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

Saudi First

| July 05, 2023

Kingdom Pursues Independent Path

In 2021, at Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative, prominent U.S. investors once again were visible after boycotting the 2018 session to protest the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was personally absent, his message was delivered loud and clear at the opening ceremony when disco queen Gloria Gaynor belted out her signature song: “You think I’d crumble? You think I’d lay down and die? Oh no not I, I will survive.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has not only survived, he is thriving. At home and abroad he is recording successes most thought unimaginable a few years ago when doubting Saudis worried that his Vision 2030 reforms were too ambitious and feared that the Biden administration’s displeasure with the Kingdom’s human rights record and especially with the Crown Prince, would leave their country unprotected in the face of future attacks by neighboring Iran. 

Yet this past year, Saudi GDP grew at a record 8.7 %, the highest of any G-20 nation. Oil prices remained high and non-oil revenue grew at 5.4%, well ahead of the 1.9% in 2016 before the launch of Vision 2030 reforms to try to wean the country off oil. Female participation in the Saudi labor force rose to 37%, surpassing the government goal of 30% by 2030. And unemployment which peaked at 14.9% in 2020 fell to 8% last year.

Moreover, the Kingdom’s oil company, Saudi Aramco, recorded a $161 billion profit in 2022, the largest profit ever produced by a publicly listed company anywhere. And for the first time in nearly a decade, the government boasted a budget surplus of $27.68 billion. Even the Saudi soccer team won a Cinderella victory over Argentina, which went on to win the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. All good news for a Crown Prince determined to prove his staggeringly ambitious reform plans may be grandiose, but they are achievable – by him.

Abroad, the young Crown Prince is assertively pursuing an independent and prominent role on the world stage. The prince, who President Biden labeled a “pariah” and pledged to punish, instead turned the tables to punish Mr. Biden. When the American president flew to Saudi Arabia ahead of last year’s mid-term elections to ask for more oil to reduce gasoline prices for U.S. voters, the prince just said “no.” To underscore his message that Saudi Arabia is not a U.S. puppet, he deepened cooperation with China, who President Biden labels America’s biggest threat, and Russia, who Washington is actively confronting in a hot war in Ukraine.

MBS is skillfully playing a tough hand of great power poker to benefit Saudi Arabia. While the world awaited a U.S. brokered normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations, the Kingdom announced a Chinese brokered restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and its long-time enemy, Iran. While the U.S. debates how to reshape its role in the Middle East to enable a “pivot” to Asia and intensified competition with China, MBS has used his relations with China —heavily dependent on Saudi oil —and with Russia —a Saudi ally in controlling global oil production —to keep prices high, to show Washington that Saudi Arabia has other great power options. 

This report is based on four extended trips to the Kingdom since the author’s April 2019 paper, Profile of a Prince: Promise and Peril in Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030. While this report will focus primarily on changes in foreign and defense policy in the Kingdom, it also will update readers on the breathtaking changes in economic and cultural life of the Saudi people. 

See the full report below (PDF).

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen. “Saudi First.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 5, 2023.