The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Drives a New Era of Deliberative Governance

Gus Olwan

Senior advisor at the Saudi Cultural office.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is adopting a reformist approach to domestic politics in an attempt to modernise Saudi Arabia, Gus Olwan writes.

Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince appears to be deliberately dismantling a long-established absolute monarchy style of governance in Saudi Arabia. These developments are unprecedented since the founding of the reserved kingdom in 1932.

In June 2017, King Salman upset decades of royal tradition by appointing his son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, as Crown Prince and heir-apparent to the Saudi throne. Prince Mohammad’s rise to power was accompanied by the arrest of more than 20 clerics and intellectuals on charges of dissent, a public offering of five per cent of the state oil company Aramco to raise cash for domestic investments, and the wide-ranging arrests of dozens of Saudi princes and other members of the elite as part of an anti-corruption drive.

These interventions and reforms demonstrated a shift in leadership style following many years of cautious decision-making. A confrontation of wholesale by some of the Kingdom’s powerful elite, cutting subsidies, restructuring the economy, allowing women to drive and pushing for their greater participation in the workplace, and eradicating all forms of religious extremism have all considered significant and revolutionary reforms in the Saudi national context; a set of transformations that will reset the economic, political, and social foundations of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Emerging from relative obscurity and a previously low public profile, questions have been raised about the legitimacy and competence of Prince Mohammad to hold the post of Crown Prince – and more importantly, what he stands for.

Prince Mohammad’s training for this role in Saudi governance has been as his father’s long-term personal aide. He is well known for being a hard-working, dynamic, ambitious young man, who believes that Saudi Arabia needs a broad range of swift and sweeping reforms. This standpoint is no better illustrated than by his Vision 2030 blueprint, which aims to reinvent the Kingdom into an open society with greater freedom for its citizens and a better functioning economy.

In his pursuit of power, the new Crown Prince has characterised his approach as a deliberative governance method to confront four major challenges: political instability; corruption; a lack of government innovation; and the need for private sector engagement. However, western theories of deliberative governance and the approach of the Crown Prince are completely different. While the former focus on how deliberative practices promote democracy, the latter involve communicative actions in solving collective problems where decisive policy drives forceful action. The open method of co-ordination and the new governance patterns in Saudi Arabia was carried out to address specific planning and problems facing the Kingdom by allowing better community participation, greater involvement of ministers, high ranking officers and consultants to make solid contribution in joint decision-making and policy development. This can be illustrated by the establishment of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, and the Council of Political and Security Affairs were both chaired by Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sees a significant role for crafting, developing and promoting deliberative institutions in combating corruption, the deliberative practice of the Crown Prince, his arguments and reasons, in arresting those involved in corruption charges are considered legitimate in the eyes of Saudi citizens under the country’s political system.

Prince Mohammad’s decision to confront Saudi Arabia’s legacy of corruption has been hailed as proof that nobody, not even princes and politicians, are outside the reach of justice. The mass arrest of elites within the Saudi ‘deep state’ as part of this corruption purge came as no surprise. Almost six months prior, Prince Mohammed pledged to crack down on corruption: “I assure you that nobody who is involved in corruption will escape, regardless if he is a minister or prince or anyone,” he said. However, the timing of such a move was also to maintain his dominance and to crush some threats he saw brewing on the horizon.

To sustain a high standard of conduct in public affairs and economic life, the Kingdom needs a framework for judicial reforms, reduced discretionary powers for government officials in state funds, and the deployment of smart technologies in government. Reforms to produce tougher new laws on corruption, the appointment of more judges, and the establishment of special courts to speed up the processing of corruption allegations, would further demonstrate that Prince Mohammad’s deliberative approach is transparent and serious.

The use of smart technologies in government transactions with Saudi citizens and the business community may reduce the level of corruption associated with the purchasing activities of the Kingdom. Using the internet as a platform for the management of government contracts and financial transactions could produce an adequate level of transparency and openness.

The significance of Prince Mohammad combating corruption is also important because it sends a clear message to foreign investors that as the Kingdom opens up its major industries to overseas investment, the Saudi business environment is ready, safe, and transparent to accommodate them in the Saudi emerging market.

Given that two thirds of working Saudis are public servants, the size of government spending is becoming increasingly important to the performance of the Saudi economy and balancing the fiscal budget. Almost eighteen per cent of the Kingdom’s USD$237 billion total spending in 2017 budget spent on payments to 1.24 million public servants, higher than average for OECD countries and fuelling a substantial budget deficit.

Restoring public finances requires the government to first reduce the size of the Saudi public service by 20 per cent over the next five years. Second, to reduce government subsidies and entitlements, which represent a massive proportion of payments to public servants. Third, to foster innovation in government practice and advance fundamental changes to running government business.

A good initiative would be to empower the government sector workforce by recognising individual achievement and promoting career advancement. Increasing the level of collaboration through the ‘co-design’ of public services with Saudi citizens and the business community at large is one possible way to bridge the gap between the government and private sector. Another is to initiate legislation targeted at the private sector to make it more dynamic and the principal generator of employment in the Kingdom.

Since becoming Crown Prince in June 2017, Mohammad bin Salman has embarked on aggressive reforms aimed at imitating the model of Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and his most trusted ally. However, the downside may become costly if these national reforms aren’t supported by national cohesion, where the aspirations of Saudi society and its new ruler are coordinated and united under a mutually accepted vision.

If his deliberative reforms and program of modernisation are well crafted and successfully delivered, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman may well be remembered as the founding father of a new Saudi Arabia.

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