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Assessment of the Impacts of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 on U.S. Efforts to Confront Iran
This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019. More information about the writing contest can be found here.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 plan to transform its economy and society will have significant effects on the U.S. ability to confront and counter Iran. In either success or failure, Vision2030 will alter the balance of power in the Middle East, conferring advantages to either a strong American ally (Saudi Arabia) or the most formidable and long-standing U.S. adversary in the region (Iran).
Amidst the continuing turmoil and instability that touches many parts of the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) maintain a fierce rivalry vying for regional and Islamic dominance. Both countries factor prominently into U.S. regional goals and interests as Iran (since its Islamic Revolution in 1979) serves as the preeminent regional threat and adversary to the U.S. while the KSA, in many ways, serves as the centerpiece of U.S. efforts to counter and degrade Iranian influence in the region. As the region’s premiere Islamic rivals, internal social, economic, and political movements within the KSA and the IRI inherently shape and inform U.S. actions and efforts aimed at undermining hostile (IRI) objectives while supporting friendly (KSA) initiatives. U.S. President Trump, for instance, was quick to voice support in early 2018 for protesters in Iran railing against (among other things) perceived regime inaction and contribution to the stagnant Iranian economy. Alternatively, Trump preserved U.S. support to the KSA even after allegations of KSA government involvement in the killing of a prominent and outspoken journalist. Such dynamics underscore how the inner-workings of regional rivals create venues and opportunities for the advancement of U.S. interests confronting regional threats by applying pressure and defining alliances using different elements of national power.
In 2016, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as “MBS,” unveiled an ambitious and grandiose plan for economic, cultural, and social change in the Kingdom. In response to a worldwide decline in oil prices that drastically shrunk Saudi cash reserves and simultaneously highlighted the precarious state of the Kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, MBS released “Vision2030”- a sweeping program of reform that aimed to create a vibrant society, build a thriving economy, and establish a culture of ambition within the Kingdom. Motivating these ideas was a desire to increase the privatization of the economy and make Saudi society attractive to foreign investment to diversify the economy and decrease its dependence on oil. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the mechanisms of change that drive the execution of MBS’ Vision2030 rest on the extent to which Western values (namely free-market principles and social liberalism) can be inculcated into a historically conservative and closed society. Given the magnitude of Vision2030’s scope, targeting all of Saudi society, the ideology involved in its execution (incorporating Western values), and the KSA’s geopolitical status as a key U.S. ally against Iranian foreign policy objectives, the implementation and execution of Vision2030 cannot fail but to have far-reaching impacts on both Middle Eastern regional stability in general and U.S. efforts confronting Iran in particular.
Whether Vision2030 succeeds or fails, the sheer scope and scale of its desired effects will shape (or re-shape) the momentum of America’s ongoing conflict with Iran and perhaps play a decisive role in determining who (American friend or foe) holds sway in the Middle East. On an ideological plane, if Vision2030 succeeds and successfully introduces Western values that contribute to a balanced and prosperous economy as well as a (more) foreigner-friendly open society, the KSA immediately serves as a blueprint for other Middle Eastern societies plagued by government corruption, limited economic opportunities, and social restrictions. In Iran specifically, Saudi success at transforming their society will perhaps reinvigorate popular protests against a ruling regime that many perceive as purveyors of exactly the kind of corruption and social control described above. That the impetus for change in KSA sprang from the government’s desire for reform (and not citizens engaged in resistance –as in Iran) may further buoy popular unrest in Iran as Vision2030 allows the Saudi government to be cast as benevolent leaders in stark contrast to the Iranian regime’s reputation as corrupt and heavy-handed rulers. Increased unrest in Iran opens the door for increased American support and actions aimed at dislodging the current hostile regime and supporting popular Iranian efforts to introduce democratic reforms. On an economic plane, the success of Vision2030 will potentially decrease the economic capability of the IRI as the desired foreign investment into the KSA resulting from Vision2030 will presumably draw resources from traditional IRI economic partners and cause them to re-invest in a more open and friendly KSA market. This potential economic success will potentially make it more difficult for the IRI to circumvent U.S. actions in the economic realm (sanctions) designed to coerce the IRI into abandoning hostile policies towards U.S. interests.
There will also be significant regional repercussions should Vision 2030 fail and the KSA proves unsuccessful in transforming its economy and society. On an ideological plane, Vision 2030’s failure will likely serve as a referendum on the viability of Western values in the Islamic world and, as such, help sustain the IRI ruling regime. Just as a failing Venezuela has become a symbol and warning of the dangers of socialism to America, so too will the KSA become fodder for IRI propaganda denouncing Western values. On an economic plane, the failure of Vision2030 will, by default, mean that the KSA was unsuccessful in diversifying its economy and severing its reliance on oil for prosperity. Given the tumultuous state of oil prices and the gradual (but palpable) desire of advanced countries to decrease their dependence on oil, this will likely mean that the KSA, as a whole, will be a weakened and less-capable ally against the IRI.
The success of Vision2030 is far from a foregone conclusion in the KSA as recent government implementation measures have encountered staunch resistance from a Saudi citizenry not accustomed to a reduced supporting role from the government. However, what seems clear enough is that the endeavor, regardless of its success or failure, will create effects that reverberate across the Middle East and alter (for better or worse) the balance of power and impact the U.S. ability to confront, counter, and compete against the IRI in the region.
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