Assessment of the Impacts of Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 on U.S. Efforts to Confront Iran

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

Scott Harr is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer with deployment and service experience throughout the Middle East.  He has contributed articles on national security and foreign policy topics to military journals and professional websites focusing on strategic security issues.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Impacts of Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 on U.S. Efforts to Confront Iran

Date Originally Written:  March 7, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  April 2, 2019.

Summary:  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 plan to transform its economy and society will have significant effects on the U.S. ability to confront and counter Iran. In either success or failure, Vision2030 will alter the balance of power in the Middle East, conferring advantages to either a strong American ally (Saudi Arabia) or the most formidable and long-standing U.S. adversary in the region (Iran).

Text:  Amidst the continuing turmoil and instability that touches many parts of the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) maintain a fierce rivalry vying for regional and Islamic dominance. Both countries factor prominently into U.S. regional goals and interests as Iran (since its Islamic Revolution in 1979) serves as the preeminent regional threat and adversary to the U.S. while the KSA, in many ways, serves as the centerpiece of U.S. efforts to counter and degrade Iranian influence in the region[1]. As the region’s premiere Islamic rivals, internal social, economic, and political movements within the KSA and the IRI inherently shape and inform U.S. actions and efforts aimed at undermining hostile (IRI) objectives while supporting friendly (KSA) initiatives. U.S. President Trump, for instance, was quick to voice support in early 2018 for protesters in Iran railing against (among other things) perceived regime inaction and contribution to the stagnant Iranian economy[2]. Alternatively, Trump preserved U.S. support to the KSA even after allegations of KSA government involvement in the killing of a prominent and outspoken journalist[3]. Such dynamics underscore how the inner-workings of regional rivals create venues and opportunities for the advancement of U.S. interests confronting regional threats by applying pressure and defining alliances using different elements of national power.

In 2016, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as “MBS,” unveiled an ambitious and grandiose plan for economic, cultural, and social change in the Kingdom. In response to a worldwide decline in oil prices that drastically shrunk Saudi cash reserves and simultaneously highlighted the precarious state of the Kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, MBS released “Vision2030”- a sweeping program of reform that aimed to create a vibrant society, build a thriving economy, and establish a culture of ambition within the Kingdom[4]. Motivating these ideas was a desire to increase the privatization of the economy and make Saudi society attractive to foreign investment to diversify the economy and decrease its dependence on oil[5]. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the mechanisms of change that drive the execution of MBS’ Vision2030 rest on the extent to which Western values (namely free-market principles and social liberalism) can be inculcated into a historically conservative and closed society. Given the magnitude of Vision2030’s scope, targeting all of Saudi society, the ideology involved in its execution (incorporating Western values), and the KSA’s geopolitical status as a key U.S. ally against Iranian foreign policy objectives, the implementation and execution of Vision2030 cannot fail but to have far-reaching impacts on both Middle Eastern regional stability in general and U.S. efforts confronting Iran in particular.

Whether Vision2030 succeeds or fails, the sheer scope and scale of its desired effects will shape (or re-shape) the momentum of America’s ongoing conflict with Iran and perhaps play a decisive role in determining who (American friend or foe) holds sway in the Middle East. On an ideological plane, if Vision2030 succeeds and successfully introduces Western values that contribute to a balanced and prosperous economy as well as a (more) foreigner-friendly open society, the KSA immediately serves as a blueprint for other Middle Eastern societies plagued by government corruption, limited economic opportunities, and social restrictions. In Iran specifically, Saudi success at transforming their society will perhaps reinvigorate popular protests against a ruling regime that many perceive as purveyors of exactly the kind of corruption and social control described above[6]. That the impetus for change in KSA sprang from the government’s desire for reform (and not citizens engaged in resistance –as in Iran) may further buoy popular unrest in Iran as Vision2030 allows the Saudi government to be cast as benevolent leaders in stark contrast to the Iranian regime’s reputation as corrupt and heavy-handed rulers. Increased unrest in Iran opens the door for increased American support and actions aimed at dislodging the current hostile regime and supporting popular Iranian efforts to introduce democratic reforms. On an economic plane, the success of Vision2030 will potentially decrease the economic capability of the IRI as the desired foreign investment into the KSA resulting from Vision2030 will presumably draw resources from traditional IRI economic partners and cause them to re-invest in a more open and friendly KSA market[7]. This potential economic success will potentially make it more difficult for the IRI to circumvent U.S. actions in the economic realm (sanctions) designed to coerce the IRI into abandoning hostile policies towards U.S. interests.

