Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became an international darling this week when he articulated a new economic plan for his nation. On April 25, the 30-year-old rising Saudi star announced his aspirations to diversify the local economy beyond petroleum and pilgrimage. Salman, currently the chair of the country's Council of Economic and Development Affairs, is second in line to the kingdom's throne. He is also a millennial.
Vision 2030, as the plan is called, is a long-term development proposal endorsed by the Saudi Council of Ministers that is slated for completion when the country's millennials come to maturity. Vision 2030 proudly states:
"Gold, phosphate, uranium and many other valuable minerals are found beneath our land. But our real wealth lies in the ambition of our people and the potential of our younger generation. They are our nation's pride and the architects of our future."
Bravo. The Saudi economy needs refueling. With 60 percent of the Saudi population under the age of 30 and an estimated nine million foreign workers within the country's borders, jobs will be in great demand in the very near future.
The possible future king has highlighted the needs of his generation in the face of the inevitable: Fossil fuels are relics of the past. Demand is down, prices are down, the economy is down. With oil's declining importance, Riyadh's international influence may diminish, along with the access to the world's playgrounds that many of its entitled citizens have enjoyed as they live the high life, subsidized by the abundant black gold beneath the Arabian Peninsula.
International observers note the rhetoric of job creation, care for the environment and preserving local culture in the plan. They appreciate the intention to invest in alternative energy, sell shares of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and shift responsibility for services like health care and education to the kingdom's fledgling private sector. I have read the 11,625-word treatise. Along with these laudable and important reforms, it is also apparent that the millennial prince aspires to promote his own fief — the Ministry of Defense.
Vision 2030's Conflicting Principles
Salman was appointed defense minister and head of the royal court in January 2015. The king's ambitious son was instrumental in the July 2014 removal of his predecessor, Prince Khalid bin Bandar, after the latter had served only 45 days in his post. Six months later, Salman had the job.
As is true of many political candidates' platforms, Vision 2030 promises plenty and specifies little — except in the area of defense, where there's a bit more detail. At his April 25 press conference the prince may have been wearing his minister of defense hat as he wondered how it was possible that Saudi Arabia, the country with the third-largest military expenditures in the world in 2015, had no military industry. His solution: to beef up the indigenous manufacture of weapons, thereby reducing military spending and creating jobs at the same time. According to Vision 2030:
"Although the Kingdom is the world's third biggest military spender, only 2 percent of this spending is within our Kingdom. The national defense industrial sector is limited to only seven companies and two research centers.
Our aim is to localize over 50 percent of military equipment spending by 2030. We have already begun developing less complex industries such as those providing spare parts, armored vehicles and basic ammunition. We will expand this initiative to higher value and more complex equipment such as military aircraft."
And so, to diversify its economy, Saudi Arabia plans to build more of its own weapons rather than relying on Uncle Sam to the degree it has. Saudi-U.S. military ties date back to 1945; today the kingdom is America's top-paying military customer. In 2014, the U.S. Department of State approved a sale of military support services, equipment, parts, training and logistical support for approximately $80 million. The following year, Riyadh spent $87.2 billion on its military operations and arsenal — equivalent to 13.7 percent of its gross domestic product. Even Israel lags behind, spending only $16.1 billion (about 5.5 percent of its GDP). Saudi Arabia is by far the greatest military spender in its neighborhood.
"Today our constitution is based on the holy book and on oil," Salman said in an interview with the state-owned Al Arabiya television. He continued by noting that "this is very dangerous." The "constitution" to which the prince refers is the Basic Law of Governance, instated by royal decree in 1992 — 60 years after the kingdom was founded. The Basic Law also maintains that the rule of the kingdom is based absolutely on the House of Saud.
Investing in a national military complex may become a reliable way for the House of Saud to maintain that authority in the near future. But does military buildup and bravado honor the spirit of Vision 2030? The plan calls for preserving a "sophisticated heritage," consolidating "true Islamic and Arab values," restoring ancient cultural sites, subsidizing fuel, food, water and electricity for those in need, and providing "our most vulnerable citizens with tailored care and support." If, as Salman claims, Arab culture has produced the best "values and principles" of any world civilization, isn't buffing the muscle of war a contradiction? More realistically, perhaps some of the savings created by fewer military expenditures could be used to support some of the nine million non-citizens in the kingdom, many of whom do most of the country's labor today and whose jobs may be taken by trained and eager Saudi citizens in the coming years.
If, as Salman claims, Arab culture has produced the best "values and principles" of any world civilization, isn't buffing the muscle of war a contradiction?
Near its conclusion, Vision 2030 proclaims,
"We will never forget how, under tougher circumstances than today, our nation was forged by collective determination when the late King Abdulaziz Al-Saud — may Allah bless his soul — united the Kingdom. Our people will amaze the world again."
What may have amazed the world more than how Saudi Arabia was forged was its rapid transformation from a rural, nomadic culture that was fiercely hospitable and fiercely tribal into a nation of nouveau riche with the attendant disdain for the values proffered by young Salman. It would amaze the world even more over the next 14 years, as Vision 2030 unfolds, if Saudi Arabia began to emulate the example of the seventh-century prophet born in Mecca who extended letters of introduction to leaders of other religious sects, who declined to punish adulterers and who was kind enough to give up his cloak to a sleeping cat. That man might recognize his teachings in Vision 2030's call for "a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method."