Saudi Soft Power in 2023

Saudi Arabia’s socioeconomic reforms have expanded the Kingdom’s circle of influence, making it a more attractive place for outsiders.

If you had asked anyone in the Middle East 20 years ago which government in the region had the strongest influence, most would have answered the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—it was the religious and cultural epicenter of the Islamic world, it was the region’s most prosperous major economy, and its foreign policy machine was on excellent terms with western and Middle Easter nations alike.

All those facts about Saudi Arabia still hold true today, though in over two decades the world has seen many changes. The winning cards that Riyadh had around 2000 may no longer be enough to make the Kingdom the de facto leader of the Islamic world in the age of image, self-expression, and cosmopolitanism. However, Saudi Arabia has changed, too. No matter one’s political stance, you cannot deny that Saudi Arabia is undergoing tremendous reforms. A fair number of things have changed for the better over the last decade or so—doing business in Saudi Arabia is now easier for foreigners, women are achieving greater inclusion in the job market, and, as a result, the brand image of Saudi Arabia has improved significantly.

There is no shortage of examples for any of these claims. During the challenging year of 2020, when most economies of the world thought of nothing but survival, business intelligence companies noted a significant improvement in the ease of doing business in Saudi Arabia. “This improvement marks Saudi Arabia out as the biggest improver,” observed Russell Bedford International that year.

As for social freedoms, many longstanding limitations for women have been lifted thanks to the socioeconomic reforms championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Women are increasingly integrated in Saudi Arabia’s job market, including the public sector, which was traditionally dominated by men. Anyone who last saw Saudi Arabia in the 2000s or even the 2010s will be surprised upon arrival in Jeddah or Riyadh to see women officials working in different capacities at the airport.

The Kingdom, as such, is increasingly seen as an exemplar of successful socioeconomic reforms. In addition to breaking barriers for women, Saudi Arabia has managed to become the developing world’s first trillion-dollar economy. These achievements have given Riyadh a special position in the MENA region, with many fellow Arab nations looking up to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia already wielded considerable soft power before the reforms, and its improved image has further expanded its circle of influence. Most political scientists agree that a country’s soft power primary lies in its appeal to the outside world, with media influence performing an important complementary role.

Glamorous megaprojects such as NEOM and the Red Sea have been making headlines since they were announced in 2017. Mohammed bin Salman upped the game in 2022 by announcing the Kingdom’s most ambitious megaproject so far: The Line. Although some have questioned the feasibility of a modular, line-shaped, and fully sustainable city in the desert, the project’s glamour and ambition have turned quite a few heads. Who would not be curious to see a city straight out of a sci-fi movie? Saudi Arabia now looks more appealing than ever before, and, as a result, its soft power is on the rise.

This is accelerated by the decline of Saudi Arabia’s traditional regional adversary, Iran, which is struggling with economic sanctions as well as a prolonged diplomatic stalemate. The collapse of the western powers’ nuclear deal with Iran brought back restrictions on the country’s oil exports, and Iran’s circle of influence has been constantly shrinking. One regional competitor’s loss is quite often the other’s gain. Saudi Arabia has always shown a certain degree of respect for international norms and laws, which makes it a reliable ally for Western governments and the go-to partner in the Middle East for many international businesses.

Saudi Arabia, in short, has evolved to maintain its leadership in the Middle East and the entire Islamic world. The Kingdom’s ruling elite has shown a knack for going along with the zeitgeist, which is a rare quality in a region dominated by rigid bureaucracies. The degree of dynamism that Riyadh has displayed in embracing new ways of life is beyond the capability of many political establishments in the MENA region, and it is this very dynamism that keeps Saudi Arabia relevant in the world in 2022.

Given Saudi Arabia’s successful transformation, other capitals across the Islamic world will try to follow suit. With many emulating the Kingdom and its particular brand of socioeconomic reforms, it will become an even more influential leader. In this midst, the remaining few years until 2030 will be a window of opportunity for Riyadh to make sure that its ambitious economic projects will truly bear fruit.