The political implications of transforming Saudi and Iranian oil economies

An oil rig in the sunset.

Saudi deputy crown prince and defense minister Mohammad bin Salman is just wrapping up a heavily hyped visit to Washington, aimed at reinforcing the kingdom’s partnership with the United States. Recent years have frayed what is traditionally the central strategic relationship for Riyadh, principally over the Obama administration’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

Since the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal last July, the perennial antagonism between Riyadh and Tehran has reached a dangerous pitch, fueling the violence that rages in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and the undercurrent of instability that saturates the region. And the fallout of their rivalry has left its mark well beyond the boundaries of the Gulf, exacerbating volatile energy markets and, by extension, the global economy. 

Within OPEC, Riyadh and Tehran are eyeing each other warily, and their continuing differences torpedoed a proposed ceiling on oil production at OPEC’s latest meeting. The outcome was not surprising; a similar effort to agree on a production freeze between the group and a handful of non-OPEC producers fizzled in April. In the meantime, any incentives for drastic measures to address soft oil prices have abated as oil prices creep back up to approximately $50 a barrel

Iran and Saudi Arabia have plenty of reasons to continue pumping for the foreseeable future. Since the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions in January, Iranian leaders have been determined to make up for lost time and lost revenues, already defying expectations by quickly raising production to levels that hadn’t been reached since November 2011 and aggressively cutting prices in hopes of winning back its pre-sanctions export market. 

The centrality of oil to the legitimacy and autonomy of both regimes means that these plans are little more than publicity stunts.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia appears prepared to continue pumping at record-high levels, part of a larger strategy aimed at maintaining market share and driving down non-OPEC production. The two states’ economic incentives are compounded by their fierce geostrategic and sectarian rivalry, which has intensified, as evidenced by the standoff over Iranian participation in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

But even as the two states duel over oil production and prices, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are conspicuously planning for a post-oil future. Leaders in both countries have decreed an end to the era of oil dependency, endorsing ambitious blueprints for restructuring their economies that—if implemented—would ultimately transform state, society, and the wider region. The centrality of oil to the legitimacy and autonomy of both regimes means that these plans are little more than publicity stunts. Still, just imagine for a moment what it would mean for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East if these grandiose agendas were adopted.

Competing and complementary visions

Tehran’s plan actually dates back more than a decade, with the 2005 release of its “20 Year Perspective” (sometimes called “Vision 2025”). The plan laid out extravagant expectations: rapid growth and job creation, diversification away from oil, a knowledge-based economy. Intervening developments—sanctions that targeted Iran’s oil exports and helped expand non-oil trade—have only bolstered the rhetorical commitment of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to a “resistance economy” in which oil exports constitute a minor part.

“One of our most serious losses is dependence on oil,” Khamenei bemoaned in a 2014 speech. “I am not saying that oil should not be used. Rather, I am saying that we should reduce our dependence on selling crude oil as much as we can.” 

Not to be outdone, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Salman announced Saudi “Vision 2030,” to address what he described as “an addiction to oil.” The plan, which has met with equal doses of fanfare and skepticism since its announcement last month, aims to create a “thriving economy” and end Saudi dependence on oil revenues by 2020. Vision 2030 includes provisions to sell off a small stake in the kingdom’s state oil company, Saudi Aramco, and create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund to manage the country’s income, as well as goals of creating 450,000 new private sector jobs, cutting public sector wages, and tripling the country’s non-oil exports all within the same abbreviated time frame.

Jeopardizing domestic stability

There is one hitch, however: these aspirations, though laudable, are preposterously unmoored from current political and economic exigencies. The institutions of governance and the structure of power in resource-rich states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are organized around the state’s role as purveyors of vital social and economic goods. Riyadh and Tehran distribute cash handouts, provide jobs in already-bloated state bureaucracies, and levy few taxes. Diversifying away from reliance on oil would essentially require Riyadh and Tehran to radically curtail this distributive role, inviting historic social and political changes that could ultimately compromise regime ideology and weaken state legitimacy. 

[T]hese aspirations, though laudable, are preposterously unmoored from current political and economic exigencies.

In Saudi Arabia, the supply of these benefits is central to the monarchy’s legitimacy. To diversify away from oil, which currently accounts for over 70 percent of government revenues, Riyadh would have to drastically cut spending, far more than it already has. Not only would this further slash subsidies and hike fees, it would also effectively force Saudi workers—two-thirds of whom are employed by the state—to take up private sector jobs, 80 percent of which are currently staffed by expatriates. To accomplish this transition would require fundamental changes to the incentive structure for the Saudi labor force: a much broader willingness to accept low-skill, low-wage jobs, as well as the requisite improvements in education and productivity to support larger numbers of Saudi nationals moving into private sector positions.

For the Saudi economy to be truly competitive, Riyadh would have to initiate dramatic changes to a central component of the Saudi social compact—women’s rights and freedoms. The Vision 2030 document boasts that over 50 percent of Saudi university graduates are women and pledges to “continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.” 

But the domestic Saudi labor force is overwhelmingly male, and even the plan’s modest aspirations to raise female participation in the workforce from 22 to 30 percent are likely to run into logistical and social obstacles. Shortly after announcing Vision 2030, Deputy Crown Prince Salman said Saudi Arabia is not yet ready to let women drive. A diversified economy will not emerge in the kind of constricted social environment mandated by the Saudi interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). 

Iran’s Islamic Republic doesn’t have the same degree of gender segregation, but Iran’s official interpretation of Islam has still constrained female participation in the workforce. Iran employs an equally low percentage of women—according to a 2014 U.N. report around 16 percent—and women’s unemployment is more than double that of men (nearly 20 percent).


