Why Saudi 2030 Isn’t Iran 1963

John F. Kennedy meeting with the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Where the Shah was accused of being an American pawn, Saudi Arabia’s rulers likely want to prove they are not reliant on Washington.

With the world arriving in New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly this month, the Saudi delegation is taking advantage of the opportunity to advertise its capital city, Riyadh, as a multicultural international hub. Promoting Riyadh fits into the Kingdom’s current rebranding efforts and the slate of economic reforms currently being pursued by King Salman (and more specifically King Salman’s son Mohammed). The millennial “deputy crown prince” is making some bold promises about the future of the Saudi economy, including major cutbacks in public spending and far greater ease for businesses looking to invest and set up shop in Saudi.

Given the track record of reform projects in the modern Middle East, it’s hard to blame some onlookers for hesitating to take Mohammed bin Salman’s word at face value. Between the Saudi government’s previous timid attempts at reform and the state’s allegedly excessive role in the plan, detractors have alternatively argued that the monarchy is pushing either too much change too quickly or not enough of it and not quickly enough. Intriguingly, some experts on the region have even pointed out similarities with the now-infamous modernization drive undertaken by Iran in the 1960s. Called the “White Revolution,” Iran’s then-Shah (King) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi embarked on an American-backed program of reform that ultimately cost him his throne.

On the surface, the similarities between 1960s Iran and modern Saudi Arabia seem self-explanatory. Like Saudi Arabia today, Iran in the Pahlavi era was ruled by a monarchy with a close (but complicated) relationship with the United States. Indeed, Tehran and Riyadh would go on to become the “twin pillars” of Nixon’s strategy for keeping the Soviets out of the Middle East. As a bulwark bordering the Soviet Union, administrations from Eisenhower onward lavished arms and aid to the Shah. The Iranian ruler, for his part, used his country’s position on the front lines of the Cold War and the lever of oil prices to extract generous terms from his American partners. The Saudi parallel is quite evident here. Despite growing criticism, the Kingdom today remains by far the most important military partner for both the United States and the United Kingdom in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia spent over $9 billion on weapons purchases last year to prosecute the war in Yemen, with American defense firms and Britain’s BAE Systems enjoying pride of place as Riyadh’s main suppliers.

Beyond the geostrategic dimension though, the dynamics of the two reform programs could not be more different. Iran’s White Revolution was a direct product of the Shah’s entangled relationship with the United States. As the Kennedy administration began making noise about the need for liberalizing reforms to appease a disgruntled populace, the Shah devised a political and economic reform program that would sound like music to the ears of policymakers in Washington. These included the enfranchisement of women, the breaking up of large feudal estates, and the transfer of land to the peasantry. It was enough to satisfy Washington, but poor implementation resulted in runaway inflation. Worse, granting women the right to vote by royal decree galvanized opposition to the Shah's regime among the religious establishment (led by the firebrand Ruhollah Khomeini), while at the same time, land reforms broke down the feudal ties underpinning the Iranian imperial system. The White Revolution marked the wholesale importation of Western norms and styles into what was still a conservative and religious country. Fifteen years later, the resulting grievances would propel the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.