The Middle East Today: Where To?

Keynote speech by HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal delivered at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ 26th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference on October 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The Middle East today is in a state of turmoil as never before. I will limit my talk to issues causing disorder and anarchy and on my hopes for a peaceful, secure, and stable region.

Looking into today’s prevailing conditions and state of affairs in the Middle East, particularly, the Arab region, we find no credible signs that call for much optimism: strategically, it is vulnerable on all fronts and is widely exposed to all possibilities. This strategic vulnerability is as old as the establishment of the nation-state order following World War I. However, catastrophic events during the past decades such as the recurring Arab-Israeli wars and conflicts, the Lebanese civil war, the Iraq-Iran prolonged war, the invasion of Kuwait, the invasion of Iraq, and constant foreign interventions have contributed greatly to this vulnerability. Coupled with this is the failure of many of our states in facing the shared and constantly looming threats to our existence and to our people. Poor social, economic, educational, and cultural policies, and the selfishness that characterized some Arab leaders’ foreign and domestic policies for decades are causes of this mess.

All of what we witness nowadays unfolding and that was exposed by what is called the “Arab Spring” is but an indictment of these policies and natural results of it. In Iraq it has led it to becoming a failed state with a collapsing society; the cause of Syria’s free falling into a swamp of blood, destruction, desolation, terrorism, conspiracies and foreign interventions; the cause of the sinking of Yemen into an inferno of conflict and civil war; the cause of the failure of the Libyan state; the unrest in other Arab countries; the cause of the spread of the transnational phenomenon of terrorism within many of our states; the cause of the spread of armed militias that are not under the control of nation states; and the spread of appalling sectarianism and other negative development. All that is a condensed representation of our deplorable state of affairs.

Our unenviable present was the future of our recent past, and the way we deal with our present is the future awaiting us. It is imperative that we must consciously learn from the pitfalls of the past. We must plan our future wisely and be alert at all times if we want to avoid a catastrophic future. We must courageously face the challenges that threaten our existence and attain a visionary approach to the future, if we wish to attain a decent place on the world stage.

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Can Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” Get the Kingdom Off the Oil-Economy Roller Coaster?

Saudi Arabia has begun administering the Kingdom’s boldest, most innovative, and farthest-reaching modernization and development plan in the country’s history. It addresses the near, mid-term, and longer-term needs and challenges that strategists believe the country is likely to face in the next fifteen years. Conceptualized and approved by the country’s leaders, the plan’s name is “Saudi Arabia Vision 2030.”

The plan reflects an extraordinary degree of extended research, analysis, and assessment. It was aided throughout by the input and comment of some of the world’s most renowned and experienced advisors in forward planning, focus, messaging, and communication. The process was launched in 2015 soon after Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques HRH King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud appointed his son, HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense.

In the eyes of his fellow citizens and the Kingdom’s inhabitants, Prince Mohammed is unique. A reason is not only because of his youth. He was 30 years of age on the day “Vision 2030” was officially announced in April 2016. Of special interest and in this century without precedent is that he has been entrusted to oversee, guide, and administer two of the country’s most strategically vital portfolios.

In one, in his position and role as Chairman of the Economic and Development Affairs Council, Prince Mohammed is tasked with protecting and advancing the material wellbeing of the Kingdom’s 30 million people. Not least among his challenges in this regard is how best to address the needs of the country’s burgeoning youthful citizenry. The nature and degree of unemployment among this segment of Saudi Arabia’s population is a matter of mounting and daunting concern, combined as it is with the goal of increasing dramatically the share of private sector and foreign investment involvement in the Kingdom’s economic growth.

A National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations delegation of Model Arab League students and faculty advisers, led by National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony, visits Queen Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
A National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations delegation of Model Arab League students and faculty advisers, led by National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony, visits Queen Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to meet with the emerging generation of the Kingdom’s leaders.

The Deputy Crown Prince has also been assigned to head the country’s principal armed forces establishment. The Kingdom’s military is tasked with defending the Arab and Muslim world’s most important and influential country in a region that, to a greater extent than any in the past half century, is laced – not within the GCC region, of which it is an integral part, but immediately beyond it – with an unprecedented degree of tension and turmoil.

In this regard, in close association with his ruling family cousin, Second-in-Command Crown Prince and Minister of Interior HRH Prince Mohammad bin Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed is responsible for aiding the King in his role as Custodian of Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina. Internationally and domestically, the two leaders are jointly expected to ensure the Kingdom’s ongoing national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity.

Stated differently, the two leaders, assisted by Minister of Foreign Affairs HE Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, are the primary Saudi Arabians tasked with protecting the country and the legitimate interests of its people. These include first and foremost enhancing the Kingdom’s security, stability, and peace, without which there would be no prospects for prosperity. Were these three interconnected factors to be weakened or lost, the likelihood of the country being able to maintain its present standard of living, let alone strengthen and advance it, would be difficult if not impossible.

It is with regard to this first aspect of the Deputy Crown Prince’s responsibilities that the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations is pleased to provide an essay asking “Can Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ Get the Kingdom Off the Oil-Economy Roller Coaster?” The author is Dr. Paul Sullivan, a Council Non-Resident Senior International Affairs Fellow. Drawing on the courses he teaches on national security challenges and economic dynamics, and vice versa, at two of America’s leading institutions of higher education, Dr. Sullivan examines the nature and goals of as well as the necessary national material and human resources relevant to the Kingdom’s strategic development plan for the next fifteen years.