A Saudi man walks past the logo of Vision 2030 after a news conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia June 7, 2016. Photo credit: Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser.

The bigger challenge for Iran will be truly opening up its economy to foreign direct investment. This remains hotly contested among the leadership, even in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement and the lifting of related sanctions. While there is some consensus around the need for foreign capital and technology, hardliners including Khamenei are determined to insulate Iran from any accompanying cultural influence and dependency. As the supreme leader recently inveighed, the global economy is “a plan and system that has been devised mainly by Zionist capitalists and some non-Zionists with the purpose of usurping the economic resources of the whole world…If a country merges its economy with the global economy, this is not a source of pride, rather it is a loss and a defeat!”

This deeply-rooted paranoia has provided a convenient platform for the Islamic Republic to galvanize citizens’ loyalty to the state and hostility to outside interference. And it also inhibits the liberalization that makes foreign investment possible: measures to enhance transparency and security, develop more attractive legal and fiscal frameworks, shrink the role of the state, and undertake an array of other structural reforms. Without these measures, Tehran will struggle to capitalize on its extraordinary reengagement with the world. 

While Saudi Arabia has maintained a more consistent and mutually beneficial pattern of foreign investment, its leadership too will have to revamp its approach if it is to broaden its economic base. For Riyadh, the challenge is less one of attracting foreign capital than of developing a sustainable influx of technology and expertise to develop sectors other than energy. The kingdom will also have to overcome serious regulatory hurdles and a proclivity for mammoth (and often white elephant) projects.

Compromising regional clout

Riyadh and Tehran will need to balance their economic aspirations and their approach to the region, too. Historically, their role in global energy markets has largely shielded both states from the fallout of regional instability. The world’s need for reliable oil at reasonable prices has inculcated the commitment of outside powers to secure transportation of resources and considerable autonomy for Riyadh and Tehran from the implications of their own policies. 

As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran can fund nefarious activity across the region, violate the civil and human rights of their citizens and other residents, and carry out belligerent foreign policies without severe repercussions for their oil revenues. Only in the past five years has Tehran seen the limits of the world’s reluctance to jeopardize its investment with a major oil exporter; and the recent reversal of the U.N. condemnation regarding the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen demonstrates that Riyadh remains insulated.

Saudi Arabia and Iran can fund nefarious activity across the region, violate the civil and human rights of their citizens and other residents, and carry out belligerent foreign policies without severe repercussions for their oil revenues.

Regional developments make the prospect of economic diversification even less likely, as sensitivity to such developments will only increase if either country successfully develops its non-oil sectors. At the same time, regional stability is a basic prerequisite for economic diversification. Robust growth and good governance throughout the Middle East would provide the optimal context for the economic transformation of Iran and Saudi Arabia, since the marketplace for their non-oil exports is concentrated in the immediate neighborhood. But such transformation would require both countries to put economic priorities that serve their general populations above the ideological and religious agendas—supported by oil rents—that propel their regional and international influence and that provide a large portion of their autonomy in foreign policymaking. 

Technocrats in both countries understand this intuitively. At a 2015 conference on Iran’s economy, President Hassan Rouhani wondered “How long can the economy pay subsidies to politics?” He added that the country’s economy “pays subsidies both to foreign policy and domestic policy. Let us try the other way round for a decade and pay subsidies from the domestic and foreign policy to the economy to see [what] the lives and incomes of people and the employment of the youth will be like.” The problem, of course, is political will: neither country is prepared to elevate the interests of its people over the demands of ideology.

Imagining an unlikely future

Can either Iran or Saudi Arabia really kick the oil habit? It seems exceptionally unlikely. Even as Khamenei extols the need for inward-focused development, Tehran is racing to expand crude output level to four million barrels per day by March 2017. 

Oil enabled the creation of the modern Middle Eastern state and fueled the rise of both countries to regional predominance. Oil is a vector for their regional rivalry, and it provides prestige and funds to be used in other arenas of competition. A genuine diversification of the two largest economies in the Middle East and North Africa would jeopardize their revenue streams and domestic legitimacy, as well as their efforts to assert their primacy across the Islamic world.

[N]either country is prepared to elevate the interests of its people over the demands of ideology.

“All success stories start with a vision,” Deputy Crown Prince Salman is quoted as saying on the Vision 2030 website. But vision is insufficient to bridge the gap between aspiration and reality; a serious agenda to implement either the Saudi or the Iranian vision would require painful compromises to regime ideology and a fundamental overhaul of the institutions and the structure of power in both countries. 

Imagine, though, for a moment, that these far-fetched ambitions were quite serious, and that both the Saudi and Iranian leadership were determined to do what was necessary to truly wean their economies off oil dependence. Consider what it might mean for the region if these grandiose ambitions were not simply the illusions of overpriced consultants and embattled technocrats—if a leadership emerged in one or both of the Middle East’s most powerful actors prepared to invest political capital in a genuine transformation of priorities and policies. What might be possible if Tehran and Riyadh sought to compete for economic opportunities instead of fueling violence and sectarianism around the region? If instead of a vicious sectarian and geopolitical rivalry, these two old adversaries engaged in a race to the top?

What will it take to move these visions from wishful thinking to reality? More than rhetoric, to be sure. But even the articulation of improbable objectives will have its impact. As documented in a recent book, Iran’s post-revolutionary experience demonstrates that the regime’s reliance on promises of economic gains has generated public expectations for effective and accountable governance. Now Iranians and Saudis have been told by their leaders—who happen to be officially infallible—that the time has come to transcend oil. What might happen if they believe it?