MBS And Millennials, Inside Saudi Prince's Youth Strategy

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Georges Malbrunot

RIYADH — In the span of a few months, Hind al-Zahid's life has changed for the better. "My dream turned into reality," the 38-year-old Saudi says. She's become the first woman to enter the board of directors of one of the kingdom's airports, in the eastern city of Damman. And soon, like millions of other women, this mother of two, wearing a thin layer of makeup under her embroidered black veil will be allowed to drive a car.

"This means being able to go to work alone, driving the children to school alone, going out with them alone," she says. "It necessarily implies a strengthening of women's role in society."

One, even two revolutions launched simultaneously in the very conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Since Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the king's favorite son, was officially designated heir to the throne in June, there's been an acceleration of reforms in favor of women and young people.

"The government sets the example by starting from the top," Hind al-Zahid says, in reference to Sarah al-Suhaimi, the first woman to have entered the board of directors of the Riyadh stock exchange, and Rania Nashar, the first Saudi woman to chair a commercial bank.

At a recent two-day summit organized by the prince's MISK Foundation, young and not so young attendees listened to speakers, most of whom came from the U.S. to talk about innovation, economic intelligence, e-market. "We need a leader to change things, not just a manager that runs the kingdom," says Amer al-Othashan, who has just launched his own business.

Sarah al-Suhaimi — Source: Future Investment Initiative screenshot

And indeed, how things have changed in just six months. After decades of dormancy, Saudi Arabia was awoken by this young, authoritarian and impulsive prince who's not afraid to shake up old traditions. MBS has initiated a transformation of the economy that relied exclusively on oil, he's introduced taxes, allowed women to drive while at the same time bringing the ultra-conservative religious establishment to heel, not to mention his spectacular anti-corruption purge, which has hit some of the richest people in the country, several princes and many businessmen among them.

Leading her own startup, 37-year-old Maha Taiba had long been waiting for this moment. "There's been reforms regarding work," this former state employee explains. "In the past, there was no social security, so it was very difficult for young people to start their own business. And for mothers, there's now a longer maternity leave and it's easier to have access to nurseries. The prince's agenda might be aggressive, but it's giving us opportunities."

Nobody is above the law.

For the future Saudi king, who should in all likelihood be king for a long time given his young age of 32 (his father, King Salman, is 81), it's all quite simple: 70% of his future subjects are under 30, as are half of the unemployed, whose number has grown since lower oil prices have undercut the kingdom's wealth. Here, just like for the Iranian enemy across the Gulf, the youth represents a time bomb. "If you want to develop Saudi Arabia, you simply can't afford to marginalize half of the population. 60% of those who graduate from high school are women," Hind al-Zahid says.

"His anti-corruption offensive shows that nobody is above the law," says Nour Suliman al-Numair, a young doctor at the genetics department of a Riyadh hospital. "We'd been waiting for this for a long time."

For decades, young Saudis had been left uninspired and shut off. No cinemas, no concerts, no mixed restaurants. Sure, on Fridays, a public holiday, the wealthiest get some excitement by driving up and down the sand dunes in their four-wheel drives. And others kill time watching videos on YouTube. Saudi society is one of the most connected in the world: 8 million Saudis, out of a whole population of 22 million, have a Facebook account. "We would interact on social networks a lot, but it was all virtual. We are in the concrete world now," Maha Taiba says.

The crown prince is giving them a perspective. "Five or six years ago, we would have been treated as children, now we feel our voices are heard," says Abdelaziz al-Bassam, who's just returning from Harvard University. "You go to the supermarket or to the airport and you now see young Saudis working."

Not everybody is willing to accept this sudden transformation.

Of course, Riyadh's hip youth is hardly representative of all young people in Saudi Arabia, a country where a small fringe is still seduced by jihadist ideals. But each step forward is an indisputable victory. These young people now want to believe that things can never go back to what they were before — they're ready for modernity.

"Now, as a woman, I can take part in meetings with senior officials," says Maha Taiba. "I feel I can raise my voice and go to the authorities to denounce wrongful behaviors, I feel I'm being heard."

But in the country of the two sacred mosques of Mecca and Medina, not everybody is willing to accept this sudden transformation. That starts with the ultra-conservative religious establishment — and the fearsome religious police, which for the moment is keeping a low profile. "You still see them sometimes in shopping malls, but their role is now clearly defined and limited to support and no longer to repress," Nour Suliman al-Numair says. "If the Wahhabi want to remain Wahhabi, they will be able to do that, but they no longer will be able to impose their view."

To be sure, MBS is leaving little room for those opposed to his reforms. Many of them — including in religious circles — were among those arrested in September. "I've never been prouder of my country," Hind al-Zahid says. "I used to be rather pessimistic about my daughter's future. I'm optimistic now."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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