In keeping with National Council’s Analyses and Assessments series, of which this essay is a part, the author weighs the prospects for the Kingdom being able to manage and address “Vision 2030″‘s challenges effectively. In so doing, he sheds light on what in his view will be required to achieve even a portion of the plan’s stated goals. In the process, he provides an array of information about, insightful data on, and analysis and evaluation of the Kingdom’s economic development prospects that would otherwise be hard-to-come-by.

Dr. John Duke Anthony
Founding President and CEO
National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
Washington, DC


The Saudi Arabian economy is dominated by oil and has been for many decades. Oil accounts for about 35-45% of the GDP of Saudi Arabia. It is the source of 75-80% of its government revenues and 85-90% of its export revenues. Petrochemicals, based on oil and a much more recent component of the Kingdom’s economy than hydrocarbon fuels, are Saudi Arabia’s next largest export.

Saudi Arabia’s Oil-Economy Roller Coaster

At times in the past Saudi Arabia’s economy has been like a roller coaster. There was an economic boom due to the October 1973 Israeli-Arab war-induced oil embargo and the 1979 Iranian Revolution’s boost to the price for hydrocarbon fuels. This was followed by the collapse of oil prices and the resultant damage to the Saudi Arabian economy, which began in the early 1980s and continued until the late 1990s. As international oil prices remained stagnate throughout the better part of these two decades until the turn of the present century, so too, in many ways, did the Kingdom’s economy.

Chart: Saudi Arabia's Oil-Economy Roller Coaster

As prices began to ramp up in the 2000s, Saudi Arabia’s economy moved up with them until the Great Recession hit in 2008 when they collapsed for a brief period as the 2008 recession took its toll on markets. Soon after, however, prices rose to more than $100 per barrel in 2011, where they would remain until May 2014.

The most recent price collapse – from May-June 2014 until about January-February 2016 – was precipitous. The price since then, however, has risen, albeit in an unstable, bouncy, and slow manner. In short, Saudi Arabia has ridden the good times of oil price booms. It has also ridden the bad times when the price has collapsed.

Saudi Arabia has ridden the good times of oil price booms. It has also ridden the bad times when the price has collapsed.

The average Saudi Arabian’s income and wealth increased dramatically from 2002 to 2014. This was mostly due to the elevated level of oil revenues. The result was an increase in government spending and massive capital expenditures together with public sector investments.

Past Saudi Arabian economic improvements have started with a significant and sustained increase in the price of oil with concomitant increases in government and export revenues. These have been followed by large expenditures and investments in public sector ventures, with corresponding increases in imported labor, in Saudi Arabian employment, in massive building programs, and in contributions to the Public Investment Fund as well as, to a much greater extent, the Kingdom’s foreign reserves.

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A Quiet Revolution: Renewable Energy in the GCC Economies

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) oil and gas producers face the long-term question of how much and how quickly global markets will move from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy. With one of the region’s key strategic and economic concerns being long-term energy demand, Gulf oil producers have long acknowledged that they have an interest in being ahead of the game in planning for future demand reductions in their key markets.

The Paris Agreement of December 2015 may provide clues to the future of clean energy in that it incentivizes increasingly ambitious climate targets and actions by participating states. If the accord is translated into lasting policies across different economies, and depending on the extent to which the policies are implemented, it may be that future generations will use and benefit from a cleaner, more sustainable energy supply. What might also occur is that oil and to some extent gas producers will face a progressively uncertain future for their fossil fuel-based exports.

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An Existential Political Economy of Post-Conflict Syria, Yemen, and Libya

Syria, Yemen, and Libya are clear cases of de-development via destruction and devastation. Each has its own inter-ethnic, tribal, historical, political, resource, and economic stresses that have contributed to its present astonishing violence. One could write a library of books about what brought each country to the state it is in now. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the multitude of crises each faces.

Post-Conflict, Long-Term Needs

It may be that Syria, Yemen, and Libya will ultimately be divided into smaller countries. While this would be unfortunate, it may be an inevitable part of the region’s transition.

It also may take many years, if not decades, for these countries, whatever they end up being, to reach the point where the guns are silent. But silencing the guns will not necessarily bring stability and peace in the long run. If the underlying causes of the violence are not properly dealt with, these countries will endure recurring nightmares of destruction.

Staffan de Mistura, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, meets with representatives of the Assad government on February 2, 2016 in Geneva.
Staffan de Mistura, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, meets with representatives of the Assad government on February 2, 2016 in Geneva.

Indeed, if these countries are not developed and their people are not given realistic hopes and dreams for a better future, they will fall back into violence. Syria, Yemen, and Libya have shattered economies. Getting them back to a state from which they can grow with their people will involve massive injections of funds. Syria may need at least $500 billion, Yemen at least $250 billion, and Libya at least $200 billion. These amounts will need to be provided fairly quickly to stave off the demons of war and conflict, but not so quickly that the countries cannot absorb the funds and as a result fall into hyperinflation or worse.

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