×

Mohammed bin Salman is bringing Silicon Valley-style disruption to Saudi Arabia

  • Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, is currently visiting the U.S.
  • But back home, his reforms are shaking up the nation for the better as he brings Silicon Valley-style disruption to the Kingdom.
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (C) visits Innovation and Technology fair at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts, March 25, 2018.
Bandar Algaloud | Saudi Kingdom Council | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (C) visits Innovation and Technology fair at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts, March 25, 2018.

A year and a half ago, I returned with my family to my native Saudi Arabia after a lengthy stay in the U.S. Our oldest, eight-year old Leen, had learned from her upbringing to ask lots of questions, and they started right away. "Baba," she asked me, "why are there no women drivers here?"

I didn't have a good answer, just like I didn't have about any number of other things people of my generation had been unsatisfied with for decades but couldn't really change. But as it happens, a few months later, I didn't need an answer, because Saudi women were given the right to drive.

That was just one of many carefully-considered reforms that had taken place at home. The man responsible for them is Mohammed bin Salman, 32, the crown prince in line to be the country's next sovereign. "MBS," as he is known everywhere, has been making global headlines for his bold steps to reshape Saudi society. Women driving is but one of them. A dramatic fight against corruption and an ambitious vision for the year 2030 are others.

MBS is currently on an American tour, and in a recent 60 Minutes profile, he calmly answered tough questions on the theme of whether he is rushing things as a young leader. To the contrary, he said -- at one point arguing that what he is doing is "extremely necessary."

I am convinced my country is at a stage where we can no longer afford incremental solutions. MBS and I are roughly one year apart in age. I've spent much of my adult life in the U.S., at M.I.T. and later running global businesses for Google, before deciding to go back home to help with the big changes Saudi Arabia needs. And I'm one of an entire generation of young Saudis who believe that what MBS is doing is much more than necessary. It is vital.

That's because he is bringing a sense of hope to millions of young Saudis — educated, digitally savvy, who represent the majority of the population. And they are being energized to show the world a new face of Saudi Arabia, one that is open, optimistic and eager take its place on the global stage. MBS is telling us, "Go out there and make that happen." And with bets like Neom, a planned city and economic zone, he is contemplating the moon shots we can showcase a possible future not only to Saudi Arabia, but to the world at large.

It's hard to emphasize how much of a change that represents. For much of my life, being young in Saudi Arabia featured little of the exuberance it does here in the U.S. There was, of course, oil money, but in many ways it was a curse because of the way it bred complacency.

The country's social and political power was in the hands of men many decades older than us, who seemed to know or care little about the increasingly connected, digital lives we were leading, or the growing gap between the country's potential and its reality. We'd be thrilled when we read about the exploits of Silicon Valley pioneers like Steve Jobs. But when we looked around us, we would glumly realize that stories like those were almost impossible in Saudi Arabia.

That is precisely what MBS is changing. Men and women of my generation had been taught as youngsters to never question the status quo. Now, astonishingly, we are being encouraged to disrupt it. MBS has effectively given us a right to re-imagine Saudi Arabia and to then go about realizing it.

Technology will play a major role in this transformation. I moved back in Riyadh to build up the largest technology venture fund in the Middle East, Saudi Technology Ventures, anchored by Saudi Telecom.

My team and I have a number of ideas about areas of innovation Saudi is uniquely positioned to pursue at a global scale. For example, our country is roughly the size of the Western U.S., and much of it criss-crossed with infrastructure for the distribution of oil, energy and connectivity.

It's not hard to imagine combining the latest drone and satellite technologies with sophisticated machine learning vision systems to create a home-grown monitoring industry that then becomes a global standard. Everywhere we look, we see opportunity.

America, its people and its institutions will be important partners for us on this journey. Many Saudis learned how to learn, how to build and how to scale things from your great universities and companies, and we are now putting that knowledge to work back home. We hope that you will join us, both in spirit and in more tangible ways, as we undertake our tough but exciting journey.

I don't want to pretend there won't be challenges. The country is dealing with rising geopolitical risks and tensions, and at the same time, is balancing its pace of reforms to make sure it accommodates concerns about due process without stalling the engine of economic growth.

But Saudi Arabia will be able to better deal with both these challenges if it can strengthen itself domestically and empower a thriving society under a rule of law. Young Saudis recognize that; the Washington Post recently noted the "strong support" they give to MBS and his reforms.

We're far from declaring victory. But I'm beginning to think about having an answer ready for my daughter Leen when she asks me, hopefully not too far in the future, "Baba, why did it take us so long?"

Commentary by Abdulrahman I. Tarabzouni, known as "A.I.T.", who heads up STV, a $500 million venture fund anchored by Saudi Telecom. Born in Riyadh, he received an undergraduate and graduate degree in computer science with a concentration in economics from MIT. He was tapped by Google in 2009 to lead the Middle East's emerging business and eventually ran global new business out of its Mountain View headquarters. He now lives in Riyadh with his wife Jana and children Leen, Salman and Badr. Follow him on Twitter @aitmit.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.