Security and Foreign Policy

Saudi Arabia’s Westernization and Militarization of the Middle East

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing widespread reforms under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Patrick Stahl explains how the Crown Prince's actions are reasserting Saudi Arabia’s position in the Middle East as both a leader of change and a powerful force in the region, especially with the support of an ally like the United States.


The sweeping changes that are occurring in Saudi Arabia, a conservative country that is usually slow to change, are dramatically reshaping both the country itself and its place in the region. Progressive measures that will rally the support of the youth and women, an anti-corruption campaign against Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) rivals that will both check his political rivals and provide funds that can be used to develop the country as it moves away from oil dependency, a strong alliance with the United States, and an aggressive stance towards Iran in a way that reasserts Saudi influence in the Middle Eastern region are four key events that are reshaping both Saudi Arabia’s present and future. Most importantly, they are providing a favorable image to MbS in garnering support to secure his rule as king. This assertion of power by MbS is reasserting Saudi Arabia’s position in the Middle East as both a leader of change and a powerful force to be respected, especially with the support of an ally like the United States.

Seen as a conservative country that would not change, MbS is breaking barriers through his progressive measures that will, intentionally or not, rally the youth and women in the country to his side to further solidify his position. One of the most important changes came in September of 2017 when MbS declared that women would have the right to drive, after formalizing the law in 2018. This law was followed up by the announcement in February 2018 that women will be allowed to serve in the Saudi military, except in combat roles.  While conservatives decry this move, the more liberal youth and women along with many Western countries, including the US State Department, voiced their support for this move. Additionally, MbS’ Vision 2030 is incredibly important, as the country moves away from a traditionally oil-dependent economy aiming to provide more jobs and promote entrepreneurship amongst young Saudis. In this same vein, the much discussed initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, valued at $2 trillion and which has the potential to be listed on the NY Stock Exchange, can provide a huge injection of money that can aid in the development of other sectors such as renewable energy. The Saudi Government plans to invest $7 billion into renewables energy projects in 2018, with solar being the main focus as it aims for 9.5 gigawatts of solar by 2023.  By empowering youth and women, MbS is creating a strong political base that will support his rule as he takes on his political rivals, both domestically and regionally.

As the Crown Prince seeks to diversify the economy through his Vision 2030, he is also looking to curtail his political rivals to prevent any disruptions in his plans. He is doing this by attacking their wealth through the repatriation of funds, $100 billion as of January 2018, obtained through alleged corruption. This anti-corruption campaign will provide a new source of income for the Saudi government that can be used to promote social change and further the goals of MbS’ Vision 2030. As reported by Reuters, the amount of lost revenue would total about $800 billion. Obtaining these funds will be key to financing the Crown Prince’s agenda, reducing his reliance on his political rivals, and also gaining the support of the Saudi population and the West by cracking down on this massive social problem. Through his “respect of the law” and liberal values he is further contributing to the solidification of his rule and promotion of a positive image to the world.

Additionally, the Crown Prince is countering a regional rival through the Saudi government’s aggressive stance towards Iran’s influence in the region, as he is actively pursuing measures to curtail the spread of their influence. This stance is visible through the Saudi’s military involvement in Yemen to counter the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels; and the Saudi push to isolate Qatar, a close ally of Iran, by claiming the country is supporting terrorism. As the Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia, MbS is seen as the driving force behind these strategies, which only further bolsters his control over the Saudi military. MbS’ strength is further sustained by Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with the United States in which President Trump called last week the “strongest it’s ever been.” This statement proceeds the $1.4 billion arms deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States announced in 2017. Additionally, there is the potential for Saudi Arabia to receive small lethal drones, which were previously limited to the closest US allies, from the United States should the State Department be given the power to decide to allow these sales for deals under $14 million, which is very possible under Mike Pompeo. Just this past week, on March 22nd, the State Department announced a $670 million sale of anti-tank missiles. The sale will include “up to 6,700 missiles” as well as spare parts for tanks and helicopters. US lawmakers have up to 30 days to stop this deal from happening. It is clear that MbS is growing the power of the Saudi military; control of the military is key to securing his rule.

As the Crown Prince makes these extensive changes within his country, he is simultaneously securing his seat of power for the future while also creating a more positive global image of both himself and his country. MbS will continue to chorale youth sentiment and demonstrate his authority at home, while simultaneously asserting Saudi Arabian influence in the region via hard power. With a powerful ally in the United States, Saudi Arabia has the support and resources it needs to uphold it’s changing narrative. The question becomes how sustainable this accelerated process of change will be in a country that is typically ruled by the older and more conservative elites, who have already voiced their displeasure towards change, and the extent of which they are willing to go to fight these changes.

Patrick Stahl works as a research analyst at RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange). His speciality is transnational security issues, specifically those related to violent extremism and terrorism, and peacebuilding with a regional focus on MENA and East Asia. He has a Masters of Science in Global Affairs from New York University and is currently located in Washington, D.C.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Photo Credit: Daily Express

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