LOS ANGELES - Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has wrapped up a multination tour and charm offensive after meetings in Spain, France, Britain, Egypt and the United States. The 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne has crafted an image as a reformer, but remains a divisive figure as the man behind aggressive Saudi actions in the Middle East and a controversial corruption probe inside his country.

In November, hundreds of business leaders and members of the Saudi royal family were detained in what investigators called an effort to root out corruption. The probe was ordered by King Salman and conducted by his son, the crown prince. Most of the detainees were released in January after paying fines and forfeiting what Saudi officials say exceeded $100 billion in assets. 

The crown prince serves as Saudi defense minister and has come under intense criticism for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen against Houthi rebels, who are fighting the government of Yemen's President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Saudis say the rebels are a proxy for Iran.

France Saudi Arabia
FILE - Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, is welcomed by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, second left, in Paris, April 9, 2018.

The United Nations and human rights groups say thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed and that the war has created a humanitarian crisis.

In 2016, the Saudis admitted to having used controversial cluster bombs, which release explosive sub-munitions, or bomblets. The rebels have conducted a number of missile attacks targeting Saudis.

Prince Mohammed is also seen as the man behind a Saudi diplomatic standoff with Qatar and the force behind reported Saudi meddling in Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced in November while he was in Saudi Arabia that he was resigning, sparking widespread speculation that bin Salman had forced the move. Hariri later retracted his resignation.

Domestic front

On the domestic front, the crown prince's liberalization efforts include the reopening of movie theaters, which have been closed in Saudi Arabia for decades. In addition, women will be permitted to drive and religious morality police have seen their power reduced in the kingdom. 

Saudi women attend the "Short Film Competition 2"
FILE - Saudi women attend the "Short Film Competition 2" festival at King Fahad Culture Center in Riyadh, Oct. 20, 2017.

Under a plan called Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed hopes to transform the Saudi economy, building its private sector over the next 12 years. The cornerstone of the plan is the sale of a 5 percent stake of state oil firm Aramco through an initial public offering, the largest IPO ever.

United States

During three weeks in the United States, Prince Mohammed met with President Donald Trump, Hollywood luminaries and News Corp founder Rupert Murdoch. The prince visited Google in California's technology corridor known as Silicon Valley and traveled to Boeing in Seattle, Washington. In Seattle, the prince spoke with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, promoting the image as a reformer and modernizer.

FILE - President Donald Trump shows a chart highli
FILE - President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, March 20, 2018.


Some analysts say they are skeptical, seeing the prince's anti-corruption drive as a consolidation of power against rival factions of the Saudi royal family and his reform measures as superficial. James Gelvin, a historian of the Middle East at UCLA, says the crown prince is just as avaricious as his relatives.

"He spent $450 million on a da Vinci painting," said Gelvin. "He spent about the same amount of money on a yacht. This is par for the course in Saudi Arabia."

Still, the crown prince is making a difference, says a career diplomat who is now an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Gerald Feierstein was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013.

"While we're seeing major initiatives on the economic and social sides" in Saudi Arabia, Feierstein said that 70 percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30, and is increasingly educated and urbanized. Feierstein says many want more than the cradle-to-grave security and government jobs that satisfied an earlier generation.

"They want to see and live in a Saudi Arabia that's more modern, that's more open, that's more tolerant of diversities of opinion," he said, but noted that the crown prince "has been very clear in saying that he is not a political reformer."

Prince Mohammed has also been harshly criticized for his domestic policies. 

"There are currently approximately 20 human rights activists, non-violent peaceful human rights activists who are facing long jail terms," Gelvin said. "If he were to release even one of those, I'm sure the world might cut him a break on being a reformer. But so far, he hasn't."

Feierstein says Mohammed bin Salman is learning on the job as the public face of the Saudi government. "He's only been at this for less than a year," Feierstein said. "We'll see whether his evolution as a leader continues."

Gelvin says that Middle Eastern leaders who are billed as reformers have been disappointments or disasters, such as Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, whom Gelvin says turned out to be a worse human rights abuser than his father, Hafez al-Assad. Even the crown prince's supporters say he faces hurdles as the leader-in-waiting of a highly conservative country with a history of autocratic rule.

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