Rundell, a U.S. diplomat who served for fifteen years in Saudi Arabia, describes the disruptive economic and social reforms orchestrated in Saudi Arabia by Vision 2030 and asks whether the plan will prove successful.
He argues that Saudi Arabia is a very different place than when King Salman ascended the throne in 2015. The kingdom has changed rapidly, marking the end of an order that had governed since 1950. Some called it the Saudi Spring, others, the fourth Saudi state, or "Salman Arabia." The king understood that structural economic problems and administrative inefficiencies meant Saudi Arabia was falling behind, and he saw talented young Saudis moving to Dubai, New York, and London. Salman has sought to provide a smooth transition to the next generation, reduce the scope of the welfare state, and make society more tolerant. The king was looking for ideas, and his younger son Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had them.
Rundell believes that Vision 2030 faces several challenges, including those posed by MbS himself. Changing the rules of succession bruised many royal egos through the anti-corruption campaign and the detention of senior members of the royal family. Shifting relations with the United States is another major issue: Prior to 9/11, the interests of the two countries were largely aligned, especially during the Cold War. The 9/11 attacks, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Egypt's upheavals have resulted in less cooperation between the two governments, even as Saudi Arabia's greatest adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has grown more threatening.
Rundell misses the mark on several issues. He fails to understand that this is a top-down revolution initiated by Salman and executed by MbS and worries that the changes are coming too fast. But in MbS's words, which he quotes: "Time is our enemy. We can no longer wait to reform our country." The prince believes the changes are not coming too quickly because they should have been done years ago. Rundell also does not make clear that Vision 2030 is a stepping stone towards greater modernity and development, rather than democracy, or that the country's development is already lagging behind its Arab Gulf neighbors.
Despite these omissions, Vision or Mirage is an important book, which reveals Rundell's deep knowledge of Saudi Arabia. The historical background of the book is extremely informative and will benefit scholars.