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File photo of Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reacting upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris

What we know about the crown prince’s vision for Saudi Arabia

This week, Saudi Arabia drew national attention for imprisoning 17 princes, including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, in a move described as an “anti-corruption initiative.”

The country has now imprisoned 208 people since Saturday. But they are just some of the latest decisions by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, that have drawn attention since he was named the next in line to the throne earlier this year. The crown prince, 32, has said he is looking to break down the Saudi economy and decision-making structure and change how the country interprets and practices Islam today.

    He also seeks to:

  • Push a public trade of Aramco, the oil company owned by the Saudi government, on the New York Stock Exchange
  • Throw weight behind a $500 billion project to create a megacity in the desert
  • Scale back gender segregation, through recent changes in law that give women permission to drive and attend sports matches — part of a move toward “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.”

But what are the crown prince’s real goals, and what impact will these reforms have? Saudi experts and scholars told the PBS NewsHour what they think.

The crown prince sees the integration of industry and gender as a key to Saudi Arabia’s future.

“The Saudis realize first on a national basis that their economy and their style of life have to move away from oil dependency and diversify, and second, they realize they need to be integrated with a regional and global economy to be successful,” said Mamoun Fandy, a scholar and author of “Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent.”

Those reforms are already in progress. In September, Saudi Arabia announced it would reverse its longstanding controversial policy that barred women from driving. The change will go into effect in June 2018. Last week, officials also said women could now attend sporting matches.

Some women’s rights advocates have remained critical of the moves, saying the country’s male guardianship system is still in place and many women who fought for the end of the driving ban are still in prison.

Saudi scholar Hala Al-Dosari said the Saudi state has pushed reform on women’s issues as a way to garner support for the Saudi political establishment. But, Al-Dosari said, any challenges to the status quo or state narrative — such as more formalized safeguards against discrimination in work and the legal system — are far from becoming reality in the country.

One of the prince’s biggest challenges: Saudi Arabia’s working-age population

The economic outlook for the nation isn’t good. The International Monetary Fund has projected Saudi Arabia would run out of cash reserves within five years if major changes were not made. Unemployment in the country rose to 12 percent in the third quarter of 2016.

Still, the working-age population in Saudi Arabia is expected to increase to 18 million people by 2025, or 226,000 new Saudis entering the labor force each year.

MBS is wary of uprisings in other Middle East countries sparked by unemployment or economic grievances and knows he has to gain the approval of millions of young people entering the job market – both through the creation of new jobs and through a call for social reform, the Associated Press reported.

Are recent arrests a crackdown on corruption — or a move toward an absolute monarchy?

Amid all of the talk of openness and tolerance, MBS has raised eyebrows this week with the imprisonment of 17 princes and several current and former ministers. Three ministers were also removed from their posts.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia announced more than 200 people had been imprisoned in the last week for “systematic corruption and embezzlement.”

The crown prince has defended the crackdown as an anti-corruption initiative.

The kingdom’s Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said that the anti-corruption probe was “proceeding quickly” and that seven of the 208 people detained since last Saturday were released without charge.

Some of the senior figures detained last Saturday were “beaten and tortured so badly during their arrest or subsequent interrogations that they required hospital treatment,” sources in the royal court told the Middle East Eye. People in the royal court told the news site that the scale of the crackdown is much larger than Saudi authorities say, with more than 500 people imprisoned.

But experts say the moves appear to be a way for the crown prince to consolidate power. They point out that those arrests, which included billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, have also targeted political rivals and Saudi dissidents.

In addition to the members of the royal family, dozens of academics, religious leaders, journalists and activists have been taken into custody over the past two months.

There has also been growing concern about Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who said last week while visiting Saudi Arabia that he was resigning from his position. Some of his allies in Lebanon have worried the Saudis were holding Hariri against his will or holding him under house arrest in Riyadh, where he has a residence.

Saudi author and journalist Jamal Khashoggi said those arrests have put Saudis on notice either to “be silent or to follow” MBS. “Now he’s doing the same thing in the royal family,” Khashoggi said.

Since the arrest of the princes, the country has transitioned to “the absolute of absolute monarchies,” a form of rule with no one else to turn for grievance except the crown prince, and major issues like unemployment falling on him alone to address, Khashoggi said. This means “he’s the representative for success or failure … There is no other entity that he can throw the blame on.”

