Creating Citizens out of Subjects: Saudi Arabia Gets Down to Social Engineering

9 MINS READJan 22, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Saudi women shop in a mall in Riyadh.

Saudi women shop in a mall in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia's royal leaders have launched social engineering operations to try to produce a new Saudi citizen for the 21st century.

  • Riyadh has emulated Abu Dhabi in unveiling a vision to transform Saudi Arabia, but it is likely to encounter similar challenges to the United Arab Emirates.
  • Vision 2030 will help in some areas but could also exacerbate regional tensions and increase the divide between the rich and the poor.
  • Saudi reformers hope to overhaul the education system, but their efforts might do little to provide students with the skills necessary for the future.

Compared to the relatively well-established nation-states of Iran, Egypt and Turkey, Saudi Arabia is a spring chicken: It was only in 1932 that Saudi Arabia declared its complete unification. Nevertheless, constructing a cohesive nation-state over the tribes and sects conquered by the House of Saud has always been a work in progress. Different strategies have been tried over the decades, including the current emphasis on puritanical Wahhabism. Now, as part of a series of reforms dubbed Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia's leaders are seeking to create a new, modern society composed of citizens equipped with the skills to succeed in the modern global economy.

In their attempt to remake their country and foster a national identity that supersedes tribal and religious identities, the Saudis need not look far for an example of social engineering projects, as the United Arab Emirates has previously embarked on a mission to transform its society, albeit with mixed results. And for all the money Riyadh is allocating to the project, the Saudis may be powerless to avoid the same shortcomings of the Emirati model in the face of similar social and cultural constraints.

Following the Emirati Guide to Social Engineering

The United Arab Emirates launched some nation-building measures after independence in 1971, but major, state-led efforts to modernize Emirati society beyond a rudimentary social contract did not begin until after the death of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the country's founder, in 2004.

Emirati leaders unveiled the country's Vision 2021 mission in 2009, pledging to reduce the country's economic dependence on hydrocarbons, transform tribal members into citizens, raise the education level of the populace, increase the number of Emiratis in the labor force, undertake vast infrastructure projects, generate sustainable prosperity and, to top it off, offer an ever-happier lifestyle. (The country tracks the world happiness index with great attention. In 2017, it ranked 21st).

The results of Vision 2021, however, have been mixed due to geographic, political and demographic differences within the country. Visionaries have not succeeded in extending their economic reforms to all seven emirates, as Abu Dhabi and Dubai have benefited from the lion's share of investment, leaving their five poorer cousins to fight over the spoils. In fact, security officials have expressed worries about the loyalty of the five northern emirates amid fears that their comparative poverty could incubate radicalism that could challenge the foundations of the state.

Attempts to improve the skills of the population have encountered similar troubles. While a curriculum based on nation-building that focuses on national culture and history has taken root in Emirati schools, these effects are still largely limited to Abu Dhabi, as officials only rolled out the reforms in the other six emirates in 2016. As a result of this disconnect, students with increasingly nationalistic Emirati sentiments are graduating in Abu Dhabi, even as students from the rest of the country leave school with an identity more often restricted to their tribe rather than the nation as a whole.

Reformers have also enjoyed scant success in weening the country off a dependence on foreign workers. Because many Emirati men continue to expect plush government jobs upon entering the job market, UAE nationals comprise only 3.5 percent of the private workforce – even though one-fifth of the country's population is young. This leaves a large swath of especially male citizens who still see the state as nothing more than the source of a paycheck and who pledge fealty to the paymaster, rather than the nation.

The country's challenges have led reformers to try their hand at hard engineering to resolve shortcomings in social engineering, albeit with limited success. In 2006, officials heralded the construction of Masdar City – a prospective carbon-free center of technology and education to house a new generation of loyal, productive patriots – but one decade on, its population is a mere 300, earning it the moniker of "the world's first green ghost town."

Regardless of the United Arab Emirates' checkered success on Vision 2021, the country's relatively small size means security services can manage the blowback from the country's 900,000 Emirati citizens and legions of foreign workers with comparative ease. The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia.

The Have-Nots Threatening the Kingdom

When Saudi Arabia announced its own state-led social engineering plan as part of Vision 2030, the Emirati Vision 2021 provided a considerable precedent. Much of Saudi Arabia's vision is economic, but like the United Arab Emirates, reformers also seek to transform not only the current social contract, but also the very societal components of the agreement. In so doing, the Saudis are following the path of the Emiratis; but while the challenges might be the same, the scale for Riyadh is far vaster.

Saudi Arabia's 23 million citizens largely inhabit the country's two coasts and differ markedly from each other in terms of sect, tribe, culture and history. Seeking to provide prosperity and convince the kingdom's subjects that they belong to a greater Saudi nation, the country's royal leaders have launched social engineering operations as part of Vision 2030 to produce a new Saudi citizen for the 21st century.

