Will Crown Prince MBS succeed in remaking Saudi society?

It’s been tried before. The results were mixed.

Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), isn’t just consolidating power before his probable ascent to the throne. He’s also trying to remake Saudi society. He bluntly told reporters that his country is “not normal.” And so, like Ataturk in post-World War I Turkey, the shah in pre-revolutionary Iran and other authoritarian movers and shakers, he’s going to modernize his society — and fast, according to a report published on The Washington  Post by Calvert W. Jones* titled: “Saudi Arabia’s crown prince wants to reengineer his country. Is that even possible?”

McKinsey’s consultants helped design Vision 2030 , the prince’s sweeping reform agenda aimed at ushering Saudi Arabia into a more open, post-petroleum future. Reforms underway emphasize a vibrant private sector, a smaller bureaucracy, curbs on the power of the Wahhabi religious establishment and even the reopening of shuttered cinemas. The crown prince has vowed to restore a more “moderate Islam.” No wonder the international community, despite some lingering unease about Mohammed’s power grab and disillusionment with his disastrous war in Yemen, generally applauds all this social engineering. Thomas Friedman called it “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at last.”

But social engineering is a tricky business, and the outcomes are uncertain. Ataturk succeeded in his equally dramatic efforts to remake Turkey along avowedly Western lines. In Iran, on the other hand, the shah’s decadence and modernizing failures triggered a radical backlash that culminated in the Islamic revolution. As it happens, something very similar to the prince’s project has already been tried — next door, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). What leaders there learned was that a top-down social revolution can’t work by fiat; it requires a profound investment in the people it expects to change.

Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE have important differences, they share many of the same social and economic challenges. Both are oil monarchies overwhelmingly dependent on resource wealth; both have socially conservative citizenries and large youth populations in need of jobs. They both face notoriously rigid “rentier” social contracts typical of the Persian Gulf, in which citizens expect government positions in exchange for their acceptance of the authoritarian status quo. But ruling elites decided that the UAE needed to become a more globalized society before the oil ran out, and in 2010, they released their own bold and strikingly similar plan: Vision 2021 . Beginning in 2009, I spent six years studying this effort and tracking its progress.

UAE rulers began, as in Saudi Arabia, with high-profile initiatives promoting knowledge, culture and innovation. For example, to spur the new economy, the UAE built Masdar City , which aims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral metropolis, designed to create an ecosystem around renewable energy involving research, innovation, education and product development. Mohammed is developing the city of Neom, which translates roughly as “new future,” with a robotics theme and similarly grand aims. On the social front, the UAE appointed a minister of state for tolerance , while the Saudis have the new Center for Moderation. World-class megacities, museums and universities feature heavily in both countries’ social-engineering efforts. The centerpiece in the UAE is the man-made Saadiyat Island, which houses the new Zayed National Museum, a New York University satellite campus, and branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim.

The problem is that authoritarian modernizers cannot simply command a new attitude among their citizens. Opening cinemas and relaxing gender segregation may impress Saudi youth, but a new economy requires far more. Reformers in the UAE eventually realized — as Saudi rulers will discover, too — that they needed to adapt both the mind-sets and the skill sets of the rising generation. In countries where people see a government job as a right, that means reshaping the very nature of citizenship.

Soon after their reforms began, UAE leaders found that few Emiratis were gaining interest in private-sector employment, and most continued to expect jobs in the unsustainable oil-fueled public sector. So they turned to much deeper social engineering to build “globalization-ready ” citizens through major reforms to public education, starting with kindergarten. These involve what critics of Arab education systems have long demanded: a student-centered approach that focuses on skills mastery, creativity and problem-solving over the rote memorization of the past. The alterations shrink the emphasis on religion and double down on science, technology, business and vocational skills such as in IT and health care. Importantly, they also promote attitudes such as civic-mindedness, tolerance and entrepreneurialism: New curricula, for instance, are designed to boost volunteerism, community service, respect for diversity and love of country with engaging lessons and hands-on activities. The school calendar is packed with events like the Festival of Thinkers, the Summer of Semiconductors and the Young Entrepreneurs Competition, a nationwide business contest held at the landmark Dubai Mall. Teachers also report successful role-playing in which students have a disagreement and then practice what it means to be tolerant.

Is this deeper process of building globalization-ready citizens working? To find out, I surveyed more than 2,000 Emirati youth, comparing incoming and outgoing cohorts in regular public schools — i.e., the old system — with incoming and outgoing cohorts in public schools that have implemented the new program. This methodology, called “difference in differences,” is useful because it helps to isolate the effects of social engineering from other forces such as income disparities or maturation. I also interviewed hundreds of ruling elites, education reformers, parents, students, school administrators and teachers, and conducted several focus groups in the schools (in Arabic or English, as students sometimes preferred).

My research yielded several important insights. First, social engineering is better at changing civic attitudes than economic ones. Youth in the new schools ended up more tolerant and civic-minded than their counterparts in the older schools — no small achievement. In my surveys, they declared a new emphasis on tolerance relative to other values and said they planned to spend more time volunteering in their communities. But while students were socially “ready” for globalization in the leaders’ eyes, they were not more inclined to think beyond government jobs and compete in the private sector. In fact, they had grown even more supportive of a citizen’s right to a government job and less interested in entrepreneurship. (These results were all statistically significant, even when demographics and other controls were included.)

So if Mohammed is “gambling that personal freedom will encourage financial responsibility,” as Karen Elliott House, a close observer of Saudi Arabia, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, he may need another strategy. Social liberalization does not necessarily mean increased economic productivity.

Why did social engineering backfire when it came to these fundamental economic attitudes? In the UAE, I found that leaders had yoked their efforts to a feel-good nationalism that was essentially a form of self-esteem-building, heaping praise upon citizens and encouraging them to feel pride in their nation and themselves as its citizens. (One teacher reported spending more than a month on a unit called “Proud to be an Emirati,” and new schools are awash in motivational posters and patriotic banners.) The idea was that such praise-filled nationalism would help persuade young citizens to take on the new and more active roles envisioned for them in a post-oil society.

Being made to feel good about one’s country is not necessarily problematic. But excessive praise can have unintended consequences. I found that, while it did not hamper students’ growing social liberalism, it made them feel overly special — and ultimately even more entitled to the sorts of prestigious government jobs that leaders were trying to wean them off. In focus groups at the reformed schools, students frequently mentioned what they saw as their elevated status, saying that attention from rulers “makes the schools special and the students in the schools special.” Instead of gearing up to work in the private sector, they said they expected to be rewarded with top-level public posts.

The Saudi plan also appears to see feel-good nationalism as a motivating tool. Vision 2030 is full of over-the-top praise for Saudi Arabia and its people, asserting, for instance, that they will “amaze the world.” In downgrading the power of the Wahhabi establishment, the crown prince is necessarily moving toward a more secular nationalism as the basis for regime legitimacy. Yet if he wants young citizens to accept risk and seek jobs in the private sector, he would do well to avoid reinforcing their sense of civic entitlement.

Finally, UAE and Saudi social engineers may need to allow wider political participation if they want pro-globalization social engineering to succeed in the long term. The Emirati kids I studied had grown significantly more interested in contributing to public decision-making compared with their anachronistically educated peers. In other words, top-down social engineering can take authoritarian modernizers only so far. To build truly development-friendly mind-sets prepared to compete under conditions of globalization, Saudi rulers are likely to find that they must renegotiate the social contract in more transparent and inclusive ways, going well beyond what government planning alone can accomplish.

*Calvert W. Jones, an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park, is the author of “Bedouins Into Bourgeois: Remaking Citizens for Globalization.”