Muslim men use their cell phones to take photos at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, March 2011.
Parivartan Sharma / Reuters

Saudi Arabia has embarked on a path of radical transformation. The immediate catalyst has been the prolonged collapse of oil prices and resulting budget deficits (estimated to be near $87 billion for 2016, or about 13 percent of GDP). Looming in the background, meanwhile, is a massive demographic bulge that will bring some six million additional Saudis into the workforce over the next 15 years, roughly doubling the number of Saudis in the labor market. Indeed, demographics, not oil prices, must be understood as the underlying driver of the Kingdom’s change initiative. Population growth is of such a magnitude that, even if oil prices were to rally, the current economic model (in which 80 percent of national household income comes directly from the government, via public sector salaries and assorted handouts) would be unsustainable.

Riyadh recognizes the problem, and it has a game plan: the ambitious Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program, both of which were unveiled earlier this year. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom’s dynamic young heir apparent, is guiding the transformation process, and it will shape all aspects of the Kingdom’s political economy for the foreseeable future. 

Dramatic changes have already begun. For one, the government has imposed a new era of austerity. Subsidies have been pared back, public sector salaries slashed, and a limited range of taxes are currently under consideration. Concurrently, intensive efforts are underway to boost the private sector. The objective is to transform Saudi Arabia from a petro-welfare economy to a dynamic, diversified, and competitive market for a broad range of industries, from finance to manufacturing to tourism. Such private sector growth will not only help diversify the Kingdom’s economic base and raise GDP, but also (and perhaps more importantly, from a sociopolitical standpoint) create jobs for Saudis on an unprecedented scale.

As Saudi Arabia grapples with its economic future, it also faces a range of security challenges. On the international stage, Riyadh is mired in a costly and controversial war in Yemen. Inextricably linked to the Yemen campaign, tensions with Iran have spiked across the region, featuring proxy struggles in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and an ongoing war of words in diplomatic circles. Further afield, relations with the United States have soured.

On the home front, Saudi Arabia faces a range of challenges. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a formidable threat, and Houthi fighters from Yemen have repeatedly attacked targets within the Kingdom. The Islamic State (ISIS) and its devotees have also struck Saudi Arabia, via a barrage of suicide attacks during Ramadan in July of this year and a succession of bombings targeting the country’s Shia minority. Finally, the Shia cities of the Eastern Province have seen sporadic violence and simmering unrest of late, particularly in response to the state execution of the cleric Nimr al-Nimr at the start of 2016. 

When assessed side-by-side, Saudi Arabia’s economic and security challenges look challenging enough. Yet the reality of the situation is more serious, since the two are inextricably linked in ways that have not been fully appreciated by observers from either discipline.

A MODERN KINGDOM

There are reasons for optimism about Saudi Arabia’s economic transformation. Vision 2030 may not unfold according to plan, but the Kingdom has set itself on a trajectory toward fundamental, structural economic change—and there is no going back. The Saudis have the resources, the urgency, and the talent needed to effect these changes, and the deputy crown prince has made encouraging strides in rallying public opinion, particularly among Saudi youth.

As such, sweeping change is coming to Saudi Arabia, and it will not be limited to the economy. Economic change will likely be accompanied by social, cultural, and political changes. The latter are unlikely to be as sudden or as sweeping, but they will be no less transformative, sending shockwaves through a society where change is anathema to powerful, well-established constituencies. 

Muslims on the hajj walk on the first day of day of Eid, near Mecca, September 2015.
Ahmad Masood / Reuters

The process will be triggered by top-down decree, yet it will generate its own bottom-up, grassroots momentum. Once it begins, it will take on a life of its own. Foreign investment will come pouring into the country and foreign firms will employ Saudis by the hundreds of thousands. Growing economic dynamism and internationalism will shape conversations about the future of Saudi Arabia in myriad ways. The status of women will improve. Young Saudis will engage much more deeply with the outside world, in a process through which both Saudis and their interlocutors will come to better understand one another, transcending mutually held stereotypes. In the face of this onslaught, conservative socioreligious forces will struggle to maintain their influence (which has never been as complete as critics of the Kingdom assert).

This, in turn, spells sweeping social dislocation and upheaval. As elements of the Saudi population distance themselves from cultural isolationism and religious austerity (however incrementally and unevenly), a minority within the Kingdom will double down on radical militancy. There will be generational tensions, regional tensions, socioeconomic tensions, sectarian tensions, and tensions between urban and rural dwellers . Each dynamic will unfold in different ways, but all will demand attention from the government.

In that way, Saudi Arabia will serve as a compelling case study of the relationship between economic development and patterns of violent extremism. In practical terms, the management of the transformation process will require more than traditional counterterrorism and deradicalization methods. The Kingdom’s robust HUMINT (human intelligence) and SIGINT (signals intelligence) capabilities will enable the targeting of militant networks and the interdiction of attacks. Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization programs will be another enormously valuable asset. But they won’t be enough. 

Critically, the Saudis will need a detailed understanding of how key demographic cohorts within the Kingdom are responding to social, economic, and political change. This will require real-time situational awareness, as well as forward-looking predictive analysis of inherently subjective and qualitative indicators. Saudi Arabia is far from monolithic in sociocultural terms. As such, there will be enormous diversity in how events transpire from one city—even one neighborhood—to the next. The Saudi government will have to steward this process with a combination of open dialogue, broad incentives, and selective coercion. 

To achieve this delicate balance, intelligence and law enforcement professionals will have to add ethnographic and sociological skill sets to their arsenals. They will have to work closer than ever before with public and private sector stakeholders that have access and insight into what is taking place within the “hearts and minds” of Saudi youth, while also remaining attuned to the views and interests of the religious establishment.

The stakes are high, and the task enormous. With more than half of the Kingdom’s population currently under the age of 25, Saudi Arabia will witness successive generations (of unprecedented size) coming of age in a tumultuous environment. The architects of economic change and the guarantors of social stability will have to work hand-in-hand to renegotiate fundamental aspects of the Kingdom’s cultural identity, and they will do so in the face of fierce opposition. If they fail, Saudi Arabia faces the prospect of sweeping domestic unrest of a sort dramatically more dangerous than any of its current threats.

Vision 2030 and the NTP mark a point of no return for the country. In order to achieve such ambitious objectives, Saudi Arabia will have to navigate the disruptions, tensions, and uncertainties that necessarily follow from change of this magnitude. From an American perspective, there is a binary choice: the United States can help the Saudis through the process, or it can further disengage. It can help Saudi Arabia transform into the nation that is described in Vision 2030. Or, it can turn its back and hope for the best as the Islamic world’s most influential nation enters a defining moment in its history.

  • NICHOLAS KROHLEY is the Founder of FrontLine Advisory and author of The Death of the Mehdi Army: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Iraq’s Most Powerful Militia (Hurst).
  • LUKE BENICE is the Managing Director of Security Management International. 
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