Saudi Arabia’s shift toward nationalism


Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a nationalist transformation. On this year’s Saudi National Day, celebrated on September 23, a vast number of people across the Kingdom, particularly the young majority of the population, gathered to wave flags, dance, and witness military flyovers. Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, this surge in patriotic fervor provides insights into the driving forces behind the country’s recent political and economic reforms.

On the foreign-policy front, Saudi Arabia has taken significant steps. It has pursued détente with Iran, facilitated by China, engaged in talks with Israel to normalize diplomatic relations with US mediation, gained entry into the BRICS group of major emerging economies, and embarked on efforts to end the war in Yemen.

Internally, the Kingdom has been undergoing a significant transformation. This includes the centralization and consolidation of power under MBS, the suppression of dissent, especially from Islamists advocating an alternative political model, and a revision of Saudi history and school curricula to align with the regime’s narratives. Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia has made substantial investments in international sports, particularly golf and soccer, and adjusted its oil-production policy to better align with long-term fiscal needs.

The primary aim of MBS’s reforms is to shift the Kingdom from a rentier state heavily reliant on oil revenues to a diversified economy capable of generating income beyond the hydrocarbon sector. To achieve this, the government has initiated several “giga projects”, with Neom, a carbon-neutral city near the Red Sea, being a prime example.

Understanding these changes requires close attention to MBS’s statements about past Saudi policies since 2016. He believes that his predecessors pursued failed policies that were detrimental to the country’s national interests. For instance, he sees the Kingdom’s earlier endorsement of Islamism, partly in response to domestic religious opposition and the threat posed by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, as a grave mistake that created enemies, including radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State, who aimed to end the Al Saud dynasty’s rule. MBS believes that Saudi Arabia should have relied on nationalism, rather than religion, to ensure its survival.

Additionally, MBS contends that rampant corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency undermined Saudi Arabia’s stability. Most critically, he sees the previous Saudi governments’ reluctance to diversify the economy away from oil as inexcusable. The Kingdom, in his view, must urgently address these historical mistakes.

Saudi Arabia’s domestic reforms and foreign-policy agenda are closely linked because the success of the Kingdom’s economic project hinges on securing peace and stability in the Middle East. MBS envisions Saudi Arabia as a leading geopolitical force and a hub of trade, transportation, logistics, and communication between East and West.

This vision underpins the normalization talks with Israel, aiming to resolve a long-standing source of regional instability. Furthermore, Israel’s strategic position as a gateway to the Mediterranean makes it a critical link in a vast transglobal network spanning from India to Europe.

MBS has expressed his desire for Saudi Arabia to become one of the world’s ten largest economies, highlighting its rise from the 15th largest to a G20 member. Although he previously sought G7 membership, he shifted focus to join the BRICS, emphasizing that this was not a move against the West but a strategic positioning for future growth and maintaining relations with major global powers.

MBS adopts a data-driven approach and frequently draws comparisons with other countries. He approaches Saudi Arabia more like a CEO pursuing market dominance than a traditional political leader. Despite the US and China moving toward economic decoupling and establishing new supply chains, MBS advocates for a global liberal economic order. He actively seeks strong trade ties with the US, China, and India, recognizing them as major players in the twenty-first century.

Regarding national security and strategic alliances, MBS remains staunchly pro-American, as the Saudi military relies heavily on US equipment and training. Severing this relationship would come at an immense cost.

Saudi Arabia under MBS is emerging as a power striving to diversify its economy while leveraging its resources and diplomatic connections to enhance its influence in a world divided among major powers like the US, China, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, Europe. MBS’s adept handling of complex geopolitical challenges, such as involving China in mediating the dispute with Iran and engaging the US in normalization talks with Israel, indicates his ability to navigate this intricate landscape effectively.


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