Since elderly King Salman took the throne in Saudi Arabia last year, favorite son Mohammed bin Salman has put the lie to his position as “Deputy” Crown Prince. Technically the third most powerful man in the Saudi court and subservient to his father Salman and his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, the young prince has instead been increasingly open about rewriting the political rulebook in Riyadh. Now directly responsible for both the military and the nation’s struggling economy, Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to the top marks a seachange in Saudi politics and a once-unimaginable jump from one generation to the next.
The extent of that unexpected rise was made abundantly clear during the prince’s visit to the United States in June. Instead of photo ops, soft-focus interviews and decorative dinners, Mohammed instead sat down for a one-on-one meeting with President Obama and high-level meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and CIA Chief John Brennan in Washington. He also sat down with key economic policymakers, including Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. Amid a series of reports that both his father and his cousin were seriously ill, American policymakers are clearly acknowledging the possibility that Mohammed could become the supreme authority in Saudi Arabia and are preparing accordingly. In a departure from the traditional Saudi focus on the defense, security, and energy aspects of its relationship with the United States, however, the prince looked beyond Washington and traveled to both Silicon Valley and Wall Street to meet with the American business class.
That newfound economic focus is tied to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan, unveiled by Mohammed and his economic advisors over the past several months as an antidote to the monarchy’s overreliance on oil revenue. Coming on the heels of its multibillion-dollar investment in Uber, the meetings in New York and California point to the kind of future the potential heir has in mind. More broadly, the sheer number of public and private sector meet-and-greets speak to a reappraisal taking place both within Saudi Arabia and in terms of Saudi-American relations.
There is, of course, a strong geopolitical component to the prince’s American tour, and his presence is as much a reminder of current commitments as it is future promise. For all the controversy surrounding the Kingdom since Salman took the throne, Saudi Arabia is still an important ally for the U.S., the U.K., and the other Western powers. The opening with Iran that followed the nuclear agreement has pushed some analysts and diplomats to suggest Tehran would make for a more natural ally than Riyadh. Many in Europe especially have dovetailed warm feelings toward Iran with criticism of the Saudis over their actions in Yemen.
These same are routinely glazing over the fact that Iran is directly responsible for bankrolling and carrying out much of the Assad regime’s butchery in Syria and stoking equally destructive sectarian violence in Iraq. This helps explain why Western leaders, David Cameron especially, have been outspoken in defending their countries’ security ties with Riyadh. Saudi is the U.K.’s biggest trading partner in the Gulf area, with more than 200 joint-ventures worth some 18 billion pounds operating inside the Kingdom. The U.K. defense industry in particular does brisk business with the Saudis, and Britain’s BAE Systems counts Saudi Arabia as its third-largest customer. Commercial ties in the service sector have been expanding as well.
From the American perspective, Prince Mohammed´s visit comes in the midst of a politically charged atmosphere. Much of the tensions stem from the passage of a bill through the Senate which would allow 9/11 victims and their families to sue the Saudi government for alleged involvement in the 2001 attacks. President Obama has vowed to veto the bill should it pass the House of Representatives, and House Speaker Paul Ryan has expressed his reservations about the wisdom of pursuing such legal cases.
The acrimony, in any event, has been played down. Prince Mohammed, in his role as the architect of Saudi Arabia’s current economic policy, left for America focused on investment as much as military matters. His economic plan is a necessary and long-expected overhaul of the Saudi economy, partially privatizing Saudi Aramco and leveraging the national oil company to push the revamped government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to a $2 trillion valuation. That PIF has already made its first big splash by investing in Uber, a promising sign that the Kingdom’s investment strategy will focus on technology in its hunt for assets to invest in.
At the same time, Riyadh is actively pitching itself to Western companies as a desirable investment destination. In May, the plan scored its first major success with $3 billion in deals with GE, covering investments in Saudi´s digital and industrial economy. During his time in the capital, Mohammed met with Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin to propose expanding Saudi’s weapons manufacturing industry, while Dow Chemical was awarded a trading license for increased business in Saudi.
Beyond those established players, Prince Mohammed’s trip with Silicon Valley to meet with executives at Facebook and Microsoft speaks to a generational change both within the Saudi monarchy as well as within the American business world. It is hard to imagine Salman or Mohammed bin Nayef connecting with American tech entrepreneurs, and it speaks to the reshaping of the global economy that young companies like Uber are already being courted by foreign governments as major players. The photos of Mohammed bin Salman sitting across from Mark Zuckerberg, for example, help emphasize just how powerful the latter has become.
In his position at the head of Facebook, Zuckerberg and his company are now the effective arbiters of information flow for over 1.5 billion active users. At the effective political leader of an overwhelmingly young, tech-savvy country that is home to 40% of all Twitter users in the region, the Saudi prince understands just how pivotal U.S.-based social networks are to the fabric of his society. Beyond that, bin Salman’s visit just comes as further proof that the center of global economic gravity is shifting to the world-beating tech start-ups on the West Coast.
*Khaled Alaswad is a Jordanian-born risk management consultant who has been working out of Abu Dhabi, UAE for the past five years. Before that, he lived in Michigan in the United States while completing his degree in public policy and subsequently worked in Amman and Beirut before moving to the Emirates. His work has previously been published on Middle East Monitor and Your Middle East.