A Royal Leadership Tour

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince visits the U.S. this week to drum up investment and change perceptions. Will he succeed?

The most anticipated worldwide tour of 2018 doesn’t involve a pop star or YouTube performer, but one of the world’s youngest political leaders, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Whether the US portion of the tour—which starts this week—is successful will be gauged not by ticket sales, but how many business deals the 32-year-old can make and how many perceptions he can change.   

Prince Mohammed already has made headlines with various economic and social reforms at home. But his leadership skills will be tested in a different way on the road, particularly in the United States, where many people do not view Saudi Arabia favorably. “The underlying message the prince wants to get across is that Saudi Arabia is a diverse economy that is open for business,” says Michael Mamish, a Korn Ferry associate partner based in Riyadh.

The prince wants to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil, and his meetings in New York, Washington D.C., Houston, and other cities are focused on bringing new investment to his country. It’s just one aspect of his vision to transform it. In the eight months that he’s been crown prince, he’s advised his father, King Salman, to grant women the right to drive and started efforts to increase female participation in the workforce, training millions of Saudis in 21st-century job skills, and even announcing the intent to build a tech mega-city in the desert from scratch. “The prince is pushing for quick change assertively,” says Mamish, “while supporting the true moderate Islamic faith of the kingdom that is open to the world.”

Convincing skeptical western leaders may not be easy either. In a “60 Minutes” interview this week, Prince Mohammad admitted that many Americans may still associate Saudi Arabia with the 9/11 terrorists. There’s also been the controversy over the arrests of government officials and businessmen, freeing many only after they had turned over billions of dollars to the government. Prince Mohammed has portrayed those actions as a move to be transparent and show that the government plans to aggressively fight corruption to protect investors.

Experts say that stressing the importance of partnering and collaborating is one way Prince Mohammed can combat internal and external resistance. Moving big industries such as aviation and healthcare outside government walls and into the private sector and negotiating exchange deals (for example, the trading of goods and services with a foreign entity for an agreement to build a factory or set up a training center for Saudi workers) may foster and grow outside relationships.

They also help address another issue awaiting Prince Mohammed once he returns home: building up the nation’s human talent levels. The average Saudi is younger than 28 years old, according to the CIA World Factbook, and the birth rate is approximately 50% higher than it is in the US. “Talent here is very young, and while they are ready to own and deliver the agenda, it is important to provide the mechanisms and process to develop the skills, experience, or competencies needed for success,” says Mamish.  There is a concerted effort not just by the government, but also organizations on learning and development programs to retain high potential talent and create future leaders.