When it was confirmed by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change last week that it had continued its £9 million partnership with Saudi Arabia even after the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, there was little surprise expressed by either the media or the British public. A statement from Blair’s office confirmed that he “took the view then and is strongly of the view now that the programme of social and economic change under way in Saudi Arabia is of immense and positive importance to the region and the world.”
That change, according to the former prime minister, is part of the bigger picture which must be prioritised over human rights concerns. Why? “The relationship with Saudi Arabia is of critical strategic importance to the west, and therefore staying engaged there is justified.”
The partnership, which began in 2017, sees Blair’s institute advising and assisting the kingdom in the implementation of its grand Vision 2030. This aims to transform the Gulf state from its dependency on oil revenues and make it an international economic and business hub, a bastion of green energy and a society developed by radical social and religious reform. Political reform of the absolute monarchy doesn’t appear to be part of the vision.
It is easy to think that Blair’s decision to continue the partnership is simply about money and that sweet £9m. Or that he is displaying the same disregard for human rights that he was accused of when he took Britain into the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
While those may be factors in the decision, they are certainly not primary reasons. His institute already rakes in millions in any case, and it is doubtful that Blair is looking actively for the next human rights violation.
What did determine his decision, though, were two points that he holds to be essential. The first is to maintain the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the West, for obvious reasons: deterring Iranian ambitions, normalising ties with Israel, and fighting “Islamism”. These are hardly new, and match US-Western interests. The second point is more curious: the drive to ensure the completion of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, in line with a broader global path towards technological, digital, societal, environmental and fiscal transformation.
Vision 2030 has been hailed as more than simply a Saudi policy goal or achievement, but rather one that contributes to the goals that the international community is being steered towards, aligning it with those such as the UN Agenda 2030, and impressing investors with the kingdom’s bold performance.
Perhaps the former chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical Company, Andrew Liveris, put it best when he remarked at the Davos conference in 2017 that Saudi Arabia and its Vision 2030 reforms are “the greatest story never told”. He proclaimed, from a business and investment standpoint, that, “We need countries like Saudi Arabia to lead the way in this modern century, to put in place the structural reforms.”
It should be noted that the Saudi reforms are not only financial. A report published by Blair’s institute praised the Vision and related agendas for “making substantial progress towards reducing the influence of religious authorities, advancing the role of women and investing in innovation to align with changing values and priorities.”
Citing the reported decline in overt religiosity amongst Saudis and other people in the region, it stated that it is clear they “want secular and pragmatic government, not leadership bound to outdated and destructive Islamist ideologies… Any ‘return’ to mythological and so-called periods of Islamic purity is far from the main grievance occupying the people of the region.”
Blair and his institute are set on supporting “secular and pragmatic governments”, in which the Middle East is not lacking. There has been an abundance of such governments over the post-colonial years that have – coincidentally when religion is removed from public life – tended to disregard human rights and be pragmatic to the core. What greater form of pragmatism is there, after all, than silencing your critics by killing them, or putting someone in jail for decades simply because of a comment on social media?
The key difference in this case is that technological innovation will be a major part of the equation, as the kingdom’s national vision notoriously aims to adopt a wide range of technologies for all possible purposes. From holograms, helicopter drones, digital IDs and smart cities, to harnessing artificial intelligence, Riyadh wants to make use of it all by seeking investments and cooperation from companies worldwide, especially in its futuristic NEOM megacity project.
But is it simply money and investment opportunities that influence the support for projects such as Vision 2030, or is there an ideological angle to this? From Blair’s perspective, there may be.
It is easy to picture the former prime minister as an avowed enemy of socialism. He changed the Labour Party’s constitution to remove its commitment to nationalisation, opposed one of his successors as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, over his openly socialist leanings, and has advised current Labour leader Kier Starmer to “reject wokeism” and continue the war against socialism in the party. This leaves little room for doubt about his views. Many forget that Blair was once a prominent member of the Fabian Society, the organisation of socialist intelligentsia founded in 1884 whose purpose remains the advancement of socialism through gradual reform rather than revolution.
From a Fabian perspective, the way to implement a socialist worldview is not to oppose capitalism, but to cooperate with it or even co-opt it. Such a view has led to capitalist welfare states across Europe, especially in Scandinavia, embodying the ideal of the “social democrat” or the “democratic socialist”.
This took the form of the “Third Way” concept in Blair’s case, as it did with other leading political figures of the day, such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and US President Bill Clinton. Canada’s former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was an earlier figure involved in the development of the concept following the Fabian Society’s spread to North America. The “new left” and “new democrats” owe their existence to the idea.
The purported narrative is that cultural and intellectual elites take the responsibility for social engineering and influencing government policies, oftentimes via central planning schemes and disseminating ideas through Fabian members who are prominent in government, institutions and even intelligence agencies. In that light, Fabian socialists and influential members in the West were apparently not actually opposed to communism itself, but opposed “sovietisation” as a geopolitical and ideological rival.
Fabian socialists have, of course, long been the subject of conspiracy theories claiming that they are part of a long-term plan to turn the West – and particularly the Anglo-American Establishment – into a communist system through subversion and infiltration. The Fabian Society’s coat of arms showing a wolf in a sheepskin has not helped to allay such concerns. Regardless of the discourse surrounding it, Blair’s record as a prominent Fabian marks him out as an unsurprising supporter of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, because it contributes directly to the current descendant of the Third Way worldview: stakeholder capitalism.
Proposed officially by the World Economic Forum (WEF), its founder and chairperson Klaus Schwab defined stakeholder capitalism as one that “positions private corporations as trustees of society, and is clearly the best response to today’s social and environmental challenges.” When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Schwab announced that it was the perfect opportunity to drive forward that form of capitalism and its public-private partnership, insisting that we could “emerge from this crisis a better world, if we act quickly and jointly.”
With Saudi Arabia already embarking on its national vision, the kingdom turned out to be the perfect driver of a major part of the Great Reset: the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Intentionally and overtly engineered, unlike previous incarnations, this is set to “support the public good, especially by addressing health and social challenges” through technological innovations harnessed by Riyadh, appearing to make the Gulf state its ideal hub and testing ground.
The Blair Institute, therefore, is a logical advisor to the Saudi authorities, especially when we see even more links between its affiliates and Vision 2030. One of the institute’s primary funders is the Larry Ellison Foundation, which – along with Ellison’s company Oracle – assists Saudi Arabia with its digital infrastructure and cloud system. When announcing plans in February to open a third public cloud region in the kingdom as part of a planned $1.5 billion investment, it was revealed that it is to be located in NEOM.
It is not the location alone which contributes to Vision 2030. There is also the potential for the kingdom’s expanding cloud capabilities to form the basis for parameters such as its digital identity system, which has raised concerns over the widespread holding and sharing of personal data and the possible use of that to enforce greater and stricter control over citizens and residents. Saudi Arabia is, of course, embracing the role for which it has been chosen, reiterating its commitment to building bridges across geopolitical and economic divides at the WEF’s Davos meeting in January this year.
Perhaps Tony Blair and his Institute are right to assist the kingdom and its Vision 2030 as part of the bigger picture, and perhaps the Fabian worldview is correct. We have yet to see. What we can be sure of, though, is that Blair’s support has little to do with human rights and – despite Khashoggi’s assassination and the potential for digital dictatorship – this may all be a very sinister part of the plan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.