In the many recent discussions I’ve had with journalist friends from Europe and the US, or even some from the Arab world who have not visited Saudi Arabia before, our conversations have centered around understanding the secret of Saudi Arabia’s rise. These discussions were especially focused on the new approach the Kingdom has taken to its role as a leading player in diplomacy, the economy, and the management of issues in the region and the world.
The same question about the secret to this turnaround, which has left the country making decisions that diverge sharply from everything we had come to expect, repeats itself with every summit organized by Saudi Arabia since the visits of President Biden and the Chinese President. And it was posed again after the recent Jeddah Summit, which I see as culminating the successes of what I call “diplomacy with a vision.”
Initially embodied by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it is now embodied by a large number of Saudi citizens. Their international successes and institutional efforts reflect this clear vision and a solid identity. While this vision does not claim or seek perfection, all objective and fair observers have noted that it reflects a profound preoccupation with competitiveness, the future, hard figures, and technology that goes beyond “doing one’s duty.”
In explaining the secret to this success, it is difficult to avoid an overview of what has happened over the past few years since the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman ascended the throne and the subsequent rise of the “vision” and the man behind it, Crown Prince Mohammed. He changed the equation through his embodiment of state authority, the state’s values, and its ideals.
According to Charles Herman, foreign policy takes after decision-makers. In this sense, it is not an abstraction but a dynamic process in which national interests and global circumstances are accounted for. In other words, foreign policy is a process through which national interests are turned into precise and clear objectives that are pursued by all state functionaries, who are inspired by the “vision” maker who sets the agenda. Though the major shifts underway in the country are obvious to local Saudis, who have witnessed them firsthand over the past few years, the scale and pace of the achievements defy logic.
The remarkable success achieved by Saudi Arabia has garnered the attention of foreign observers as well. Former skeptics are now trying to understand what is happening, especially since the country’s transition has become the subject of extensive research and expert analysis.
Indeed, these specialists have concluded that a new Saudi Arabia is being born, and it should be understood and assessed based on these changes.
Saudi foreign policy has a very rich history. Despite the complexity of the terrain it has been operating on, with its sharp twists and turns, Saudi Arabia managed to strike a strategic balance between the two vital foreign policy tracks. One was swiftly and rationally responding to crises - this was evident during the Gulf War, after 9/11, and then with the so-called “Arab Spring.”
The other was isolationism, in the diplomatic sense of the term that suggests neutrality, which the Kingdom pursued and complemented with a diplomatic engagement at other historical junctures when it was busy with domestic development. This approach translated into an emphasis on national security, preserving social and cultural consistency and cohesion, and preventing external developments from impacting the country to the greatest extent possible.
Today, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy seems different. Everything - from what is said in statements, conferences, and meetings with foreign officials to the manner in which foreign policy is embodied by the decision maker, the Saudi Crown Prince, and his “vision” - has changed. He is an example of the charismatic leadership type identified by Max Weber, influencing his people by inspiring them.
Observers see this in his foreign policy. Two pillars of this policy, in my view, are sovereignty and the “virtue that is stability.” Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty is now clear for all to see. Even former skeptics recognize it, and it has become a source of pride domestically.
As for the “virtue that is stability,” it has clearly been the objective amid the massive challenges that have emerged over the past few years. The goal is for Saudi Arabia to render its pursuit of stability a template for replicating the achievements of the young Crown Prince and his “vision” that can be used by others in the Middle East. Indeed, cooperation in pursuing this vision could become a pillar of regional stability and mitigate the repercussions and threats of global political turbulence.
Most of my researcher friends who have not had the opportunity to visit the “new Saudi Arabia” are oblivious to an important matter regarding its “global image.” This image, manifested in media clips and the reports of visitors, fails to convey the magnitude of the country’s changes and the immense amount of work that has been put into making this success possible.
The confidence generated by this success has been reflected in foreign policy, economic programs, pivotal decisions that put an end to the squandering of public wealth and restructured the financial sector, and strategies for opening up to parallel markets, citizenship law, and redefining tourism, entertainment, health, and education in the Kingdom, which has invested in them heavily.
These robust domestic changes and the shift precipitated by this vision accommodate all youths. They believe in this vision and compete to further its agenda, which has transformed Saudi Arabia into the most pivotal player in the Middle East. While it does not claim that it is perfect, Saudi Arabia has always sought the kind of reasonable and balanced strategy demanded by its position, its pursuit of more success, and its awareness of the scale of the ongoing challenges facing a changing and turbulent world.