US must push Saudi Arabia away from Chinese model of governance

US must push Saudi Arabia away from Chinese model of governance
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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will land in the U.S. on March 19 as part of a three week, multi-city tour. It’s his first extended foreign travel, which has already taken him to London, since being named Saudi heir apparent in June 2017.

The crown prince is attempting to showcase a new, bold, dynamic face of Saudi Arabia to a world accustomed to dealing with the geriatric, risk-averse leadership of the past. Prince Mohammed is on a mission to sell his Vision 2030 — Saudi Arabia’s ambitious reform plan to diversify the economy away from oil and fundamentally alter the country’s society.

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Years of low fuel prices have underscored the urgency within to kingdom to end its dependence on oil — 87 percent of Saudi budget revenues still come from the petroleum sector. The plan, launched in 2016, has so far received a lukewarm response from governments and investors alike from New York and London to Tokyo and Beijing.

The widespread concerns are that Saudi Arabia simply won’t meet the stated targets set by Vision 2030. Facing a demographic tidal wave — nearly 45 percent of the population is under the age of 25 — Saudi Arabia needs to generate millions of new jobs to absorb a growing workforce it can no longer afford to subsidize through generous government handouts. Part of that objective is to drastically increase the female labor force participation rate, which currently stands at a meek 22 percent (OECD average is 51 percent). That explains the several recent social reforms geared at improving women’s rights in the kingdom and encouraging female inclusion in the workforce.

But domestic social reforms, while crucial, won’t be enough. The Saudis need international investment. Those millions of new jobs must come from the private sector, which explains Prince Mohammed’s extensive visit to the United States, where he hopes to convince weary U.S. investors and policymakers of the achievability of Vision 2030.

The United States has every reason to welcome the crown prince’s determination to reshape his nation’s economic and social contract. There is bipartisan consensus in Washington that changes to the Saudi economy and society are essential for the kingdom’s stability. And Saudi Arabia’s long-term stability is a core U.S. national security interest. The collapse of the Saudi state a la the countries affected by the Arab Spring would have a devastating impact on regional stability, and pose a direct threat to U.S. security with the likely proliferation of radical jihadist groups in such a scenario. Saudi stability is also important economically. Although the U.S. has almost achieved energy independence, global economic security will continue to rely on Saudi Arabia as a reliable source for much of the world’s energy needs for many years to come.

Broader U.S. understandings of the importance of the Saudi alliance aside, there should be no confusion about what Vision 2030 is and what it is not. The sweeping changes that the Saudi leadership have proposed are limited to economic and social reform. The crown prince has been very clear that they do not extend to political reform. Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian state and the crown prince intends for it to remain so.

Although a U.S. ally, it appears Prince Mohammed is more inspired by the “Chinese model” of economic and social development without political freedom than the democratic model.

Even within the House of Saud, decision-making circles are shrinking. The crown prince is said to want to restrict royal succession to include only his own branch of the family, rather than the increasingly unwieldy horizontal succession that has been the practice since the death of Crown Prince Mohammed’s grandfather, King Abdul Aziz, in 1953.

Evidence of the continued restriction of basic human rights is plain to see. Saudi Arabia continues to arrest and imprison Saudi citizens for criticizing the government or participating in peaceful protests. In perhaps the most stunning display of authoritarian power, in late 2017, the government detained for weeks in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh dozens of the county’s wealthiest and most prominent businessmen and senior government officials on allegations of corruption. Without due process or any ability to respond to the charges, the accused were forced to pay to the government billions of dollars to regain their freedom. Some of the accused reportedly remain imprisoned and others are under house arrest, unable to travel outside of Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration will, however, avoid complicating the visit by raising such unpleasant issues. The administration is seeking Prince Mohammed’s cooperation on issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to U.S. domestic investment.

But there is a larger issue for U.S. policymakers to consider. While Prince Mohammed’s adoption of the Chinese model might be tolerated with a Trump administration that has openly vowed to cease advocating for democracy abroad, there is no guarantee the United States will not return to its values of being a leader for democracy in the future. That will have implications for the U.S.-Saudi relationship, should Prince Mohammed maintain his authoritarian streak.

History also suggests that this model is not sustainable, neither in China nor in Saudi Arabia. It is implausible to assume that Saudi Arabia’s increasingly highly educated population won’t elevate and articulate their demands for a greater say in governance, particularly now that the days of generous government handouts paid by oil revenues are over.

If the U.S. is truly interested in ensuring Saudi stability, we should be willing to challenge the crown prince’s plan and encourage him to couple positive economic and social reform with acceptance of a more open, democratic society.  

Amb. (ret.) Gerald Feierstein is director for Gulf affairs and government relations at the Middle East Institute. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in May 2016 after a 41-year career with the personal rank of Career Minister. In 2010, President Obama appointed Amb. Feierstein U.S. ambassador to Yemen, where he served until 2013. From 2013 until his retirement, Amb. Feierstein was principal deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.