Already, the Saudi plans for transformation have hit a geographic roadblock, as development has pooled around traditional centers of commerce and power, like Jeddah in the west and Riyadh in the east. The leap forward is only likely to exacerbate the gaps between the haves and have-nots, leaving distant corners of the kingdom – which already present security headaches for the capital – likely to remain bereft of investment. Shiites in the Eastern Province, who face discrimination in a region that frequently witnesses violence, could find themselves isolated in a ghetto. Other likely losers include residents of the Yemeni borderland, an area threatened by Houthi rebels that is largely inhabited by Ismailis, who have also experienced discrimination.

Challenges to both the regime's legitimacy and Saudi Arabia's borders could crystalize and spread from these peripheral regions. Denied the benefits of reform, these regions could ultimately develop – or in the case of the Eastern Province, consolidate – distinct identities or identify more with neighbors such as Yemen, Kuwait or Iran.

But geography is only part of the problem for Riyadh. Unlike its smaller neighbor, Saudi Arabia, with its larger population, struggles with double-digit unemployment among nationals. The country has deported large numbers of foreign workers to create jobs for Saudi locals and reformed how it measures Saudization, but these measures have yet to reduce the Saudi jobless rate, which actually grew from 1.2 million to 1.3 million between the third and fourth quarters of 2017. A combination of factors is at play. Saudi men still prefer plush government jobs, but the majority of the new jobs made available through the mass deportations are low-skilled. Saudis, many with degrees from overseas, overwhelmingly refuse to take such positions.

In such a situation, centers of discontent could soon emerge in nominally rich cities like Riyadh as segments of the population that have failed to benefit from the transformation will question why Vision 2030 has left them behind.

High on Flags, Low on Skills

Like the Emiratis, Saudi reformers are also planning educational reforms and changes to the curriculum to foster greater national unity, but the prospects of ultimate success remain low given the daunting task of the planned overhaul.

The current Saudi curriculum, which infamously teaches that both Jews and Christians are infidels, has favored rote memorization over critical thinking and relied on outdated information for its subjects. That, combined with a cultural concern about what kind of content is permissible for Saudi pupils, will require negotiations between not just reformers and the government but also with parents, teachers and the country's 7.5 million students. The interaction will almost surely result in pushback from people within the system resistant to change.

Furthermore, delicately altering the cultural socialization of an entire generation is a time-consuming project. It will take years for deficiencies to be spotted by authorities – especially in an area in which school officials have a history of falsifying data on a massive scale to avoid embarrassing results. It could also produce a backlash in unexpected places: Parents who are offended or confused by the new themes or topics may force them out of the curriculum, as Emirati counterparts did with the Abu Dhabi Education Council's initial curriculum reforms, leaving reformers scrambling to find new ways to impart necessary skills. Saudi educators who disagree with topics may teach them poorly or not at all, while teachers without modern professional training will take years to achieve government targets. While gifted students and teachers will benefit rapidly from the changes, the overall reform is likely to be sluggish and subject to endless tinkering.

National identity projects linked to political loyalty to the king (and especially to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) will become increasingly prominent in the Saudi curriculum. After all, requiring students to salute the flag, recite the national anthem or identify national heroes is a simpler, more observable task than obliging them to design an experiment or analyze literature. And because of the invocation of national identity, parents and educators are even less likely to push back against such superficial reforms due to the fear of arrest for disloyalty.

Prospective resistance and the uneven application of the curriculum will only produce pockets of low-skilled – albeit patriotic and less tribally oriented – students, frustrating efforts by the government to shunt them into the private sector and off the public payroll.

Saudi Arabia thus looks similarly unable to circumvent its societal shortcomings by constructing a modern megacity. NEOM, a $500 billion, cutting-edge megacity in the otherwise sparsely inhabited northeast, is part of Vision 2030. Reformers envision the brand-new city as an abode for the coming Homo sauditicus, but the city can take little inspiration from either Masdar City or Saudi Arabia's other struggling megacity, the King Abdullah Economic City, which was announced in 2005 with a price tag of $100 billion. With only 25 percent of construction complete, the King Abdullah Economic City will not be finished until at least 2035, and if budgets become a cause for concern, the odds that megacities will become the panacea for Saudi Arabia's social ills will become ever more remote.

Despite the clear shortcomings, Saudi Arabia has few options other than to push ahead with social engineering. As long as it can still marshal the vast revenue from its hydrocarbon reserves, the country will improve its propaganda, alter its curriculum and subsidize the have-nots to prevent major unrest, but the reforms are unlikely to churn out anything more than graduates with newfound patriotism but little else. Amid all the glitz, the shortcomings of Saudi Arabia's social engineering project will become all the more apparent as 2030 rapidly comes into view.

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