Responsible and Responsive Leadership: The Saudi Case

This blog is part of a series published on WEFLIVE from young leaders in the One Young World community who are addressing issues across the world relating to the World Economic Forum 2017 theme of 'Responsive and Responsible Leadership'.

The Council of Economic and Development Affairs in Saudi Arabia led by Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) announced the new 2030 Vision last December. It aims to “work tirelessly from today to build a better tomorrow for [us], [our] children, and [our] children’s children.”  The Vision follows a previous plan for economic reforms published in 2006 by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, which did not get much attention as the current Saudi Vision. In both instances, the Vision illustrated responsive leadership to current crises facing the nation. However, they both lacked social and political reforms, leaving the people with uncertain roles and limitations in their participation in such a national transformation, while, according to MBS, “this promise is built on cooperation and on mutual responsibility.”  The lack of social and political reforms, as well as the minimal reforms concerning women, raises uncertainty and shows a lack of assiduousness in responsible leadership.

Many scholars have criticized the Vision for the aforementioned reasons. As a responsive act, MBS invited a number of Saudi media figures and influencers to discuss the concerns they have with regards to the Vision. One of the attendees was Abdullah Jaber, a cartoonist from Saudi Arabia, who shared what was discussed on his Twitter account. According to Jaber, he does not have the right to publish the answers to the asked questions; however, he did list all of the questions that were brought up to MBS, adding that the answers were satisfying. This testifies, to a certain extent, the Vision’s lack of credibility by breaking one of the promises of the Vision; transparency. It also places an emphasis on the limited inclusion of all stakeholders, which a responsible leader should keep in mind, despite MBS’s constant statements about the representation of the people in the current government, which in reality has no grounds. The absence of such representation in the government has refrained the development of responsible leadership among the Saudi political leaders.

The male royal leaders have a direct impact on citizens; the fate of the general population rests in their hands. The people of Saudi Arabia, especially after the introduction of apps and social media platforms on smartphones, have shown remarkable participation in the social sphere, commenting on various topics, be it social, political and/or about the economy. The largest age group using Twitter, for instance, is the 25-34  demographic, followed by those aged 18-24. The title “activist” has increasingly been used to describe a person who raises concerns about numerous issues facing the people and the nation. It is these prescribed activists who are demonstrating responsible leadership.

They take it upon themselves to raise questions and concerns about different issues, at the expense of their own security. Since the country is based on a totalitarian system, it is difficult for these individuals to freely go about their activism. Their voices can only reach a certain level, since most social demonstrations are prohibited by law. Needless to say, the increased number of prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia has created a wave of skepticism around the 2030 Vision. The unanticipated demarche of young activists on social media demanding (through these online platforms, for now) true representation in the government, especially after the introduction of a number of taxes, is not too far from the famous axiom, “no taxation without representation.” It is only by the balanced participation of all stakeholders that the country will prosper.

In a media appearance, MBS acknowledged, in reference to women, that “a large proportion of [his] productive factors are unutilized.” However, in the Vision 2030, little is there for women, and it was reduced to the women’s fault by MBS who, despite all legal restraints imposed on women, “view[ed] it as a societal decision.” The royal female figures could, in this instance, play a more significant responsible and responsive role, and fill the gap as leaders by claiming their role not only as “proponents for women” but proponents for the people in general.

Royal female leaders have direct connections with the royal family, who are in this case the ultimate power of the country. With their “proximity to political power”, they could take advantage of their privilege to create positive change in the country, especially when it comes to women’s issues. These young and energetic women have been utilizing their positions to become “patrons of charity, culture, and philanthropic activities.” In recent years, they have shown signs that they understand the importance of regaining rights for women of the country, such as their participation in the women-to-drive campaigns as well as the campaign to end male guardianship, by publishing supportive statements. Nevertheless, it does not go beyond these words. Would it, now, be a question of will from their side to go about this crucial act of self-empowerment?

It is of no argument that the nation’s transformation is closely connected to its ‘political will,’ which, based on the decision of creating a national reform plan, lacks any. However, as discussed by Anna Person and Martin Sjostedt in their study of political will, a greater deal of attention should be directed to how these leaders function, rather than solely focus on their will alone:

“[I]nstead of the international community putting all its faith and hope in new generations of supposedly "responsive and responsible leaders"—and in fact actively supporting the toppling of certain leaders, often naively assuming that their successors will have the opportunities and incentives to act any differently—attention should instead be focused on better understanding the contexts in which these leaders function. In particular, policy-makers should pay much greater attention to how the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, as well as the relationship between the citizens, play out in different countries. In places where a shared social contract seems to be lacking, they should concentrate their efforts into helping to construct such a contract.”

The construction of such a “social contract” is crucial at this stage; by representing the people in the government, the relationship between the ruler and the ruled will improve significantly. As for the female royal leaders , it is their role to utilize their capacity to “mobilize from ‘above’ [to create] a significant impact on the way ordinary citizens behave and, hence, on development outcomes.”

Loujain Al Hathloul is a One Young World Ambassador from Saudi Arabia. She spent 73 days in prison after taking part in the campaign to allow women to drive. She was ranked 3rd in the list of Top 100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2015.