedoms, including for women, are more appealing but also unlikely to be sufficient. In April, the government suddenly reversed course by restoring bonuses and allowances it had slashed. This week, the news of his promotion was sweetened by backdating those restorations and extending the public holiday for Eid al-Fitr by a week.
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