Leo Docherty is a member of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Aldershot.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman – often referred to as MBS – is a big man with a wide grin, razor sharp intellect and a huge amount of energy. I first met him five years ago when, as the son of the then Crown Prince, he was diligently doing his duty in the royal court. Now, after his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015, the rise of MBS has been meteoric; to Deputy Crown Prince in 2015, and now as Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia’s next monarch.
Having met MBS again during this remarkable rise to power I can’t say that it has surprised me – his personal qualities are so obvious to those who meet him; a remarkable mastery of detail, a quick mind, and a huge capacity for hard work – that it seems perfectly sensible that – at a moment in Saudi Arabia’s history when the role of King must inevitably pass for the first time from a son of the founder of the Saudi state Ibn Saud, to one of his grandsons – MBS, as a protégé of his father King Salman and the brightest of the younger generation of Saudi Princes is the right man, in the right role at the right time.
But he certainly has his work cut out, and the Crown Prince will need all of his skills to balance the demands of tribal court politics of the Al Saud dynasty while driving the social and economic modernisation of Saudi Arabia through the sweeping ambition of his Vision 2030. Huge challenges exist also on the regional foreign policy stage; achieving some sort of workable peace in Yemen, countering the growing influence of a hostile and interventionist Iran, and healing rifts within the Gulf Cooperation Council countries driven by the dispute with Qatar.
On the domestic front, the scale of the challenge of social and economic modernisation in the Kingdom is huge. But MBS sees the Saudi path to modernisation as the continuation of a journey that was paused in the years after 1979, when a group of Wahhabist terrorists hijacked the Holy Mosque in Mecca which was only liberated after a bloody siege. The Al Saud family, shocked by the rise of this fundamentalism, and insecure about their own status, rather than stamping out puritanical religious teaching gave ground to Wahhabist clerics, who were allowed to set the terms of modern Saudi Arabia’s relation with Islam and impose a strict conservative moral code which saw cinemas and public entertainment close, the rise of the religious police, the segregation of men and women in public places and the emphasis of Koranic teaching in the education system.
MBS sees the years since 1979 as an aberration, and wants Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Islam need to be restored to its rightful path. In conversation MBS refers to the fact that before 1979 there were music concerts in Mecca – Saudi Arabia’s holiest city, and it didn’t mean that people were bad Muslims. This drive for moderation is of huge importance not just to the Kingdom, but also to the whole region, as it continues to grapple with the depravations of Da’esh and Al Qaeda.
In setting the agenda for this return to moderation, MBS shows the scale of his vison, and also that he is responding to popular demand from an overwhelmingly young and connected population – hundreds of thousands of Saudi men and women have studied and travelled abroad (there are currently 15,000 Saudi students in Great Britain alone) and, when they return home, they want to live a normal life and socialise with the opposite sex.
Action has been taken at a remarkable rate over the last couple of years. The religious police who formerly patrolled the streets are now marginalised and stripped of their powers. The General Entertainments Authority is bringing concerts and entertainments to the public. Cinemas are planned. And critically, women will, form June 2018, be permitted to drive. I was in Jeddah in September last year when the announcement was made and the scenes of jubilation among men and women in that city were sincere.
Female driving is more than just a social issue – it is an important economic consideration for a country that has ten million expatriate workers – including one million drivers – who are doing jobs that Saudis will by necessity need to do themselves. The integration of Saudis into the workplace, and the weaning off of a population cushioned by oil wealth for a generation, is a key pillar of MBS’s Vision 2030, which seeks to exploit the slump in oil prices to push a diversification agenda.
This is something Great Britain is already helping with, and British companies will be integral to discussion this week, over the course of MB’s visit, about how they can help Saudi Arabia achieve the technical and professional skills required to diversify and develop its economy. Britain can and should have a role in turbo-charging Vision 2030 and helping the Saudi’s make a success of it – it’s in all of our interests.
The other area in which Britain has a potentially unique role is in pushing for a peace in Yemen. Yemen will likely occupy a great deal of the news coverage this week, and there will be discussions about improving access of humanitarian aid – something the Saudis have taken significant action about already, while receiving little credit. The UK has rightly been steadfast in its support of the Saudi intervention in Yemen: a position that has given it serious clout when pressing the Saudis to improve targeting, avoid civilian casualties and increase the flow of humanitarian aid. What’s critical is that we acknowledge motivation behind the intervention – which started three years ago in March 2015 – in the first place, namely the toppling of the Hadi government by the Iran-backed Houthi militia.
I recently travelled to the Saudi/Yemen border where I saw the wreckage of ballistic missiles fired by the Houthi Militia from Yemen across the border into Saudi Arabia. These missiles (supplied by Iran) have killed more than one hundred Saudis. I met families whose houses had been struck Katyusha rockets and small arms fire from Houthi raiding parties.
The Saudis are clear: they want a political exit from Yemen, and recognise that no military solution exists. But they are also resolute about not allowing a terrorist militia drawn from five per cent of the population (Houthi are a religious/tribal militia drawn from members of the Zaydi sect of Islam in Yemen’s northern highlands) to dominate the future of that country. We should stand with them; on a captured Houthi Kalashnikov I saw the Houthi militia slogan: it reads; “death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews”.
The Saudis will not allow a militia armed with ballistic missiles, backed by Iran along a Hezbollah model threat their national security, the safety of the Red Sea, including the Bab Al Mandab – through which 10 per cent of the world’s goods flow. They are justified is this objective, but peace will come with some sort of compromise – and Great Britain, because we are a steadfast ally, can help them achieve that.