Saudi prince aims for Silicon Valley appeal to gleam at home

Thu Jun 23, 2016 2:01pm EDT
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By Celine Aswad and Angus McDowall

DUBAI/RIYADH (Reuters) - The powerful young prince behind modernizing reforms in Saudi Arabia presents himself as the champion of his nation's plugged-in youth, and his visit to Silicon Valley this week sought to bolster that image.

The 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has unabashedly pitched his "Vision 2030" reforms at the 70 percent of the staid Islamic kingdom's people younger than him, promising to unlock their "talent, potential and dedication".

He has also tried to overcome Western stereotypes of Saudis, meeting foreign media to sell his vision of market-oriented reforms and a transformation of the kingdom's society. Pictures of the denim-clad prince in Silicon Valley served both purposes.

His modernizing message has strongly resonated on social media with younger Saudis, whose concerns sometimes seemed misunderstood or ignored by older royals, and where hashtags referencing the prince receive large volumes of traffic.

"The Saudi youth and the government are finally speaking the same language," said Manal al-Sharif, a banker and mother of two teenage girls in Jeddah.

Saudis are not accustomed to young rulers: King Salman is 80, the late King Abdullah died last year aged 90, his predecessor King Fahd died in 2005 aged 84 and each was surrounded by a coterie of similarly aged royal advisers.

But in a country where rapid development has caused birthrates to soar since last century's oil boom, a majority of Saudis are young, urban and switched on, using the internet and social media more than their peers around the Arab world.

Photographs of Prince Mohammed meeting Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, and trying out a virtual reality headset, were widely published in Saudi newspapers on Thursday.   Continued...

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) walks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (L) at the tech giant's headquarters in Silicon Valley, U.S. June 22, 2016. Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS