Saudi Arabia: A modernization by forced march?

Riyadh city towers in Saudi Arabia

Since 2016, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and effective, though unofficial, governor of the country, is implementing and enforcing his development program – Vision 2030. The main objectives? To diversify the country’s economy by developing, for instance, a service economy in order to tackle Riyadh’s oil dependence. To do so, MBS relies on Saudi Arabia’s Public investment fund (PIF), ambitioning for it to become the world leader.

By Corentin Dionet

The dynamic of economic transformation happening in Saudi Arabia to reach Mohammad bin Salman’s vision can be approached through several prisms. As Louis Blin develops in his book1Arabie Saoudite: de l’or noir à la mer Rouge”, a shift in foreign policy is occurring, as Riyadh turns from black gold to the Red Sea, a space seen by Saudi leaders as a stabilising pole in the region.

Clearly, “in terms of foreign policy, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is structuring for Riyadh” as has explained Anne Gadel2 during the conference “Arabie saoudite: décryptage des transformations en cours” last September, in Paris. The American progressive withdrawal of the region, symbolized and incarnated by the disengagement in Kabul, has influenced MBS to tone down its anti-Iran populistic rhetoric. Entangled in an endless war in Yemen and fearing isolation in the region against Turkey and Iran, Riyadh might follow the path opened by the UAE and normalize its relations with Israel. Nonetheless, the readjustment weighing the most on Vision 2030 concerns MBS’s aim to invest in and develop touristic infrastructures on Red Sea’s shores.

The emblem of this touristic policy is Al-ʿUla vision. Mohammad bin Salman ambitions to transform this city in the cultural heart of his father’s realm. He entrusted France’s competence in the matter, reaching an agreement with Paris to create and finance “L’Agence Française pour le développement d’ALULA”, a French organism dedicated to build the Crown Prince’s vision. The numbers are substantial: 50 to 100 billion of euros invested on 15 new infrastructures spread on a territory the size of Belgium. This project is destined to be eco-friendly, playing perfectly in the narrative written by MBS’s will to become a leader in the production of renewable energy.

On a larger scale, Saudi officials are aiming to modernise the country’s economy by facilitating the emergence of public and private national gems in strategic areas. As his course of action demonstrates, MBS approaches international relations as a businessman rather than an ideologist. Therefore, he builds on the world banks’ large confidence to finance Vision 2030 through indebtment as well as the PIF.

A “verticalization” of the monarchy

Coupled to the economic modernization implemented through Vision 2030, political transformations have emerged in the last years. We are assisting to the “transformation of the political paradigm towards a vertical monarchy incarnated by Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia, and his son Mohammad Bin Salman, who is building a much more up-top system” stated Fathia Dazi-Héni, an IRSEM3 researcher during the conference “Arabie saoudite: décryptage des transformations en cours” last September. This is especially true since the 2017 Ritz-Carlton purge led by MBS, when he detained several hundred officials – a large part of whom appertaining to various Al Saud branches – depriving them of a considerable amount of power and influence.

Thanks to his unique leadership style, partially inspired by populists’ leaders such as Viktor Orban and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Crown Prince tailored his power on “the autocratic, pragmatic and high-tech Singaporean model” as described by Fathia Dazi-Héni. He placed his pawns, awarding responsibilities to some sons and daughters of the Al Saud branches he cut in 2017 – governing while his father reigns. These steps and this build-up have enabled him to enforce his vision of a modern Saudi Arabia, using a planned economy strategy incarnated by Vision 2030.

Resilience and capacity for adaptation”

Social and societal transformations induced through Vision 2030 are embodied by two aspects: the feminisation and rejuvenation of the workforce, especially of civil servants. Mohammad bin Salman’s rhetoric of modernisation is appealing to the country’s youth, as around 70% of Saudis are under 30 years old. “Despite major societal upheaval during the last few years, Saudi society showed great resilience and capacity for adaptation” recognizes Fathia Dazi-Héni.

In MBS’s mind, the feminisation of civil servants is needed, at least partly, to avoid relying too much on foreign competences. Saudi leaders are wanting to create an educated neoliberal society, a will which stirs up tensions between the urban youth, who is the principal audience targeted by MBS, and the old guard, still self-identifying with Wahhabism and struggling to embrace the rapid changes they are witnessing.

This considered, there are still improvements to be made regarding human rights – especially women. In spite of major progress in the recent years, Saudi women still “must obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married, leave prison, or obtain certain healthcare4”, they continue to face job discrimination and can face “disobedience” charges “which can lead to forcible return to their male guardian’s home or imprisonment5”. Jamal Kashoggi’s murder points the remaining flaws of Saudi Arabia’s society and justice, as high-ranking officials were not bothered despite strong suspicions of their involvement in the affair.

Towards a modern autocracy?

Transversally, there are some clear indicators of modernisation in the country. Saudis are gradually much more well versed in technology. By welcoming American and Israelian gems in their cyber industries’ market, Saudi leaders are accelerating the digitalisation of their society. MBS’s transformation of school programs also is aiming to modernise the country through education and formation.

The radical and autocratic approach to rejuvenate and metamorphose the country has, evidently, its own standard-bearer: Neom. This project is a pillar of Vision 2030. It consists in the creation of a one-of-a-kind smart city. Futuristic and automated, Neom is hoped to have its own e-government and function on renewable energy. The cost is astronomical: 500 billion dollars. Mohammad bin Salman ambitions to finance Neom through Saudi Arabia’s PIF.

However, the country is struggling to attract foreign investments to build these huge projects and the broader picture can be nuanced. “Several factors are existing: there is a high unemployment rate as well as academical struggles. Elites still are foreign educated, mostly in Anglo-Saxon universities” explained François-Aïssa Touazi. Furthermore, MBS is in a hurry because he waged his credibility and power on Vision 2030. Fathia Dazi-Héni argues: “There is a problematic in terms of human resources and a high-rotation of senior civil servants. Goals are set every six months and if they are not met, people are let go”.

But there is still a long way to go to achieve Vision 2030. This modernisation by forced march has already accentuated social and economic inequalities, provoked some social unrest, and drove a generational wedge in Saudi Arabia, a trend which may continue until 2030.

1 Blin, L. « Arabie Saoudite : de l’or noir à la mer Rouge », (2021), Eyrolles, IRIS.

2 Anne Gadel is a member of the North Africa and Middle East observatory for the Jean Jaures Foundation.

3 Institut de recherche stratégique de l’Ecole militaire

4 According to the world report 2021 of the Human Rights Watch, for Saudi Arabia.

5 Ibid.