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Young Saudis get behind Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform drive, mostly

Holly Ellyatt
Young Saudis get behind Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform drive, mostly

Saudi Arabia's crown prince is seen as a strong leader who will take the country in the "right direction" and young Saudis are — for the most part — throwing their weight behind the reform-minded heir to the throne.

Ninety percent of Saudi youth believing that Mohammed bin Salman, the future ruler of the Middle East's largest economy and most powerful nation, will prove beneficial for the country, with 91 percent also supporting his appointment as crown prince, according to a survey focused on young people in the region.

Furthermore, 97 percent believing he is a "strong" leader, according to the ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller survey published Wednesday.

Interviewing 3,500 young people from 16 Arab nations on their attitudes towards major regional issues, the survey provides insight into how young people aged 18-24 feel about the direction their region is heading, and what they feel are the top priorities that governments need to address. Of the 3,500 young men and women surveyed, 300 were from Saudi Arabia (from Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam).

Their responses to questions about Bin Salman give a snapshot of wider, youthful opinion regarding the crown prince from a nation where the majority of the population is under 35. The respondents from the 15 other Arab nations surveyed also gave broadly positive responses when questioned about the Saudi crown prince and his influence in the Middle East.

The 32-year old heir apparent has been making waves in Saudi and beyond by spearheading a program of radical economic and societal reforms in the conservative kingdom.

Women will soon be allowed to drive, cinemas have reopened, and the economic transformation program, called "Vision 2030," is underway as the economy tries to diversify away from oil.

The crown prince, or MBS as he's known, made his presence felt in 2017 when he instigated a crackdown on corruption that saw numerous businessmen, government officials and fellow Saudi princes detained, and many of their assets handed over to the state.

The vast majority of Saudi young people, 94 percent, support those anti-corruption measures, the ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller survey showed, and 92 percent were confident that his Vision 2030 "will be a success."

Young people are also in favor of the radical societal changes afoot in Saudi Arabia, particularly concerning women, with 88 percent of all respondents in favor of Saudi allowing women to drive (interestingly, of the Saudi respondents that were asked if they favored this development, 81 percent of men and 82 percent of women said they were).

Yet, 80 percent of all respondents agreed that Arab leaders should do more to "improve the personal freedoms and human rights of women."

Bin Salman has signaled that he wants more women to enter the workplace, but there is far to go with the system of male guardianship only slowly changing. While there is progress – last year, King Salman decreed that Saudi women will no longer need a man's permission to travel, study or make police complaints — there is still some resistance to change with not everyone happy with the liberalizing moves.

Even some young people of both sexes oppose MBS' reforms involving women, with 17 percent of Saudi women and 19 percent of Saudi men opposing the reform allowing women to drive. The survey did not explore their reasons for opposing the reforms.

How much influence MBS will have on the wider region could be more uncertain, however. As defense minister, MBS has overseen Saudi Arabia's involvement in the ongoing conflict in Yemen against Iran-supported Houthi rebels, but other foreign powers, including Iran, Russia and the U.S., can influence policy and balance of power in the Middle East.

When the 3,500 young people were asked which of the following individuals — President Donald Trump, Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Fattah El-Sisi, Russian President Vladimir Putin or Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — would have the biggest impact on the Arab world in the next 10 years, 25 percent believed that Trump would, versus 15 percent who believed the crown prince would have the biggest impact.