Saudi Stability in a Time of Change

The MENA region has begun a process of political change and turmoil that will take years to play out, and which could destabilize some MENA countries for a decade or more as a worst case. There is a tangible risk that Saudi Arabia will be affected in the short term, and it will take continued leadership and vision for Saudi Arab to deal with its longer-term internal challenges.  This is a critical issue for both the US and global economy and US efforts deter and defend against Iran, instability in countries like Yemen, and deal with the threat of terrorism.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a detailed report on Saudi stability entitled Saudi Stability in a Time of Change. It is available on the CSIS web site at

Limited Voices of Dissent

The report concludes that Saudi Arabia is scarcely immune to protest and dissent, and has long struggled with the challenges of reform. What is most striking about the Kingdom over the past months of crisis, however, is the lack of any major challenge to government and the way it functions

This stability may not continue. In today’s Middle East, some demonstrations seem inevitable in every country, and no one can guarantee Saudi Arabia’s future stability in a time of turmoil.  Moderate Saudi intellectuals and youths have sent letters and petitions, and called for more rapid reform. A small number of Saudi women have demonstrated. More extreme voices have called for “days of rage” – mirror imaging similar calls in Tunisia and Libya – although with little meaningful result beyond token demonstrations and having some 465 Saudis sign a “Day of Rage” page on Facebook.. There have been small demonstrations by Shi’ites in the Eastern Province, although so far largely in Qatif and not the major cities and petroleum facilities on the coast.

At the same time, a small, highly vocal minority does not speak for a nation. Moreover, Saudi calls for reform compete with an extremely conservative clergy and population in a nation where change is critical to economic, political, and social development. Moreover, the government acted quickly and decisively to address the most serious material problems in Saudi society such as jobs and housing.

Structural challenges the Government Can (and Must) Deal With

As a result, the most serious challenges to Saudi stability may be structural. These are challenges that will only emerge over time, and then only threaten Saudi stability if its government is unsuccessful in continuing to evolve towards reform and in meeting the needs of its people.  

Some of these challenges are political and affect both the monarchy, and movement towards elections and reforms of the Saudi approach to the rule of law. King Abdullah is some 87 years old, and none of the surviving sons of Ibn Saud are clearly an adequate successor. Saudi Arabia must continue down the path towards political elections that rise to the level of its Majlis. It must continue to reduce corruption and improve its rule of law. 

Material reform and progress seems more important than political progress. There are serious gaps between “haves” and “have nots,” regional differences in wealth and privilege, and tensions between Saudi Shi’ites and Saudi Sunnis that have been exacerbated by Saudi intervention in the crisis in Bahrain.

Above all, Saudi Arabia must deal with massive population growth, a “youth bulge” and underemployment,), and unmet economic expectations as the other states in the MENA region.  It must also deal with major social changes as the result of steadily improving levels of education, access to satellites and the Internet, and hyperurbanization (The CIA estimates that Saudi Arabia is 82% urbanized and will urbanize at a rate of 2.2% a year during 2010-2014).

Building on a Base of Improving Governance, Investment, and Reform

At the same time, there are reasons to believe that Saudi Arabia will remain stable and continue on the path to peaceful reform and change. No country in the MENA region has done more to invest in government services, education and jobs for youth, and broadly based economic development. The monarchy is reforming, putting more emphasis on performance, improving the ruler of law, and reducing corruption. 

In broad terms,  Saudi governance is effective enough so that the end result of the current turmoil in other states is unlikely to present a major threat to Saudi stability, and the prompt action the government has taken to deal with the material needs of its people indicate such pressures may well end in aiding reform efforts rather than threatening the regime. Saudi Arabia also has demonstrated over decades that its leadership can adjust to change and meet popular demands, and it has a strong core within its royal family, technocrats, and business community.

Saudi Arabia will face problems in implementing some of its more ambitious plans to create jobs through industrial cities and an high rate of growth and development, but it can compensate through government stimulus of the private sector, and by reducing dependence on foreign labor which now amounts to 5.6 million by CIA estimates ion comparison with a total labor force of 7.3 million (The CIA estimates that about 80% of the labor force is non-national (2010 est.)

Saudi Arabia’s new programs to help ensure internal stability will have a major near-term impact on the budget, but it is important to note that they will also support many of the programs in the ninth Saudi Five Year Plan that was announced before the crisis in the region began. They will aid the momentum of development and reform rather than divert resources away from the Kingdom’s needs.

Current estimates indicate that their cost will be spread out over a period years. Saudi Arabia’s near term ability to maintain and expand oil production is not questioned in any recent DOE or US intelligence analysis, and it seems likely that demand for Saudi exports and oil prices will not keep Saudi Arabia from having a budget surplus

Improving Internal and External Security

Saudi Arabia also does not share the level of internal security threats that affect many other MENA states. It has has improved its counterterrorism capabilities to the point where it has forced Al Qaida in the Peninsula to move its operations to Yemen, while avoiding the trap of relying on repression rather that cooption and reintegration. ARAMCO and SABIC are some of the most efficient petroleum industries in the MENA region, and a combination of cycles of high petroleum revenues and countercyclical government economic polities have given the Kingdom the resources to invest in both stability and development.

Moreover, outside threats – while real – are threats that can be deterred or defended against. In spite of some tensions, Saudi Arabia and the US are cooperating in creating far more effective forces to deal with Iran, Al Qaida, and risks like instability in Yemen. The Gulf will not be a stable region for the foreseeable future, but it remains a vital American national security interest, and this means the US has even more motive to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in maintaining a mixture of military and national security capabilities that will protect the Kingdom against external threats.

The US has already recognized this by sending its Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor to Saudi Arabia in an effort to deal with tensions over the fall of President Mubarak and differences in approaches to the other crises in the region. These same visits, however, address common interests in dealing with Iran, with instability in Yemen, with the crisis in Bahrain, and with the impact of US withdrawal from Iraq, and the need to strengthen Saudi and other Southern Gulf forces.  Saudi Arabia and the US scarcely have the same culture and political system, but recent events have made it even clearer that they share critical strategic interests and need to reinforce a longstanding strategic partnership.

Implications for the Economy and Investment

As for the overall impact of current events on the economy, the end result may be that this is a major window of opportunity for Saudi and outside investors, rather than a time of added risk. Saudi Arabia is going to be very sensitive as to what firms do and do not maintain their investment plans and take advantage of opportunities over the next few years.  So are the Saudi people, and this will be particularly true of investments in areas that have a Saudi partner, particularly ones that have won the kind of popular confidence and trust that Aramco has.

It is clear that King Abdullah will continue to support foreign investments of the kind that create jobs and ease the Kingdom’s investment burdens, and that any successor is likely to do the same.  Royal politics are extraordinarily unlikely to present problems for sound investments, and the same is true of the Saudi educated, technocratic and business elite.  Moreover, Saudi religious politics have never opposed such investments – even among extreme clerics.

Finally, the risk in such investments will be further reduced by the fact the US cannot afford not to maintain its security presence in the Gulf, current USCENTCOM plans call for US efforts to greatly strengthen Saudi military capabilities through arms sales, and these efforts have not faced any serious opposition in the Congress or by outside lobbying efforts. This leaves terrorism as the only clear immediate risk, and Saudi security forces are considerably more effective than those of virtually all other Gulf and MENA Arab states.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy