In the past few years, Saudi Arabia has witnessed a flurry of top-down socio-economic reforms – typically referred to by the title of one main reform program, Vision 2030 – aimed at easing conservative restrictions on Saudi social life and diversifying an oil-reliant economy. While considerable international media coverage has documented the impact of these changes on Saudi society in the Kingdom’s largest cities – especially Riyadh – journalists and analysts for Western outlets have only rarely ventured out to investigate how these reforms have affected Saudi Arabia’s rural areas and secondary cities.
In the Kingdom’s Southern regions, signs and statues bearing the mark of “Vision 2030” are everywhere, but local developments still bear the imprimatur of earlier state spending during the 2003-2014 commodities boom under the late King Abdullah. On the face of it, recent policy changes hold economic and even civic promise for the country’s Southern regions. However, these changes have yet to translate into concrete economic gains that can offset the retrenchment in state spending that sustained the Kingdom’s peripheral economies in the past.
Investments to Counteract Inequality
Accounting for around 17% of the Saudi population, the three Southern regions of ‘Asir, Najran and Jazan cover a wide range of terrain: from Saudi Arabia’s highest mountains (Jebel Al Soudah, 3,133m) to its largest islands (Farasan Islands) to around half of the Kingdom’s rain-fed agriculture (50,000 hectares). While the majority of Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims, anywhere from a sizeable minority to an outright majority of residents in Najran are Isma‘ili Shia Muslims, many of whom have faced periodic discrimination in access to government jobs and services.
Generally, though, these areas have not faced active discrimination so mush as neglect from state authorities and development schemes. While the Saudi state expanded basic services across the Kingdom over the course of the first oil boom (1973-1986), peripheral development often depended on local officials’ connections to the royal family and personal interest in governing effectively. Prince Muhammad bin Turki al-Sudairi, for example, became known for using his position as Governor of Jazan to enrich himself at the expense of the region, only to be removed from office after an outbreak of Rift Valley fever in Jazan attracted the attention of then-Crown Prince Abdullah. His successor, Prince Muhammad bin Nasser, put greater effort into being seen to encourage investments from the state and Saudi business leaders, branding himself the “Prince of Development.”
Figure 1: Average annual growth in the number of Saudi citizens with jobs and higher than secondary education. Source: Labour Market Surveys, 2000 and 2015 (Q2), Demographic Surveys, General Authority of Statistics (Saudi Arabia), 2000 and 2016.
Under the reign of King Abdullah (2005-2015), the Saudi state (newly enriched by rising resource revenues during the second oil boom in the 2000s) made some efforts to redress spatial inequalities through large, capital-intensive development projects: expanding the Kingdom’s university system to include all thirteen Saudi regions and attempting to foster local “development corridors” through the establishment of standalone “economic cities.” Even if the economic cities failed to take off as engines for development, access to jobs and higher education in the South grew at a similar rate to the Kingdom’s central regions throughout this time period (Figure 1).
Vision 2030: New Opportunities for Inclusion?
At first glance, the Vision 2030 reforms would seem to offer new opportunities for the Southern regions through tourism, as government officials have sought to encourage both visits from foreign tourists and domestic vacations by Saudi citizens. Where the Southern regions were once marginalized in national narratives that emphasized the tribal culture of the central Najd region or a uniform Islamic identity, images from the green Al Soudah mountains of ‘Asir as well to the crystal-blue waters of the Farasan Islands (off the coast of Jazan) easily lent themselves to colorful imaginary for a “new” Saudi Arabia on display in promotional images for Saudi tourism advertisements. These areas also received considerable attention as a potential sites for state and foreign investment into tourism mega-projects.
A redoubled emphasis on incorporating new forms of “authentic” Saudi heritage into a national narrative has also brought considerable official attention to local offerings, such as the long-running yet small-scale coffee industry in Jazan’s mountainous areas, along the border with Yemen. While patronizing or demeaning depictions of Southerners in Saudi television dramas continue to draw occasional complaints, these have been criticized more forcefully in the public sphere. The present Governor of the ‘Asir region, Prince Turki bin Talal, issued an official rebuke this past April to broadcaster MBC over a television show that depicted the region as mired in factional fighting and drug trafficking.
The social changes underway elsewhere in the Kingdom are also apparent in the South. The Al-Muftaha cultural center, a longstanding fine arts community under royal patronage in ‘Asir’s regional capital of Abha, has attracted renewed attention from state-backed arts programs, including Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s MiSK foundation. And while gender segregation in Southern towns like Jazan City can be stricter than in, say, more liberal areas of Riyadh, the city saw its first “specialty coffee” café open in 2019 with an (unprecedented for the area) open floorplan. The idea of tourism as development has likewise trickled down even to some of the most isolated areas in the region as well.
No Substitute for State Spending
Still, economic dividends from Vision 2030 have been undercut by ongoing retrenchment in state spending as well as the disruptions to investment and tourism resulting from the war in neighboring Yemen. Southern households are already far more reliant on public-sector employment than the Kingdom’s leading regions (Figure 2), with limited in-region opportunities in the private sector for recent graduates. The region has also relied on state spending to stave off the negative economic and social effects from the spill-over of the Yemen conflict, including the relocation of thousands of Saudi citizens from along the border, in part by offering considerable compensation in the form of new housing or grants to finance new homes. Salaries paid out to soldiers deployed along the Southern front (many of them from Southern regions themselves) trickle down into the local economy as well through spending while on leave.
Figure 2: Percentage of employed Saudis listed under Civil Service regulations rather than the General Organization of Social Insurance. Civil service numbers likely undercount the numbers of Saudis employed by the state as they do not include some state-owned enterprises as well as military or security personnel. Source: Labour Market Survey, 2019 (Q4), General Authority for Statistics, Saudi Arabia.
