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Over the next decade, social changes in Saudi Arabia are likely to drive up some security risks such as civil unrest, exposure to harassment and terrorism.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 30 June 2023.

  • Saudi Arabia is very likely to press ahead with policies that aim to liberalise daily life across the Kingdom
  • The authorities say this is part of its Vision 2030 programme to diversify the economy and transform the country into a tourist destination
  • Over the next decade, social changes are likely to drive up some security risks such as civil unrest, exposure to harassment and terrorism

We assess with high confidence that over the coming years, Saudi Arabia will continue to implement policies aimed at further liberalising daily life. These are most likely to involve expanding entertainment offerings and giving greater freedoms and rights to women to increase the number of foreign tourists. This assessment is largely based on similar initiatives since the country launched the Vision 2030 programme in 2016 to diversify its economy from reliance on oil revenues. Many of these initiatives are unprecedented in the previously traditionalist and conservative Kingdom.

In our assessment, there is a good chance that such policies will drive up associated risks – namely protests by religious and tribal groups. We also anticipate that liberalisation policies will at least sustain an already-high terrorism threat and the risk of exposure to harassment by ordinary citizens who oppose such changes. In addition, there is little doubt that in conjunction with these policies, the authorities will expand surveillance of citizens and visitors to curb any potential dissent and disruption to its development plans, sustaining what we assess is a severe state agency risk there over the long term.

Gauging the public mood

Firm indicators to detect social policy changes ahead of time in the Kingdom are likely to remain sparse in the coming years. The government does not consult the public or release information about proposed changes or the timeframe for implementation. However, in our monitoring, we have noticed that before major policy changes, there is usually a flurry of regional press reports and leaks, which in our analysis is deliberate and in part a way for the authorities to gauge public support (or opposition).

In recent months there have been frequent Arabic and regional English-language press reports about possible new changes. These include normalisation with Israel, restricted alcohol sales, and the authorities even suggesting that LGBTQ+ people would be welcome to visit the Kingdom. These policies in particular would constitute a significant change to Saudi Arabian social traditions, and so it would at the very least invoke a public debate about the social cost of the leadership’s development plans over the long term.

Protest risks likely to rise

There have been several changes to life in Saudi Arabian cities since 2016. These include hosting international concerts and sporting events, cinemas, permitting women to drive, and easing of guardianship laws for women and sponsorship laws for migrant workers. There has been limited pushback from religious and tribal groups since then.

But open displays of dissent have occurred over the past few years, albeit isolated and harshly quashed by the authorities. In our analysis, there is a strong probability that such actions will become more frequent if controversial policies – namely the sale of alcohol and the easing of dress codes – are implemented.

We assess that the moderate risk of protests will be most pronounced in ultraconservative regions such as Al-Qassim and in remote areas along the Red Sea coast. In Al-Qassim, opposition to fast-changing social norms would be the main driver for these. But in Red Sea areas, protests will probably be tied to any forced evictions of local residents to make way for development projects. Any demonstrations will probably remain isolated and unorganised, largely due to the high level of surveillance that makes the emergence of a broad anti-government movement very unlikely.

It is also possible if not probable that similar protests would occur in the eastern province – namely in Qatif and Al-Ahsa. This is largely because the region (where there is a large Shia population) has historically been marginalised, particularly in the labour market. Such protests would probably be related to economic conditions (if they worsen). But these could also be tied to wider opposition to any social changes as a means to gain support or sympathy from the wider public, particularly those from the clerical establishment.

Religious and social changes to sustain the terrorism threat

The Kingdom’s leading role in Sunni Islam globally is also likely to diminish over the long term. Since 2016 the government has said its primary focus is the economy. In a sign of this, the authorities even halted official state funding of ‘Muslim projects’ abroad in 2020. They said this was to limit the reputational damage caused by jihadists associated with Saudi-funded mosques, but also to prioritise fiscal spending on tourism projects. This – and similar steps – would be almost certain to dismay ultraconservative members of society and even some within the clerical establishment.

Because of these religious and social changes, we have high confidence that the general hostility of jihadists to the Kingdom will persist over the long term (beyond five years). Saudi Arabia has long been mentioned in jihadist propaganda for its security relationship with the US and more recently for its liberalisation policies. In our assessment, the trajectory of social change means it is probable that local sympathisers of violent jihadism will begin to also view the authorities and the current leadership as belligerents of Islam.

In a sign that the authorities are aware of the potential for the terrorism threat to increase, there have been several counterterrorism initiatives since 2019. These include special training for clerics, teachers, and students on how to detect extremism and report activities to the authorities. Established state surveillance and counter-terrorism capabilities mean attacks are still likely to be by single (or a handful of) actors and crudely executed. According to our data, there have been nine such attacks (mainly stabbings and shootings by lone actors) since 2017. The most recent attack was a shooting at the US consulate in Jeddah this week.

Public policing of traditional values

We also anticipate that isolated acts of harassment against international visitors in major cities will probably occur more frequently over the coming years. Such incidents are most likely to be directed at women who people perceive to be dressed inappropriately, particularly if dress codes across the Kingdom are relaxed. This is already a common issue across the country, particularly against women. Based on our experiences, this would most likely involve shouting and reporting perceived contraventions of local laws and customs to the police by citizens who oppose the changes.

Growing state surveillance risks

We also assess that state agency risks in the Kingdom will remain severe over the next decade. The authorities will almost certainly try to use already-existing tactics to try to mitigate any potential for dissent over social and religious changes. Based on recent precedent, this would most likely involve digital surveillance of nationals, residents and foreign visitors by the authorities.

This means those living in or visiting the Kingdom are likely to have their electronic devices scanned upon entry and monitored during their stay. Beyond this, futuristic, AI-driven city planning (by the government’s own admission) in places like NEOM will further expand the state’s capabilities to monitor individuals.

Image: A woman takes a picture of a banner announcing the heavyweight boxing rematch for Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk, in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah, on 16 August 2022. Photo by Amer Hilabi/AFP via Getty Images.