On September 23, Saudis solemnly and widely celebrated their National Day to commemorate the reunification of their country 90 years ago. From the liberation of Riyadh in 1902 until unity was proclaimed in 1932, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud managed to unite his kingdom, transforming over a dozen separate and feuding principalities, emirates and sheikhdoms into one large country, now occupying about 70% of the Arabian Peninsula.
This rapid reunification was accomplished with very limited resources. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia only in 1938, and it did not contribute much to the state treasury until after World War II. In 1932, the country had a budget of measly $4 million, compared to $250 billion this year.
In the time since Riyadh’s capture, but especially in the nine decades since unification, the country has gone from a politically unstable, poor backwater province to an economic center, the largest economy in the region and the 18th largest in the world. Its gross domestic product has grown from about $12 million in 1932 to over $1 trillion in 2022, a more than 80,000-fold increase in those 90 years.
In addition to the huge increase in the Kingdom’s economic fortunes, health indicators have changed radically for the better. For example, life expectancy has risen from less than 40 years in 1932 to more than 75 years today. Literacy rates also rose sharply, from single digits in 1932 to over 97%. And so on in almost all other social indicators.
The Saudis themselves say there are at least three important lessons they have learned from their history and the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by Abdul Aziz Al Saud. First, Abdul Aziz Al Saud succeeded despite the fact that his opponents were more numerous, better armed and better financed. He was driven by strong ambition and determination, which made up for the difference. He lost a number of battles and was seriously wounded at times, but was able to regroup and fight in the next battle until he was successful. Second, he did not rely on force alone, but was an advocate of consensus and a skilled diplomat who turned enemies into allies. He forgave his former adversaries and brought them into his service. In one famous case, he forgave a tribal chief several times despite his repeated betrayals. But by far the most important lesson is the fruit of unity and integration. Saudis are particularly appreciative of the country’s security transformation, which has enabled people and goods to move freely and safely around the Kingdom after centuries of fear and lawlessness.
Education has always been at the heart of progress in Saudi Arabia, and on National Day, Saudis appreciate and are proud of what has been achieved in such a short period of time. The Kingdom has gone from a low literacy rate of about 15% for men and less than 2% for women in the early 1960s to 99% for men and 96% for women today. Women are also educated at basically the same rate as men, including higher education, and are among the most educated women in the Muslim world. Interestingly enough, 66% of Saudi university graduates in natural science, mathematics and statistics are now women – a much higher proportion than in many other countries, including developed ones. The progress made in education has enabled many universities to achieve international rankings, and many high achieving Saudi young men and women have received international awards and other promotions in various fields.
The Ministry of Education is one of the country’s largest public institutions, and the government consistently allocates the largest percentage of its annual budget to education. As of 2019, there were 6.4 million students enrolled in pre-university general education, with almost 82% of students attending public schools. In addition, there are about 1.6 million students in universities and almost 200,000 in technical and vocational education. This is about 20% of the population studying at different levels of education, who in the next few years will be completing higher education and entering the labor market.
In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has learned well the lessons left by his grandfather Abdul Aziz Al Saud, launched the Vision 2030 future program. It represents a huge paradigm shift based on economic diversification, openness to the external world and the breaking down of walls and stereotypes that have long held large sections of society in stagnation. Vision 2030 is a sweeping program of social and economic reform that promises to stamp out corruption, strengthen state power and provide equal opportunities across the spectrum of the Saudi people.
Change does not come easy. However, with a clear vision, a plan and implementation steps, and a concerted effort and coordination under strong, confident leadership, the Saudis are firmly on track for the future. “On National Day, we celebrate what we achieved with pride, and look forward to the future with high hopes and determination,” Arab News wrote with great optimism. Dr Hasan Al-Masslum, a member of the Majlis Al-Shura Council (Consultative Assembly), summed up the long period of kingdom building, “Despite our different backgrounds, we have a consensus to respect and protect our authentic and magnificent heritage in the face of the unholy, perverse and false values that flood us from all over the world.”
The Crown Prince is building good relations with many countries around the world, maintaining excellent relations with Russia. In a telephone conversation with Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the Russian President warmly congratulated the Crown Prince and in his person all Saudis on National Day and wished them happiness and progress. According to the Kremlin statement, the President and the Crown Prince discussed “interaction in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the context of the decision to grant Saudi Arabia dialogue partner status during the recent SCO summit in Samarkand.” Another topic of discussion was ensuring stability in the global oil market through coordination between the two countries. Moscow and Riyadh have agreed to adhere to OPEC+ agreements. The Prince was also proud to say that Saudi Arabia would be represented “at a worthy level” at the international forum Russian Energy Week in October this year.
Three hundred years ago in Arabia, incompetent governance, limited resources and unequal societies led to unrest, conflict and a long period of social injustice and economic stagnation. Today, Saudi Arabia, with its bold leadership in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, lively vision for the future, diverse heritage and abundant resources, is much stronger than ever before. This Arab state, the cradle of the Arab nation, is now a beacon of hope and enlightenment for the entire Arab world.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.