To make Saudi Arabia a net exporter of vision, he looked to tech entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as role models.
“If I work according to their methods, what will I create?”, said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in 2016. Much has been made of the relative youth of the crown prince, but as 36 years old, he’s already stamped his mark on the kingdom and the Middle East.
He has grit and fluency with power, overseeing changes that have reshaped the kingdom, loosened many social restrictions.
Saudi Arabia has a plan. In fact, the Saudi Vision 2030, unveiled in April 2016, has become key for the changes dawning in the kingdom, and is the calling card for the reformist credentials of the crown prince.
On the economy, he’s also attempted to reduce the dependence on oil, announced sweeping changes aimed at developing new industries—pushing for development in new sectors like technology and tourism, creating jobs for Saudis and introducing fiscal reforms.
Every leader can be seen as a series of words, which is why we decided to read through hundreds of thousands of the words of MBS.
Look at these ten things he’s said, and their context.
SAUDI ARABIA—A G20 COUNTRY
There’s strong non-oil GDP growth, foreign direct investment and overseas investment. In a March 2022 interview with The Atlantic, the crown prince said: “Saudi Arabia is a G20 country. You can see our position five years ago; it was almost 20. Today, we are almost 17 among the G20 countries. And we are aiming to reach a place more advanced than 15 by 2030. Saudi is not a small country; it’s a G20 country growing fast. So, where is the potential in the world today? It’s in Saudi Arabia.”
“Saudi Arabia is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. We have two of the ten biggest global funds. We have one of the largest global cash reserves. Saudi Arabia has the ability to provide 12% of the world’s oil. It is situated between three main straits; Suez, Hormoz, and Bab Al-Mandab; it overlooks the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf, through which 27% of world trade passes,” he added.
RAISING THE BAR ON URBAN LIVING
The crown prince’s vision for modern living is central to his plans to transform the kingdom. He touted NEOM, his $500 billion flagship project, as a new way of urban living.
“If you have money,” he said, you should “raise the bar” and create something innovative and different. “Since we are doing it from nothing, why should we copy normal cities?” he added. “I believe it’s going to be the best liveable area—by far-–on the whole planet.”
Aiming to run on 100% renewable energy, the relatively compact design is meant to cut waste and minimize environmental impact. “NEOM is made by Saudi Arabia. It’s not a copy of anything elsewhere,” he told The Atlantic. “We’re trying to be innovative. We’re trying to use the capital that we have in PIF, the capital that we have in the government budget, in an innovative way, based on our culture and Saudi innovation.”
ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS
In 2018, during his visit to the US, when asked if women were equal to men, the crown prince told the New York Times: “Absolutely. We are all human beings, and there is no difference.”
He has pushed through a number of social reforms that have included more freedom for women, lifting its ban on women drivers and attending public sporting events, and introducing measures to increase their independence from male guardians in key areas such as employment, education, and health. Now, men and women can eat together without eliciting a sideways glance from fellow diners.
In an interview with US broadcaster CBS, the Crown Prince said women should be able to choose what they wear. “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Shariah: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” he said.
“This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover,” he added. “The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”
AT THE FOREFRONT OF AI DEVELOPMENT
He aims for global leadership in the field of data and artificial intelligence, and fast-forward the kingdom into a modern economy.
“As we witness the formation of a new global normal redefining our ways of life, working and learning…This requires all of us to think and work hard to take advantage of artificial intelligence and unleash its full potential to advance our societies and economies.”
In 2020, the crown prince, while launching the national strategy for data and AI, said, “I invite all dreamers, innovators, investors, and thinkers to join us, here in the kingdom, to achieve our ambitions together and to build a pioneering model; to unlock the value of data and AI to build knowledge-based economies and advance our present and future generations.”
Acknowledging the digital gap between developed and developing countries, he said all must work in a “spirit of cooperation to shape the future of artificial intelligence” in a way that it serves humanity.
POLICIES TO REDUCE EMISSIONS
In July, addressing a US-Arab summit in Jeddah attended by President Joe Biden, who wanted Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners to pump more oil to bring down the high cost of fuel, the crown prince said: “Adopting unrealistic policies to reduce emissions by excluding main sources of energy will lead in coming years to unprecedented inflation and an increase in energy prices, and rising unemployment and a worsening of serious social and security problems.”
He said that meeting global demand and the “geopolitical situation” has necessitated more joint efforts to support the global economy, and the transition to sustainable energy sources required a “realistic and responsible” approach.
