By Bernard Haykel
Arab youth across the region are energised and encouraged by Mohammed Bin Salman's promise of social reform
The 10th Arab Youth Survey finally provides reliable, quantitative data on the attitudes of Arab and Saudi youth regarding the personality and policies of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Until now, there were only anecdotal claims that Saudi youth – roughly 70 percent of the population are under the age of 30 – overwhelmingly approved of MBS and his economic and social reform policies.
Journalists, such as Thomas Friedman and others, have reported on the enthusiastic and positive opinions that many young people in Saudi Arabia has of MBS. With this survey, we now know that more than 90 percent of Saudis between 18-24 approve of his appointment as Crown Prince and are supportive of his anti-corruption drive. An overwhelming majority also believe MBS is taking the kingdom in the right direction, feel that his economic reforms are likely to succeed, and that he is a strong leader who will have the biggest impact on the region of any Arab leader over the next decade.
What is equally interesting is that a significant majority of youth across the Arab world – some 60 percent – share the same positive view. In the case of the anti-corruption campaign, 86 percent of Arab youth are supportive. This data must come as very good news to MBS and the policy team around him, and he must seek to capitalise on the goodwill and favour he enjoys.
However, to make sense of the numbers, one has to appreciate the context of the Arab world, and Saudi in particular, today. There is a deep and broad desire across these societies for reform, and the youth see MBS as the most engaged agent in its transformation.
In Saudi Arabia, this desire for change is particularly acute because the country has been led for at least two decades by a gerontocracy that only paid lip service to economic and social reform and kept the country in resolute stasis – change of any kind appeared impossible. In effect, the status quo consisted of a combination of extremely conservative social policies and government handouts in the form of public sector jobs, along with subsidies and various entitlements. Rent-seeking behaviour was rewarded over entrepreneurship, private initiative and merit.
These extraordinarily high numbers in favour of MBS and his reforms are nonetheless fraught with danger. They signal very high expectations among the youth about the changes MBS can generate and the results he must deliver.
Young Saudis no doubt believe that well-paying jobs will soon be plentiful as a result of the economic reform and diversification programme, otherwise known as Vision 2030. And, in fact, more than 90 percent of those surveyed believe that “Vision 2030 will succeed in securing the future of the Saudi economy”.
It bears keeping in mind that youth in Saudi Arabia are among the most connected and networked people on the planet, and are keenly aware of the affluent lifestyles that other youth enjoy in the West or in the Far East. Their expectations have to be managed carefully, because reform and job creation will take time.
In his speeches and interviews MBS has given voice to the frustrations of the young generation, which explains, in part, why so many are supportive of his policies. But MBS has also been clear that diversifying the Saudi economy away from its heavy dependence on oil revenues will be a very difficult and painful process.
It is a fact that no country in the world that has experienced the extremely rapid economic development that Saudi Arabia has witnessed has been able to successfully reform its economy. Because of this, it is worth reminding people of the difficulty of this process, not least because it will help curb the belief that MBS can single-handedly work miracles. Expectations have to be managed because if they are unmet, they will eventually spill over into discontent.
Despite the huge support this survey shows, MBS is not necessarily in an enviable position. He has to make up for the decades of wasted opportunities during which real economic reform was endlessly deferred into the future by the government. Yet he must also manage expectations while reforming the economy with the aim of producing well-paying jobs and reducing the fiscal budget’s dependence on oil revenues.
Diversifying the economy is a generational challenge and will take more than a decade to complete. There is no doubt that a generation of Saudis will face hardship and may never attain their aspirations. Therefore, it is important to find the means to reset their expectations and to explain that their hard work and sacrifice is necessary for future generations to have it better.
Nonetheless, success in effecting change is more likely with the widespread popular support of the youth – which this survey shows – than it would be if they were antagonistic and despondent.