For quite some time now, Saudi Arabia’s young and shrewd Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has been regarded as the rising star of the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom.
The 31-year-old royal currently possesses power that monarchs in his family traditionally gain after turning 50. He is the chairman of the Supreme Petroleum Council as well as the head of the military forces.
Bin Salman is, in fact, quite the opposite of how the West usually perceives Saudi rulers: old, conservative and boorish.
In addition, his ambitious vision to make Saudi Arabia independent of oil wealth has led many to refer to him as “Mr. Everything,” also “the millennial who is changing Saudi's traditional decision-making.”
But is he really the face of change in Saudi Arabia?
The answer to this question is a little too complicated.
Bin Salman’s keenness to prepare Saudi Arabia for life after oil certainly puts him at odds with nearly all of his predecessors and superiors, who relied solely on economy driven by oil.
He has also kept a distance from the kingdom’s revered clergy, yet has been wise enough not to challenge their often unquestionable authority in social and political affairs.
All of these traits have somewhat made the young monarch comparatively more popular with the Saudi youth than previous rulers.
Despite his meteoric political ascension and accompanying celebrity status, bin Salman remains as controversial a figure as many other members of his family.
For instance, he has imposed several austerity measures over the past couple of months. In September, in the wake of bin Salman’s sweeping plan to rein in government spending during low oil prices, Saudi Arabia announced to cut government employees' bonuses and benefits for the first time ever.
Under the new measures, wage increases for lower-ranking civil servants have been suspended along with overtime and annual leave payments. What’s more, the staunchly Islamic country even switched from the Islamic lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar in a bid to save 11 days worth of payment to public servants, who make up about two-thirds of the entire working population.
But as bin Salman subjected the working-class Saudi to salary cuts, he himself shopped for shiny new (read: obscenely expensive) toys.
The New York Times reports bin Salman bought a 440-foot yacht, worth approximately $500 million, while vacationing in France last year.
His urge to buy the "Serene," what is one of the most expensive yachts in the world, was so great that the deal was finalized within a matter of hours, according to the Times. In fact, the super-yacht’s now-former owner, a Russian vodka businessman named Yuri Shefler, moved out of the ship the same day it was sold to bin Salman.
It’s not new for a Saudi royal to indulge in extravagant lifestyle choices both inside and outside of Saudi Arabia. But doing so on a vacation in foreign country amid belt-tightening at home is hypocritical.
It says a lot about Muhammad bin Salman and, consequently, about the future of Saudi Arabia.