Saudi Arabia Doesn’t Want to Be California. It Wants to Be China

Saudi watchers may have been surprised to hear that eight intellectuals and writers were detained last week by the kingdom.

It’s not that arresting dissidents is anything out of the ordinary in Saudi Arabia, but doing so when the state-owned oil company Aramco is in the midst of a giant initial public offering and trying to woo foreign investors seems odd. 

None of the eight were high-profile opponents of the regime or presented any kind of immediate threat to political stability. Saudi Arabia is already contending with a highly problematic record on human rights, so why stir the pot when it’s trying to sell shares? The IPO is already encountering interest no more than tepid, and reports about detentions will just make it harder to line up big institutional investors. 

But it all makes perfectly good sense if you take a cold-eyed look at how Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the country’s effective ruler, is steering Saudi Arabia.

The promotional materials for Vision 2030, his strategic plan for the Saudi economy and society envisions something like a hotter, drier and sandier California — a cutting-edge economy of tech, finance, tourism and entertainment driven by daring entrepreneurs. Oil will pay for the transition (hence the Aramco IPO), but it will recede in importance as the New Saudi Arabia emerges.

The vision is more than just about business. The crown prince has been undertaking liberal reforms (at least by the low bar the kingdom starts from) like letting women drive, inviting international stars to perform, developing a high-tech megalopolis and allowing visiting holiday-making tourists.

In his own way, bin Salman really does want to transform Saudi Arabia. But even if it’s never publicly expressed, his real model is China.