Could Saudi Arabia Reshape the Middle East?

Dr. Shay Hershkovitz is Wikistrat's Chief Strategy Officer and a political science professor.

In his monumental 1984 masterpiece Cities of Salt, Jordanian author Abdul Rahman Munif described the Gulf before the oil addiction hit - i.e., days of pride and independence that ended once the West pushed dependence on "black gold."

When the Saudi government approved the grandiose "Vision 2030" plan several days ago, I recalled Munif's romantic desire to resurrect those days. Perhaps King Salman did too.

Today, a full 90 percent of the Kingdom's budget is based on oil revenues. King Salman aims to reduce this dependency in part by diversifying income sources. However, the real driving force behind "Vision 2030" is the King's son: 30-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who sees himself as his father's successor, plans to fundamentally transform the conservative country into a regional if not global superpower.

However, "Vision 2030" is not just the Prince's own private initiative. It is a necessary response to the challenges the Kingdom is facing.

Saudi Arabia is trying to navigate through the turbulent aftermath of the Arab Spring. Its primary concern is Iran, which already competes with Riyadh for regional dominance, mainly via proxy war. In Syria, the Saudis are concerned by the opposition's setbacks and Assad's hanging onto power. And despite tactical successes, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is unable to establish dominance in the Shi'a-dominated, Iran-backed north and the radical Islamist-dominated south.

There is also ongoing tension with the U.S. - Riyadh's traditional ally - despite Washington's insistence otherwise. The Saudis perceive both the Iran nuclear deal and the U.S. reluctance to increase its involvement in Syria as betrayals. Most importantly, the oil trade - which for decades was the main glue holding relations together - faces fundamental change in light of Washington's desire for energy independence and the shale revolution. Indeed, Riyadh increasingly sees Washington as a rival rather than a partner.

The Saudis are also concerned by ISIS, which has already targeted the royal family and called upon supporters to free the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The organization has already succeeded in recruiting Saudi supporters, threatened to attack holy places and has especially targeted Saudi clerics. As a recent report by Wikistrat (a crowdsourced geopolitical consultancy) indicates, such terror activities (even if unsuccessful) have the potential to undermine the regime's image. Furthermore, attacks against the Kingdom's large Shi'a (and Iran-friendly) communities may ignite domestic protest, as they would present the regime as unable or unwilling to protect the minority.

Saudi Arabia faces domestic problems as well. Increasing unemployment, especially among alienated and frustrated millennials, has become a real issue. A severe housing crisis continues, despite the government's (futile) attempts to find a solution. Low oil prices have eroded the Kingdom's foreign currency reserves, limiting its ability to maintain generous subsidies - and in turn increasing public discontent.

Above all stands the issue of succession. Mohammed bin Salman is the most prominent candidate, but many oppose his ascent - which may kick off a Saudi "Game of Thrones" upon the current King's death. The Prince understands that the traditional policy of isolation and the absolute reliance on oil revenues are outdated. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is already increasing regional involvement, forming an unofficial anti-Iran bloc with Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Israel as a silent partner. There are no doubt disagreements within this front: For instance, the Saudis reject the hardline anti-Muslim Brotherhood approach of Egypt and the UAE. But overall, these partners do see eye-to-eye. Even the issue of Palestine is no longer a roadblock to working with Israel - so as long as relations remain covert.

"Vision 2030" also envisions Saudi Arabia becoming a leading global force in the defense and hi-tech industries. And through issuing Saudi "green card" work permits to Arab migrants, Riyadh dreams of being the Arab world's "American Dream". It may not be an overstatement to imagine a future in which top Muslim and Arab minds move to Saudi Arabia to be at the forefront of global innovation.

Domestically, the Prince wishes to shore up support among young Saudis. The plan emphasizes the important role of women in economic growth and the privatization of many state-owned companies - a move that hopes to combat widespread corruption.

If successfully executed, the plan could transform Saudi Arabia into an economic powerhouse. Riyadh already possesses huge currency reserves, and it already plays a major role in the global economy. If the royal succession proceeds smoothly and the Kingdom combats attempts to undermine its stability, we may also soon see it coming into a new role as a moderate alternative to radical Islam. Wikistrat has in fact foreseen several positive post-Syria conflict scenarios in which the Kingdom is a dominant regional player. For instance, it may turn to military interventionism on behalf of moderates. It may also become a regional or global arms supplier - or, alternately, a supplier focusing on specific defense or security technologies. And through its investment initiatives, the Kingdom may be able to use its economic and financial capabilities as soft power with regard to the region.

It is therefore important for the West to provide the Kingdom with the political support it requires. And it is in the West's interest that "Vision 2030" - which the IMF has described as encouraging - be implemented to the fullest.