There will also be significant regional repercussions should Vision 2030 fail and the KSA proves unsuccessful in transforming its economy and society. On an ideological plane, Vision 2030’s failure will likely serve as a referendum on the viability of Western values in the Islamic world and, as such, help sustain the IRI ruling regime. Just as a failing Venezuela has become a symbol and warning of the dangers of socialism to America, so too will the KSA become fodder for IRI propaganda denouncing Western values[8]. On an economic plane, the failure of Vision2030 will, by default, mean that the KSA was unsuccessful in diversifying its economy and severing its reliance on oil for prosperity. Given the tumultuous state of oil prices and the gradual (but palpable) desire of advanced countries to decrease their dependence on oil, this will likely mean that the KSA, as a whole, will be a weakened and less-capable ally against the IRI.

The success of Vision2030 is far from a foregone conclusion in the KSA as recent government implementation measures have encountered staunch resistance from a Saudi citizenry not accustomed to a reduced supporting role from the government[9]. However, what seems clear enough is that the endeavor, regardless of its success or failure, will create effects that reverberate across the Middle East and alter (for better or worse) the balance of power and impact the U.S. ability to confront, counter, and compete against the IRI in the region.


[1] David, J. E. (2017, May 20). US-Saudi Arabia seal weapons deal worth nearly $110 billion immediately, $350 billion over 10 years. Retrieved March 05, 2019, from

[2] Mindock, C. (2018, January 03). Donald Trump says Iranian protesters will see ‘great support’ from US. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[3] Harte, J., & Holland, S. (2018, November 17). Trump calls CIA assessment of Khashoggi murder premature but possible. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[4] Full text of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. (2016, April 26). Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[5] Khashan, H. (2017). Saudi Arabia’s Flawed “Vision 2030”. Middle East Quarterly, 24(1), 1-8. Retrieved February 27, 2019.

[6] Pourzand, A. (2010). Change They Don’t Believe In: The Political Presence of the Basij in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kennedy School Review, 10, 99. Retrieved March 6, 2019.

[7] Al Gergawi, M. (2017, October 26). China Is Eyeballing a Major Strategic Investment in Saudi Arabia’s Oil. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[8] Montgomery, L. K. (2018, May 22). Venezuela should remind Americans about the dangers of socialism. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[9] Ghitis, F. (2017, April 27) Is Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 Reform Plan Faltering—or Succeeding? Retrieved March 6, 2019 from

Assessment Papers Iran Saudi Arabia (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) Scott Harr Small Wars Journal

Options to Manage the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions

Joshua Urness is an officer in the United States Army who has served both in combat and strategic studies roles.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

National Security Situation:  In a notional future the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) Defense Ministry leadership are strongly advocating for initiating a domestic nuclear weapons development program and have begun discussing the issue at King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy.

Date Originally Written:  January 14, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  March 26, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a non-proliferation and arms control professional working in the U.S. government. This professional was asked to provide recommendations to members of the national security council on how to dissuade the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from pursuing nuclear weapons.

Background:  This background, though containing some facts, is based on the above described notional situation. Key drivers for the KSA on the issue are anticipation of the expiration of the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action within 10-15 years and persistent adversarial relations with Iran; likely attributable to continued Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps activity throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council region. This adversarial activity includes perceived Iranian support of Houthi Rebels, by proxy, in Yemen, a force that frequently fires ballistic missiles into KSA territory and has destabilized the KSA’s southern border region.

For this notional scenario we assume that the KSA:

– is a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has actively supported the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East (as recently as May, 2017[1]).

– does not currently possess the technological, intellectual or infrastructural capability necessary to produce fissile material or a nuclear weapon[2].

– has been working to develop a domestic nuclear energy program.

– possesses nuclear weapon capable delivery vehicles which were purchased in 2007 from China (DF-21 ballistic missile variants) and has spent substantial resources developing its Strategic Missile Force[3].

