Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Saudi Arabia in Transition

| July 2017

From Defense to Offense, But How to Score?


This report examines Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s revolutionary blueprint for modernizing its economy and moderating its society to secure the Kingdom’s future—and that of its Al Saud rulers—in the absence of oil wealth. These petroleum riches long have sustained the Saudi social contract: royal largesse in exchange for citizen loyalty. The report is based on seven weeks in the Kingdom last fall and this spring, the author’s latest of scores of visits over the past four decades, and on conversations with a wide range of Saudi citizens, government officials and senior members of the royal family.

Much has changed. Most dramatically, the plan’s architect, Mohammed bin Salman, the prince who would be king, is one step closer.  His father, King Salman fired the crown prince and elevated his son to that role. The already powerful prince now has carte blanche to lead a more assertive foreign policy against the Kingdom’s adversaries and accelerate his reforms at home. At only 31 years of age, MBS, as he is known, will be the youngest and most powerful Saudi ruler since his grandfather founded the Kingdom in 1932. With perhaps a half century of leadership, he literally intends to remake the Kingdom his grandfather created.

So far, the most dramatic changes wrought by Vision 2030 have been social, not economic—and surely not political. He is dynamic and driven but no democrat. Reforming the sclerotic economy remains a daunting challenge. Both businessmen and the Saudi public are balking at painful change. So are religious conservatives. Still, the Crown Prince is using economic necessity to quell conservative opposition to a more modern and moderate Saudi Arabia where women and young Saudis can enjoy greater career opportunities.  He understands he cannot make a dependent people self-reliant without first changing their mindset.

Pressing radical social and economic change is a risk to the Kingdom’s stability. So is doing nothing in the face of prolonged low oil revenues. Similarly, confronting Iran carries risks, but sitting by while its proxies seek to destabilize the Kingdom is also a risk. Instability there is a danger to U.S. interests in the region, very much including Israel. President Trump has reversed Barack Obama’s support for Iran and stands squarely behind a more assertive Saudi Arabia. So far that has done little to slow Iran’s regional momentum. The following pages will explore the significance of this U.S. policy shift and of regional threats to Saudi Arabia. Because the greater threats to Saudi are internal, the major focus here will be on analyzing the opportunities and challenges inherent in translating Vision 2030 from a transformational blueprint into a transformed economy and society.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen. “Saudi Arabia in Transition.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2017.