The unresolved Yemen conflict has hindered private-sector investment in Southern economies, particularly tourism. Interruptions to commercial air travel by Houthi rockets are frequent, if seldom publicized, and have targeted all of the region’s commercial airports. Even on the Farasan Islands – initially promoted as a top site for tourism development – there was little sign of new investments as of late 2019. Efforts to encourage domestic tourism has been somewhat more successful, with a state-organized Al Soudah Season tourism festival drawing attention to ‘Asir and the pandemic forcing Saudis to consider domestic tourism destinations.
Figure 3: Average annual growth rate between 2000 and 2015, and 2016 and 2019 for select regions. Source: Labour Market Surveys, General Authority for Statistics (Saudi Arabia).
Labor market surveys show that few jobs are being created locally in this new age of austerity, however. While jobs held by Saudi nationals increased by about 1% annually from 2016 and 2019, only Jazan gained jobs overall (figure 3). While these Southern regions mirrored the rest of the Kingdom in expanding job opportunities for Saudi women, this came as jobs held by Saudi men fell by 4-5%. Losses of jobs covered by the General Organization for Social Insurance (GOSI, plausibly in the private sector) were offset only by an increase in public-sector civil service jobs. Stagnant job markets in these peripheral economies, along with persistent concerns about subpar infrastructure, in turn encourage citizens in these regions to migrate toward the major cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh. Citizens relocating out of the Southern regions accounted for nearly 30% of Saudi internal migration in 2017.
Saudi citizens in the Kingdom’s Southern regions experience nothing like the economic deprivation across the border in Yemen. Yet short of a peaceful resolution to the war, redoubled efforts to invest in tourism ventures, and successful efforts to attract large-scale foreign investment to these regions, Southern citizens will increasingly venture elsewhere to find gainful employment outside of the public sector.
 Notable coverage includes Margherita Stancati on social changes in the Southern region of ‘Asir, “Mohammed bin Salman’s Next Saudi Challenge: Curtailing Ultraconservative Islam,” The Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2018; Donna Abu-Nasr on the same in the Kingdom’s conservative heartland of Qassim, “Even Saudi Arabia’s Most Conservative Heartland Is Opening Up,” Bloomberg, August 5, 2019; Vivian Nereim and Abu-Nasr on the area surrounding the mega-city project of Neom in Tabuk, “Saudi Prince’s Megacity Shows Signs of Life,” Bloomberg, July 26, 2019; reporting by Stephen Kalin in al-Ahsa and Qatif in the Eastern Province, “Saudi bid to protect pre-Islamic sites upends religious dictates,” Reuters, July 9, 2018, “Saudi Arabia pumps money into restive Shi'ite quarter it once flattened,” Reuters, January 17, 2019; and reporting by Anuj Chopra in Al-Ahsa as well “Once propped up by Qatari high-rollers, Saudi city prays for truce,” APF, December 9, 2019.
 Population Characteristics Survey, General Authority for Statistics, 2017, Saudi Arabia; Agricultural Census, General Authority for Statistics, 2015, pp. 383.
 The Ismailis of Najran: Second-class Saudi Citizens, Human Rights Watch, September 2008, pp. 59-80.
 See discussion of Prince Muhammad bin Turki Al-Sudairi at “أمير جازان السابق يستولي على قرية كاملة...بأهلها ومساكنها [Prince of Jazan takes over entire village – including its inhabitants],” Al-Shabaka al-Libiraliyya al-Hurra [The Free Liberal Network] (online forum), December 27, 2011.
 Muhammad al-Hilali, “الأمير محمد بن ناصر: الدور على أصحاب الأعمال لاقتناص الفرص في «جازان الاقتصادية» [Prince Muhammad bin Nasser: It is the turn of businessmen to seize opportunities in <<Jazan Economic City>>],” Al-Eqtisadiyya, February 27, 2015; Nayif bin Sa‘idan, “محمد بن ناصر والسير إلى درب التنمية [Muhammad bin Nasser and the path to development],” Al-Watan, January 29, 2019.
 National Spatial Strategy, Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs (Saudi Arabia), 2001.
 WafyApp. “Beautiful Saudi,” Youtube Video, March 10, 2020.
 Rebecca Anne Proctor and Mohammed al-Kinani. “The case for protecting Saudi Arabia’s ancient art of Khawlani coffee production,” Arab News, January 15, 2020.
 Taqwa al-Khatib. “أمير منطقة عسير يوجه بإيقاف المسلسل عناقيد سريعا... ما السبب؟ [Governor of ‘Asir region orders rapid halt “Anaqid” series – what’s the reason?],” Foochia, April 6, 2020.
 For more on the history of this arts community, see Sean Foley, Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture, and Society in the Kingdom, Lynne Rienner, 2019, pp. 21-72.
 Mohamed al-Maliki. “محافظ الداير “لـلمدار” نقل القرى الحدودية ضرورة لأهمية وجود منطقة عازلة على الحدود [Governor of Al-Dayer for Al-Madar: the transfer of border villages is a necessity because of the importance of a buffer zone on the borders],” Al-Madar News, July 17, 2016.
 David Kenner, “Saudi Arabia’s quiet frontier,” Institute of Current World Affairs, January 6, 2020.
 See, for example, persistent complaints about electricity supply in Jazan. ‘Awaji al-N‘ami. “كهرباء جازان وماذا بعد [What next, Jazan electricity?],” Al-Watan, June 23, 2020.
 Population Characteristics Survey, General Authority for Statistics (Saudi Arabia), 2017.