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The 30-year-old prince who is changing the world
A 30-year-old you may have never heard of is trying to build a company worth four Apples — and a Nike to spare.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a fast riser in the Saudi hierarchy and member of the new generation, has the world's ear after an expansive interview where he elaborated on his plan for taking the mega-giant state oil company public.
Bin Salman, son of King Salman, was the surprise choice to serve as deputy to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the 56-year-old who had been seen as a possible heir apparent but is now viewed by some as more of a rival. Bin Nayef is interior minister who rose to power on his success as head of the Saudi counterterrorism program. King Salman, himself 80, took the throne when King Abdullah died in January 2015.
He stands in stark contrast to the traditional Western image of a Saudi leader — young, urbane and with views that seem far from traditional.
He is chairman of the Supreme Petroleum Council, above Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, and he also is head of the military, and a driving force behind the war in Yemen.
"Bin Salman's clearly trying to assert himself, and relying upon the broad degree of authority his father has assigned him," said one U.S. official. Bin Nayef, on the other hand is seen as the more steady and tested hand, the official said.
Bin Salman has also been popular with Saudi youth, who have been supporting him through the Yemen war. About 70 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is under 30, and 40 percent is unemployed, said Helima Croft, head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.
"That's his constituency. ... If your policy is to consolidate a significant portion of the population behind you, he's done that. I think he's played the 'Game of Thrones' in Saudi Arabia particularly well," said Croft. "He consolidated power faster than anyone imagined. He's talked about doing things that go to the heart of the Saudi social contract. He doesn't seem to be afraid. How this story ends I have no idea. All I know is we're in totally unchartered water."
Bin Salman helped knock 4 percent off the price of crude Friday, after he threw into doubt the ability of world oil producers to agree to an output freeze at their meeting in Qatar on April 17. The prince was reported as saying the kingdom would not participate in a freeze if Iran and other major producers, both OPEC and non-OPEC, do not join the program.
"This is dead in the water then," Croft said. "No one is going to overrule bin Salman on oil policy. If he's going to stick to his position, there's no point in showing up in Doha."
The idea of a global production freeze has been supported by Russia and Saudi Arabia, through Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi. But Iran has said it has no intention of freezing output as it works to return oil to the world market, now that sanctions against it have been lifted.
"If he says it and that's not aligned with what Naimi and other officials are saying, then those other officials are going to come into line. They have to adhere to what the leadership says. If that's the new negotiating line that makes meeting a freeze agreement a lot more difficult than the conciliatory, and arguably, a little more constructive attitude the Saudis have had in the past," said Michael Cohen, head of energy commodities research at Barclays. Cohen said without the freeze, and with more production from Iran, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere, it's conceivable oil could revisit the lows from February, in the $20s per barrel.
Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS, said the fact there is a Doha meeting at all shows the strains being felt by producers. "The number of producers going there shows you how alarmed the governments are about their finances with low oil prices," he said.
Yergin said the freeze was not a cut in production but was meant to serve as a stabilization of world oil prices. "The deputy crown prince underlines the fact that until it's clear where Iran's level of production is going to settle out, that it won't go much farther than it has. The Saudis will be at the meeting, but as so many things involving oil these days, it goes back to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both in the region and in terms of market share," he said.
Bin Salman, in a five-hour interview with Bloomberg, also discussed his vision for the kingdom's Public Investment Fund (PIF) and the sale of a public stake in the Saudi oil giant Saudi Aramco. The proceeds of the stock offering, expected next year or later, would help fund PIF which ultimately could control $2 trillion and help diversify Saudi Arabia away from oil, according to the report.
"What I'm worried about on Saudi Arabia right now is the lack of coherence of policy. Maybe he's going to become the central messenger and he's going to come up with a grand vision, and everyone sticks with it. But when you look at the FX (foreign exchange) drawdown and the removal of funds from foreign asset managers it raises questions," said Croft. "I think the oil story is very important. We had al Naimi out there saying it doesn't matter if Iran doesn't participate. It's kind of lurching from message to message."
Saudi Arabia has drawn down more than $150 billion in foreign reserves to meet its budget deficit as oil cratered. It has also been issuing debt and tapping bank loans. Saudi Arabia is a very low cost producer, estimated at under $10 a barrel but it needs 10 times that to meet its budget requirements.
"He's the top decision maker on oil. ... That's part of his brief," said Yergin. "I think these decisions are very considered. It's not just made up on the spot. ... One of the messages is that Saudi Arabia is going to be a bigger force in the world economy, not just in terms of oil but in terms of finance ... these messages have to be seen together. This is all part of a larger program of reform and protecting the Saudi position in terms of oil."
In the interview, bin Salman explained that Saudi Arabia would sell shares of Aramco's parent company and turn the oil giant into an industrial conglomerate. The kingdom currently plans to sell less than 5 percent of Aramco.
"IPOing Aramco and transferring its shares to PIF will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil," said the prince. He said that after diversifying investments, Saudi Arabia, within 20 years, would become an economy that does not depend mainly on oil.
Bin Salman said Saudi is working on spending more efficiently, noting the government used to spend up to 50 percent more than allocated in its budget but that was cut to 12 percent last year. For that reason, he said he does not believe Saudi Arabia has a problem with low oil prices.
Educated in Saudi Arabia, bin Salman is unlike many members of the royal family that have been educated in the west. He is seen in traditional dress, and Croft said he's not known to hit the night clubs.