– recently published a plan for state-level economic reformation (“Vision 2030”[4]).

– signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. in 2008 on nuclear energy cooperation, an objective also discussed with France[5].

– has illicit agreements with states such as Pakistan for “off the shelf” nuclear weapons capabilities based on the known fact that the KSA funded work by A.Q. Khan[6].

Significance:  This situation matters to the United States because of the following U.S. national security interests:

– Prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction (National Security Strategy, 2017)

– “Checking Iran’s malign influence while strengthening regional friends and allies” (Defense Posture Statement, 2017) and, therefore, the security of trade within and through the Middle East.

– Support of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the NPT 2020 review.

– Support of weapons of mass destruction free zones and, therefore, the establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East.

Option #1:  The U.S. focuses on influencing KSA key stakeholder and future king, Crowned Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to neutralize proponents of nuclear weapons development by supporting his keystone political platform, “Vision 2030.”

“Vision 2030” is an extremely ambitious and aggressive plan that is heavily reliant on both foreign direct investment[7] and non-native intellectual contribution to domestic institutional development. The U.S. could assist the KSA in providing both in a manner that emphasizes domestic nuclear energy and deemphasizes the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Mohammed Bin Salman, author of the plan, is expected to accede the throne soon (to ensure the passing of power under supervision of the current king), and already exercises significant authority regarding the KSA’s future and will be the primary stakeholder in all major decisions.

Risk:  This option accepts that the KSA develops a domestic nuclear energy program which may require more than customary monitoring to determine if this program will become dual-use for nuclear weapons development.

Gain:  This option demonstrates public U.S. support for key allies sustainable economic development in a manner that obscures specific intentions of policy and  will benefit the U.S. economy in long run because of increased ties to development.

Option #2:  The U.S. enhances its current security guarantee and cooperation by expanding the types of weapon systems/services delivered to the KSA and making rapid initial delivery of key systems, which will provide public regional assurance of commitment.

Recent weapons agreement with the KSA totaling $110 billion (bn) U.S. dollars ($350 bn over 10 years) does not include long-range stand-off weapons (land, air or sea) capable of counter-battery fire that could reach Iran. The agreements do include air defense systems (Patriot, THAAD) in limited numbers. This option would expand the current weapons agreement to include such stand-off weapons and increases in air defense systems. This option also emphasizes rapid delivery of equipment currently available to satisfy urgency of KSA military leaders. Expanding service packages with equipment would require forward stationing of U.S. service members in the KSA to train, maintain and develop technical institutional knowledge of new systems, further promoting STEM initiatives of “Vision 2030.”

Risk:  This option only passively addresses KSA nuclear weapon development discussions as it seeks to address insecurity by attempting to conventionally deter Iran.

Gain:  The U.S. Department of Defense is currently seeking acquisition of long-range munitions in significant numbers and funding from this expanded agreement could be used to jump-start production. Rapid delivery would reinforce commitment to all allies in the region.

Other Comments:  Option #1 maximizes benefits for both parties, better than other options. While U.S. national interests are supported in the region, the U.S. will also benefit economically from partnerships built out of acknowledgment and support of the KSA’s effort to achieve “Vision 2030.” Option #1 will also demonstrate U.S. engagement in the region’s key interests and political/economic initiatives. Discussions of nuclear weapons development will be decisively dealt with in a non-public manner; an issue that, if handled publicly, could cause concern in other regional states.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] “United Nations PaperSmart – Secretariat – UNODA – NPT – First Session (NPT) – Documents.” Accessed September 22, 2017.

[2] “Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons? | NTI.” Accessed September 22, 2017.

[3] “Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?” Foreign Policy. Accessed September 22, 2017.

[4] “Saudi Vision 2030.” Accessed September 22, 2017.

[5] Department Of State. The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs. “U.S.-Saudi Arabia Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation,” May 16, 2008.

[6] Sanger, David E. “Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability.” The New York Times, May 13, 2015, sec. Middle East.

[7] “Goals | Saudi Vision 2030.” Accessed September 22, 2017.

Capacity / Capability Enhancement Joshua Urness Nuclear Issues Option Papers Saudi Arabia (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) Weapons of Mass Destruction