Has there been anything like it in modern-day diplomacy? Perhaps not. Perhaps because world leaders are not given the luxury of time to spend on what has been an elaborate PR campaign of both man and country. Perhaps because no country has essentially the luxury of picking and choosing what aspects of itself to improve on such a broad scale. Perhaps because it is rare that a country’s vision can run so unencumbered and unopposed by the million and one legal, political and financial barriers that would normally stand in its way.
Or it could be all the above, plus the fact that no country has been in such a unique position as Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as he has been abbreviated, embarked on a world tour starting in March which has seen a man who is clearly desperate-although one would never guess from his cheerful, calm and optimistic exterior-to sell himself and his vision to the world. Saudi Vision 2020, as his masterplan for The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is known, needs to be sold more to foreigners than to its own citizens for it to truly succeed.
Why? Because a new country has been seemingly formed, one where everything is for sale and-ostensibly-improvement. The people seem as though they have been imported from a far-off but familiar planet: they have the same material tastes as any ordinary American but are incapable of creating or producing what they consume. But there is a difference between the people represented by this determined man and those, say, that live in tiny mountainside villages who have never seen running water, electricity or a modern store. These people have money, and what they may be lacking in talent, they are willing to buy.
MBS is not conducting a world tour so he can build primary schools, install waterworks or feed the hungry. He’s not drumming up the usual suspects i.e. the IMF and World Bank. He’s meeting with Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates; he’s probably discussing all about space and Hyperloop with Richard Branson in the US’s Mojave Desert. His country is no third-world backwater in terms of quality of living, strictly speaking: its people pay no taxes and receive hefty government benefits. They live comfortable, even pampered lives (generalizing, but still). But San Francisco or London this is not: while materialism can be purchased, the stuff is not MADE IN SAUDI. The ideas, the products-everything is outsourced.
In order to get this MADE IN SAUDI environment kicking, the Prince has to ironically turn to outsourcing some more. Instead of sending Saudi kids on government scholarship to MIT in Boston, why not bring MIT right to the kids, so they can stay home and more kids get the opportunity for that world-class tech education? Still, its going to be a while until entrepreneurship in all sectors flourishes to the levels capable of developing tubular transport or Unicorn startups. That’s where the endless meetings with CEOs from Washington, D.C. to NYC come in, where the Prince must convince them to invest in his kingdom.
What immediately indicated that this was no ordinary diplomatic mission was the abundance of PR marketing that flooded London prior to MBS’ arrival. Instead of Ministry of Foreign Affairs banners welcoming the Prince-who is taking on a role akin to that of the actual King, his father King Salman-there were posters and billboards and newspaper ads that must have been paid for by the Saudi government. With his benign-looking smile beaming up at viewers, the ads did just that; they advertised MBS and his initiatives, an unusual course of action in a foreign country. The posters, which were even plastered on the sides of trucks, said things like “He is creating a new Saudi Arabia.” “He is opening Saudi Arabia to the world,” read another. Who were they trying to convince, anyways? Members of Parliament? CEOs? The British public? Saudi expats? Or-possibly-Saudis back home?
While the first two are the most obvious choices, essentially MBS needs the whole world on his side. Ultimately, he needs foreign investment ($$$). But no CEO is going to invest in Saudi unless politically it is stable and accepted on the world stage (this is where the politicians come in). And while convincing his own countrymen that his “radical” ideas are not the work of the devil is important, it is equally important that he convinces the foreign public–you know, the ones who think Saudi is just a medieval country where they cut off people’s hands and women hide behind burqas. Because MBS wants Saudi to be a leader country. He wants it to be a cool place-he wants to be cool.
Are they buying what the Prince is selling? Or, as TIME magazine asked, should they be buying what he’s selling? TIME discusses the cons of bin Salman, his meteoric rise to power in which he ricocheted his uncle into oblivion, started a disgusting war in Yemen and jailed rich bigwigs for corruption… all while never bringing them to court on even the slightest of trumped-up charges. None of the above is cool. None of the above earns him any merit badges or would look good on a CV. The soundbites that have accompanied his tour (women don’t need to wear abaya!) will have real-life implications on the ground if they are actually and fully implemented, but they’re entirely intended for Western ears. After all, what female CEO or business leader will want to come train or set up shop in Saudi if the traditional vision of Saudi women is still the reality?
Soundbites and a desire for a homegrown Silicon Valley do not mask the entirely aggressive agenda bin Salman has domestically pursued. He may have dressed down in a suit as he took on the USA, but MBS came into his role as Crown Prince fully suited for battle. If I were Satayoshi Masa of Softbank or The Rock (he met with actors in Los Angeles!) I would be hesistant to sign onto anything with such a guy. What he’s selling is cool, sure. Vision 2030 sounds freaking awesome, especially when you consider what Saudi has been like for the past decades. But when something seems too good to be true…. it usually is.
In short, MBS has too much on his plate for a guy who suddenly just found out he’s next in line to be king. At first, his ideas sounded great, and many of them do seem fantastic (women can drive!) But they keep coming-one right after another-into a country which is going to have its first cinema showing on April 18th. First cinema showing. That, too, is a post for another time, but it’s something that anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Saudi and world affairs and human decency should be questioning during the Crown Prince’s tour: how is this an achievement? Sure, congratulations: you’ve realized that cinemas are not haram. But if cinemas are your starting point, how convincing is it that all these other glorious visions will come to see the light of day?
At the end of the day, MBS needs to succeed in his delusions of grandeur, if only for the benefit of the Saudi people who have long lived in a kind of gilded prison. Despite his classless self-marketing, his friendship with Donald Trump, his gross denials of extremist exportation and his transparent, fervent desire to be as cool as Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, we need him to win. Because the Saudi youth now have a pied piper and champion, even if he does have less altruistic motivations. Because they cannot unhear his promises and goals. Because his Vision 2030 has become their vision, whether they dreamed it or not.