Dennis Ross, a counselor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a special assistant to President Obama from 2009 to 2011.
Today, it’s hard to be optimistic about anything in the Middle East. And yet having just visited Saudi Arabia, in which I led a small bipartisan group of former national security officials, I came away feeling hopeful about the kingdom’s future. 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. In any case, that is certainly not the Saudi Arabia I just encountered.
In fact, the Saudi Arabia I just visited seemed like a different country from the one I’ve been visiting since 1991. There is an awakening underway in Saudi Arabia, but it is being led from the top. As one Saudi told us, there is “a revolution here disguised as economic reform.” While political change may not be in the offing, transformation is nonetheless taking place. Stylistically, one sees it in the candor of the conversations with Saudi officials — not the hallmark of previous interactions — as well as a new work ethic, with several ministers telling us 80-hour workweeks are now the norm. When we asked how those in the bureaucracy were reacting to the new demands, we heard that not everyone is happy but that younger, junior officials now feel they are part of something important and have embraced the new reality. Symbolically, the presence of women was notable in our meeting with the foreign minister and our visit to the College of Entrepreneurship, where half of the group we met were women.
Practically, the Saudis’ plans for transformation are ambitious, designed to diversify the economy, end overreliance on oil, keep capital in the country for domestic investment, and foster both transparency and accountability. “Transparency” and “accountability” are not terms one would have used in the past to describe Saudi Arabia. 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. The minister responsible for arranging the initial public offering likened it to “doing an IPO for a country,” given the complexity of the undertaking. But there was no going back, and Mohammed bin Salman , the deputy crown prince, was emphatic in telling us that Saudi Arabia no longer has an ideology other than national development and modernization. For him, there is no choice but to pursue the ambitious targets specified in the “National Transformation Plan” and Vision 2030, which include tripling non-oil revenue by 2020, building a public investment fund to exploit other minerals, promoting the Saudis’ petrochemical and alternative energy bases, and developing their domestic tourist industries and entertainment centers. (The latter, we were told, was especially important so that Saudis would not feel compelled to leave the country because there was so little to see or do.)
Skeptics have questioned whether Saudi Arabia can fulfill these goals, either because of a traditional culture that limits women too much, a workforce lacking key educational skills or resistance from the conservative religious establishment. But the deputy crown prince and others argued that all these impediments can be overcome: A comprehensive reform of the educational system is being carried out, 80,000 students are studying abroad and returning to the kingdom with modern skills and a new mind-set, and women are being increasingly integrated into jobs across all sectors. About 70 percent of the Saudi population is under 30, they noted, and these young people are not just open to change; they seek it.
No one we saw minimized the challenges of transforming the country. But the leaders conveyed a sense of mission and urgency. As Mohammed bin Salman told us, the government must do what it says it will do — and to that end, he took pride in pointing out that already the government has succeeded in generating 30 percent 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.
Will the Saudis succeed in producing a national makeover? There will be opposition, and any stumbles will be exploited by forces of tradition. Moreover, the war in Yemen may drain resources and, in time, public support. Or the preoccupation with Iran, or Iranian efforts at subversion, could prove distracting and hard to overcome.
But the United States surely has a stake in the success of the Saudi transformation process. Aside from ensuring stability in the kingdom, its success could at long last demonstrate an Arab leadership capable of remaking its society from within, without terrible upheaval. The next administration should offer technical assistance with the Aramco IPO and economic reforms more generally. Similarly, because the Saudis have two priorities — modernization domestically and countering perceived Iranian adventurism externally — our next president should propose a strategic dialogue as well as contingency planning for dealing with security threats. Such planning would do much to reassure the Saudis at a time when their leadership believes the United States fails to understand the threat from Iran and its use of Shiite militias to undermine Arab governments.
The Saudis are not imagining Iranian troublemaking in the region or their financing of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. Ironically, it may be the Saudis who have the better chance to transform their country and truly develop: Unlike the Iranians, they may not be inhibited by ideology, they have a plan for modernization and their leaders — in contrast to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — want to open up their country. I wouldn’t bet against them.