April 21, 2016


The $2 Trillion Project to Get Saudi Arabia's Economy Off Oil : Eight unprecedented hours with "Mr. Everything," Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Peter Waldman, 4/21/16, Bloomberg)
For 80 years oil has underwritten the social compact on which Saudi Arabia operates: absolute rule for the Al Saud family, in exchange for generous spending on its 21 million subjects. Now, Prince Mohammed is dictating a new bargain. He's already reduced massive subsidies for gasoline, electricity, and water. He may impose a value-added tax and levies on luxury goods and sugary drinks. These and other measures are intended to generate $100 billion a year in additional nonoil revenue by 2020. That's not to say the days of Saudi government handouts are over--there are no plans to institute an income tax, and to cushion the blow for those with lower incomes, the prince plans to pay out direct cash subsidies. "We don't want to exert any pressure on them," he says. "We want to exert pressure on wealthy people."

Saudi Arabia can't thrive while curbing the rights of half its population, and the prince has signaled he would support more freedom for women, who can't drive or travel without permission from a male relative. "We believe women have rights in Islam that they've yet to obtain," the prince says. One former senior U.S. military officer who recently met with the prince says the royal told him he's ready to let women drive but is waiting for the right moment to confront the conservative religious establishment, which dominates social and religious life. "He said, 'If women were allowed to ride camels [in the time of the Prophet Muhammad], perhaps we should let them drive cars, the modern-day camels,'‚ÄČ" the former officer says.

Separately, Saudi Arabia's religious police have been banned from making random arrests without assistance from other authorities. Attempts to liberalize could jeopardize the deal that the Al Saud family struck with Wahhabi fundamentalists two generations ago, but the sort of industries Prince Mohammed wants to lure to Saudi Arabia are unlikely to come to a country with major strictures on women. Today, no matter how much money there is in Riyadh, bankers and their families would rather stay in Dubai.

Many Saudis, accustomed to watching the levers of power operated carefully by the geriatric descendants of the kingdom's founding monarch, were stunned by Prince Mohammed's lightning consolidation of power last year. The ascendance of a third-generation prince--he's the founder's grandson--was of acute interest to the half of the population that's under 25, particularly among the growing number of urbane, well-educated Saudis who find the restrictions on women an embarrassment. Youth unemployment is about 30 percent.

Posted by at April 21, 2016 7:44 PM