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The Role of Foreign Influence on Saudi Arabia’s Undergoing Liberalization and the Areas that It Affects

Author: Zhuangyan Shi

Affiliation: Shanghai Starriver Bilingual School, Shanghai, China

Organization/Publisher: Atlantis Press

Date/Place:  February 13, 2023/Netherlands

Number of Pages: 7

Type of Literature: Research Analysis


Keywords: Liberalization, Conservative, Autocratic Nations, Saudi Arabia, Transformation


The primary thesis presented in the article asserts that foreign pressure and economic modernization have played a substantial role in Saudi Arabia’s path towards liberalization. The article argues that the decision to lift the ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia, as well as other political transformations, were predominantly influenced by external factors rather than internal political dynamics within the nation. To support this claim, the research examines Saudi Arabia’s transformation index and conducts a correlation analysis, revealing a strong correlation between foreign influence and the process of liberalization. Additionally, it suggests that the main focus of liberalization in Saudi Arabia revolves around economic reforms, followed by societal changes, with political reforms receiving comparatively less emphasis. The article proposes that implementing a similar strategy involving diplomatic pressure and the promotion of economic modernization may effectively encourage liberalization in other autocratic countries, thereby fostering improvements in human rights conditions and global economic development.


To begin with, internet knowledge has played a significant role in empowering conservative societies, enabling them to advocate for change and challenge autocratic regimes in the Middle East. Notably, Saudi Arabia’s decision to lift the ban on female drivers in 2017 serves as a noteworthy example of substantial progress in the country’s socio-economic transformation. While existing mainstream research has primarily focused on examining domestic and internal factors driving Saudi Arabia’s transformation, insufficient attention has been given to the influence of foreign pressure, specifically from the United States. Therefore, it is imperative to explore the role of foreign pressure and bilateral policies in facilitating Saudi Arabia’s transformative journey.


This study recognizes that foreign pressure, particularly diplomatic condemnations and economic sanctions imposed by Western nations, has exerted a considerable influence on Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic transformation. The implementation of progressive liberal social reforms, such as the anti-corruption purge and the lifting of the ban on female drivers, alongside the ambitious Vision 2030 plan aimed at revitalizing key industries, serves as crucial pillars for the subsequent analysis.


Foreign pressure, stemming from both the Obama and Trump administrations, has had a profound impact on Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic transformation. Under Obama’s leadership, a multifaceted approach that combined diplomacy with military interventions was employed, emphasizing the importance of fair elections and extending support to pan-democratic movements during the Arab Spring. These actions, however, heightened Saudi Arabia’s concerns regarding the potential for an American-backed political crisis. In contrast, Trump’s adoption of neo-isolationist policies, which placed less emphasis on addressing human rights abuses, provided a measure of relief to Saudi Arabia by alleviating Western pressure. Trump prioritized cultivating strategic partnerships and facilitating arms trades, further altering the dynamics of the Saudi-U.S.-Israel relationship and exerting a notable influence on Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position.


Furthermore, the Abraham Accord, brokered under the Trump administration, marked a historic milestone in ending the Israel-Arabian conflict. However, it also placed Saudi Arabia in a precarious position, subjecting the country to substantial foreign pressure. Saudi Arabia is confronted with a challenging dilemma: either align with the West to foster economic cooperation or reject the accord in order to appease the influential Arab population. The consequences of not joining the accord could be severe, potentially leading to economic repercussions and a loss of dominance in the oil market. In addition to these external factors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international pressure have played a significant role in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing social transformation, with human rights organizations persistently advocating for the release of detained protestors.


The Biden administration, on the other hand, has placed considerable foreign pressure on Saudi Arabia, focusing primarily on human rights and energy matters. President Biden has taken a public stance, directly implicating Crown Prince MBS in the killing of Khashoggi, underscoring his unwavering commitment to human rights despite potential strains in bilateral relations. Furthermore, Biden seeks to steer Saudi Arabia towards a path of greater Westernization, which poses challenges to existing agreements like the Abraham Accords while aiming to forge closer ties with Western nations. In addition to these dynamics, Biden’s strategy to isolate Russia and revitalize NATO presents a complex dilemma for Saudi Arabia, given its existing partnership with Russia, which could potentially face disruptions due to the mounting pressure from the United States.


The relationship between the European Union and Saudi Arabia has gradually improved, particularly in the realm of economic cooperation, primarily driven by the robust demand for Saudi Arabia’s oil resources. This positive trend has the potential to incentivize Saudi Arabia to accelerate its economic modernization efforts, including the successful implementation of its ambitious Vision 2030 plan. Foreign pressure plays a pivotal role in driving Saudi Arabia’s ongoing economic transformation, as evidenced by increased foreign direct investments, a shift towards cleaner energy sources, and enhanced bilateral cooperation with Western nations on technology advancements and space exploration. This external pressure often outweighs internal motivations in shaping Saudi Arabia’s stance on various socio-economic issues, further highlighting the impact of international dynamics on the country’s trajectory.


In conclusion, this comprehensive study delves into the intricate dynamics of political and economic foreign pressure and its profound impact on Saudi Arabia’s ongoing socio-economic transformation. The article explores the foreign policies pursued by the United States government while also considering the influential role played by humanitarian NGOs in shaping Saudi Arabia’s trajectory. Although this study relied on qualitative analysis, future research incorporating quantitative data could provide a valuable framework for ranking the relative influence of different foreign policies. Such objective data-driven investigations can provide policymakers with a robust foundation for formulating effective strategies aimed at promoting liberalization, fostering economic growth, and safeguarding human rights within Saudi Arabia. By leveraging empirical evidence, policymakers can make informed decisions that align with international standards while respecting the unique context of the region, ultimately contributing to a more prosperous and equitable future for Saudi Arabia.

By: Ruby Clayton, CIGA Research Associate



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