In an interview with the NewsHour, Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller echoed the same sentiment that MBS intends to become supreme leader, “and he’s banked his fate, his political fortune on the fact that he can — he has enough horses to pull this wagon. And it won’t be easy.”

Is Saudi Arabia really committed to a moderate brand of Islam?

The crown prince says he wants to return Saudi Arabia to “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” But Al-Dosari says MBS’ call to “return” to moderate Islam is historically inaccurate.

“We have not seen a moderate Islam during the history of modern Saudi Arabia. What are we returning to?” she said. Before the unification of Saudi Arabia more diverse views like Sufism — an interpretation of Islam that relies more on teachers rather than exclusively on books for knowledge — were accepted, Al-Dosari said.

The idea of “return” also gives a false impression that the government “started from a good place and allows people not to hold the government accountable for the prevalence of extremism.”

Now, according to Human Rights Watch, some government-appointed religious scholars and clerics regularly incite hatred against the country’s Shia citizens and other religious minorities. In September, Human Rights Watch issued its own report documenting hate speech about Shia Muslims by Saudi government officials.

“If [MBS] wants to create a more tolerant society and a moderate Islam, maybe the place he could start is looking at incitement to hatred, particularly against the country’s Shiite citizens,” said Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

More recently, international human rights organizations have also been critical of arrests like those last week.

“It is clear that the new leadership under [MBS] is sending a chilling message: freedom of expression will not be tolerated, we are coming after you,” Amnesty International said in a statement after more than 20 people were arrested in September.

Al-Dosari goes so far as to say the crown prince’s call for moderate Islam cannot be successful when combined with a top-down approach to governing.

“I don’t see how having a reformist view of Islam can be done without encouraging people to be critical,” she said, adding that the government wanted a monopoly on interpretation of Islam. Khashoggi and Al-Dosari critiqued MBS’ economic plan for taking the same top-down approach and not garnering input from Saudi society.

While the crown prince is promising reform, his path towards change is lined with imprisonment of any dissident. Three months after MBS became crown prince, Saudi authorities had arrested dozens of people in what Human Rights Watch called a “coordinated crackdown on dissent.”

Khashoggi announced in September that al-Hayat, his publication, had banned him from continuing to write his opinion column. Reuters reported that the move was a “bid to silence dissent” and criticism of Saudi policy.

“Saudi activists and others who have been pushing for these reforms all along are almost always the people who get locked up,” Coogle said.

How will these changes affect the region?

The latest developments come in the midst of the continued Saudi-coalition offense on neighboring Yemen.

At least 10,000 people have been killed there in the last two years, the United Nations said this week. The U.N. has also reported 895,000 cases of cholera in the fastest-growing cholera epidemic ever recorded.

The coalition announced Monday that it would close all land, air and sea routes to Yemen after a ballistic missile fired from Yemen was intercepted over an international airport in the country. The Kingdom accused Iran of committing a “a blatant act of military aggression” by providing rebels in Yemen with the missile.

On Thursday, the Saudi-led coalition reopened a land border crossing in eastern Yemen and also reopened the southern port of Aden. The U.N. warns that if the coalition does not allow humanitarian aid into the country it would cause “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.”

On Saturday, when Hariri announced his resignation, he said he feared his life was in danger and accused Iran and its Shi’ite ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, of interference in the region.

Hariri’s exit came with widespread skepticism. Some theorized that he stepped down to set a path for Saudi Arabia to hit back Iran and Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia advised its citizens not to travel to Lebanon and ordered Saudis in the country to leave immediately.

The Newshour’s Jane Ferguson wrote that MBS could be creating an environment ripe for war between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel.

What does this mean for the U.S.?

On Monday, President Donald Trump weighed into the controversy in Saudi Arabia, tweeting that he has “great confidence” in King Salman bin Abulaziz and the crown prince.

“They know exactly what they are doing,” Trump said. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been “milking” their country for years!”

The United States “wants to adopt a much tougher policy toward Iran in the region in the Gulf, and they’re looking to the Saudis to create something of a vanguard,” David Miller told the NewsHour.

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