Building Domestic Legitimacy Abroad: The Case of the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund

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Does international economic activity by autocratic states stoke nationalist sentiment and legitimize governments domestically? Amid an autocratic resurgence worldwide, these states have increased their global engagement, transcending traditional patterns of behaviour and ideological divides. Recent studies have analyzed authoritarian foreign policymaking through the lens of status-building abroad and reputation laundering through, e.g., “sportswashing,” with an external audience in mind. Seeking to make the connection to domestic audiences, more established studies on ‘rallying’ effects have looked to foreign security threats and war-making as a means for rulers to build support at home. By failing to examine foreign policy from a non-security lens, or by over-emphasizing external audiences, we miss two interrelated political dynamics: the shaping of citizen identity in autocracies, affecting their long-term durability, and the resultant attitudes and attachments of citizens towards their states. Using the case of Saudi Arabia and its sovereign wealth fueled ‘Vision 2030’ era of socioeconomic transformation, this study examines domestic reactions to the foreign economic policies of authoritarian states. Leveraging a survey experiment and semi-structured interviews, the study aims to use the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s investment activity as a case study to 1) measure the influence of an autocratic state’s international economic activity on regime partisans’ and nationalists’ perceptions of the state, and 2) explore status anxiety as a mechanism that drives these citizen perceptions. I suggest that the state’s international economic engagements—relative to similar domestic initiatives—work to shape citizen identity, boost nationalist sentiment, and solidify regime legitimacy, inter alia, among domestic audiences at a time of great uncertainty. By examining how foreign economic policy works as a legitimating force to shape domestic sentiments of nationalism, this study hopes to contribute to a better understanding of what it means to be a citizen in an ambitious autocratic state in the 21st century.