During a three-day period earlier this month, Saudi Arabia, already well into a long-term strategic transformation of its economy away from oil, signaled that it was increasingly comfortable throwing its weight around with the world’s most important players.
On March 9, Saudi Arabia offered to normalize relations with stalwart U.S. ally Israel, but required, first, the establishment of a Palestinian state. That came hours before the restoration of relations between the Kingdom and Iran were brokered by China, throwing the U.S. diplomatic establishment into a tizzy. By the following day, March 11, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund was ready to award Boeing a deal for an unspecified, but enormous, number of twin-aisle airplanes.
There has never been an aircraft deal like Riyadh Air’s for 39 firm Boeing 787-9s and another 39 for Saudia, formally announced by Boeing and Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) on March 14. This is not the largest by tail count. Or highest by value. Or for the biggest aircraft. Instead, it catapults a major population with an outsized role in geopolitics into the modern, interconnected economy.
Riyadh Air may be both a metaphor for and an extension of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is single-handedly the force behind Saudi Arabia’s new economy. Riyadh is where he was born, educated, and started his political career. At only 37 years old, he seeks to identify with the country’s young, large, and modernizing population that is the future. Yet he must balance the older, conservative voices often associated around Jeddah, Saudia’s headquarters. Riyadh Air’s existence seems to require progressiveness to remain the agenda.
But in the economic and geopolitical moves that have leveraged Saudi Arabia’s role in the world, the long-term success or failure of Riyadh Air will ultimately be decided by MBS himself and the strategic patience and ability to draw from the PIF’s $620 billion fund to make the ME3 – Qatar Airways, Emirates airline and Etihad Airways – the ME4. The scope of success depends on whether MBS can accelerate change from incremental to sweeping.
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