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Saudi Vision 2030: take it seriously

The plan aims to transform the kingdom. It won’t be easy, but no one should doubt the commitment

SAUDI Aramco’s chairman and newly appointed Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources, Khalid al-Falih, describes Vision 2030 as “a pioneering and game-changing plan”. Of that no Saudi is in any doubt. But, like those watching from afar, many in the kingdom wonder whether such a broad plan is realistic and can be implemented by the target date. To name just some of the main goals to be achieved by 2030: develop a military-equipment industry to supply half of the local needs; rise from 19th to 15th in the league of world economies; and increase the private sector’s contribution to the economy from 40% to 60% of GDP.

It would be a tall order for even the most astutely managed countries.

The vision so far, to be fair, is little more than a blueprint. Details of how unemployment is to be tackled, new houses built, and so on, are expected to be laid out in a National Transformation Plan to be published in late May or early June.

But for any of the targets to be met, Saudi Arabia will need a better qualified workforce to take over some of the jobs being carried out by the 10m expatriates in the kingdom. Sociologist Ali al-Khashaiban believes it is essential “to start with education reform if you are going to change society. We have to build a strong education system to enable men and women to play a full part.”

The problem is that education is an area over which the conservative religious establishment has control. Attempts in the past to introduce reforms have been blocked. Even if the government were to change the curriculum in all other subjects, religious education syllabuses would still need the approval of Islamic scholars.

The religious authorities will not give in easily. When the government recently curbed the powers of the religious police, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman spent hours seeking to placate the Islamic hierarchy. Much more soothing will be needed as MbS seeks to loosen restrictions on leisure activities, including possibly allowing for the first time the opening of cinemas.

Persuading Saudis to take jobs in the private sector and enforcing a stronger work ethic among civil servants will not be easy tasks either. “Dealing with the new breed of ministers and their deputies is refreshing,” says a German businessman in Riyadh. “You communicate with SMS and WhatsApp. But further down the chain you’re back in the old world of missing faxes and unanswered phones.”

Potential investors in the kingdom will also want signs that reforms have made sufficient progress to enable greater financial liquidity while oil prices remain low. A British businessman seeking to sell solar-energy equipment says he was told bluntly that he would need to return with his own financial package if he was to stand any chance of success.

Vision 2030, without question, will face bumps along the road. But the business community in Riyadh is convinced that MbS’s commitment to the scheme is unshakeable. The shifting focus away from oil and to broader industrial development – visible in the creation of the new ministry encompassing energy and other sectors – is seen as proof that Vision 2030 is no mirage.

This article is part of an in-depth series on upstream in the Gulf. Next article: Chopping up Saudi Aramco.

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