On being asked about the role of fossil fuel, in his interview with Time magazine, he said, “What’s changing today, it’s the cars, because of the electric car, but the effect we will not see until after 2030. But the ships and the planes, it seems, will continue for quite a long amount of time because no one today is talking about electric planes or ships. When they start talking about it, we will see it materialize after 20 years.”
PREPARING CITIZENS FOR THE FUTURE
In an interview with Time, the crown prince said Saudi Arabia is ranked 41 among education systems worldwide. “Our ambition is to be in the top 30 to 20 in the coming years. Especially the method of education is changing in the world. So we are working on that. We want to be better in the next 12 years.”
In 2021, he launched the Human Capability Development Program (HCDP) to reform education, teach the values of global citizenship and adapt the kingdom to a changing world.
“Because of my confidence in every citizen’s capabilities, this program has been developed to meet the needs and aspirations of all segments of society, beginning from childhood, through universities, colleges, technical and vocational institutes, and the labor market,” he said.
He said the HCDP will give Saudis the skills needed to compete globally in the 21st century, including creative thinking, data analysis, technical capabilities, and emotional and social skills.
“The goal [is] preparing citizens for the future, as this contributes to building a solid economy based on skills and knowledge with human capital at its core.”
In another press interaction, he said, “By 2030, we aim to have at least three universities in the top 200 institutions in the world.”
PRESERVING AND ENHANCING THE ENVIRONMENT
In 2021, the crown prince launched the Green Initiative Foundation with two climate initiatives worth $10.39 billion.
“Today we are inaugurating a new green era for the region, believing that the impact is not limited to the environment only, but also to the economy and security,” he said.
He also announced a cooperation platform to implement a circular carbon economy and establish a regional center for climate change. “These centers and programs will have a major role in creating the necessary infrastructure to protect the environment, reduce emissions, and raise the level of regional coordination,” he said.
BOOSTING SOLAR ENERGY
The staggering take-up of solar power in Saudi Arabia has made the kingdom announce seven new solar power projects. “We, as a leading global oil producer, are fully aware of our share of the responsibility in advancing the fight against climate change,” the crown prince said.
“As part of our pioneering role in stabilizing energy markets, we will continue this role to achieve leadership in the field of renewable energy,” he said at the launch of the Sakaka plant in Al-Jouf in 2021.
In a Time interview, he said, Saudi Arabia is the only country that can make a breakthrough in solar energy. “No country can have a demand of 150 gigawatts or 200 gigawatts. It’s us. Other countries in the Middle East couldn’t even reach 30 gigawatts of demand. So the huge demand pushes for things to make it happen.”
Since silica is abundant in the kingdom and so is gas to manufacture solar panels, he added, “This will help Saudi Arabia save $40 billion every year. It will increase Saudi Arabia’s GDP by $20 billion. It will create 100,000 jobs and help us to export because we will export the cheapest solar panel and the world’s most efficient solar panel. So we are helping the whole world to produce energy, continuous energy cheaper than they ever have. And we are taking the risk to push all our demand in that area.”
CLIMATE CHANGE IS AN ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
The crown prince, in recorded remarks, announced plans to cut carbon emissions by over 270 million tonnes per year as part of the Saudi Green Initiative, which he said would see investments of more than $186 billion. In 2021, the crown prince said Middle Eastern economies would be boosted by efforts to cut planet-warming gases and announced a fund to invest in carbon-capture technology. “Climate change is an economic opportunity for individuals and the private sector,” he said. Reducing emissions will “create jobs and strengthen innovation in the region.”
Marking a seismic shift for the world’s biggest oil exporter, he pledged that Saudi Arabia would neutralize greenhouse gas emissions within its borders by 2060 and develop facilities that capture and store carbon emissions. The technology will produce blue hydrogen, a fuel made from converting natural gas and seen as crucial to the green-energy transition.
ON HIS PERSONAL LIFE
Many see his youthful energy as an advantage in a country where more than half the citizenry is under 35. He reopened cinemas after decades, introduced music, and cracked down on corruption. His supporters say he revitalized their country and unleashed its potential for growth and change.
In an interview with US broadcaster CBS, he said, “My personal life is something I’d like to keep to myself, and I don’t try to draw attention to it. If some newspapers want to point something out about it, that’s up to them. I’m a member of the ruling family that existed for hundreds of years before the founding of Saudi Arabia. We own very large lots of land, and my personal life is the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago. But what I do as a person is to spend part of my income on charity. I spend at least 51% on people and 49% on myself.”
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