Saudi Arabia: The surprising modernizers

Saudi Arabia is undergoing radical change under the guise of economic reform, a former assistant to Obama has written

Published: Updated:

Saudi Arabia is undergoing radical change under the guise of economic reform, a former assistant to US president, Barack Obama, has written in the Washington Post.

Writing on his return from a recent visit to the kingdom Dennis Ross, a counselor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote that it was hard to be positive about the Middle East.

“I came away feeling hopeful about the kingdom’s future,” He wrote. “That may seem paradoxical when some portray the Saudis as both ‘arsonists and firefighters’ in the struggle with radical Islamists.

“While Saudi funding of madrassas internationally has contributed to the spread of a highly intolerant strain of Islam, I wonder whether a lag effect is causing the Saudis to be singled out for behaviors their leadership no longer embraces.”

But he said the Saudi Arabia he had just left was not like this. It was, he added, certainly different to the Saudi Arabia he visited since 1991.

And he added that there was ‘an awakening underway’ in the kingdom, but one that was being led from the top down. And he said he was told by one Saudi national that, there was a revolution in the kingdom ‘disguised as economic reform’.

He said that there was no political change in sight, but that transformation was definitely taking place. This he noted was most notable in the new work ethic, which had led to 80-hour working weeks according to various ministers he spoke to.

The changes weren’t like by everyone, he added. But there was a definite enthusiasm from the younger officers involved.
And he pointed to the increase in the number of women being involved in the process.

He described the Saudi transformation plans as ‘ambitious’, and added that they were aimed at diversifying the economy, while ending an overreliance on oil.

“’Transparency’ and ‘accountability’ are not terms one would have used in the past to describe Saudi Arabia,” he explained.

“But plans to take a small part of Aramco public will require opening the books of the giant Saudi oil corporation, meaning, if nothing else, that if members of the royal family have used it as a private ATM, they will no longer be able to do so,” he wrote.

One minister, Ross said, has likened the process to ‘doing an IPO for a country’.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - he said - has been insistent in explaining that Saudi Arabia has now just one ideology – that of national development and modernization.

The Crown Prince, was quite frank in his view that the only way forward was to ‘pursue the ambitious targets specified in the National Transformation Plan and Vision 2030’. These he said including tripling revenues from sources other than oil by 2020.

He said the Deputy Crown Prince had said hurdles such as the limits imposed on women, and the lack of educational skills would be overcome.

Ross pointed to the education reforms underway in Saudi schools, with
80,000 students studying abroad

He said those he spoke to had noted that about 70% of Saudi’s population was under 30, and that these were the same people who were ‘not just open to change - they seek it’ he added.

He said the Deputy Crown Prince had said that the ‘government must do what it says it will do’. Ross said Mohammed bin Salman had ‘proudly’ pointed out that ‘the government has succeeded in generating 30% more revenue, reducing the deficit beyond expectations, introducing discipline in the budgeting process and, importantly, ending the authority of the “religious police” to interrogate and arrest Saudi citizens”.

But despite the enthusiasm, Ross admitted there would be opposition, which would exploit any hurdles the reformists faced.
Ross added that the success of the kingdom’s reform would not only ensure internal stability, but also demonstrate Arab leadership that was capable of overseeing change without major upheaval.

He added that the next US president should propose a ‘strategic dialogue and contingency plan for dealing with security threats’. In an attempt to reassure the Saudis considering their leadership see the US as failing to comprehend the threat posed by Iran and the Islamic Republic’s use of Shiite militias to undermine Arab governments.

Ross concluded that the Saudis had not imagined the Iranian hostilities and trouble making, or their financing of Hezbollah. And he said that unlike Iran, Saudi’s rulers would have a better chance at reform.