While pursuing long-term economic reform and diversification, Saudi Arabia needs to show that the kingdom is an attractive, business-friendly place; yet recent moves have worried investors over the business environment, and raised some concerns over the impact on oil policy.
This post is part of an AGSIW series on Saudi Vision 2030, a sweeping set of programs and reforms adopted by the Saudi government to be implemented by 2030.
On April 25, the Saudi government presented to the public Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a sweeping plan for moving the kingdom beyond oil dependence. This plan involves dramatic changes including the privatization of a small portion of the Saudi national oil company ARAMCO; the expansion of the resources and role of the Saudi Public Investment Fund; and the development of the country’s ports, cultural resources, and tourist sites to take advantage of its strategic position at the center of the Arab and Islamic world.
AGSIW spoke with a cross section of Saudi thinkers and opinion leaders to elicit their reaction to Saudi Vision 2030 and its presentation in an Al Arabiya interview with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
Saudi Citizens Comment on Vision 2030
For full commentary, click on each contributor’s name below.
Anmar Fatheldin, serial entrepreneur
Tawfiq Alsaif, political analyst
Hanan Alshaikh, pediatrician
Tamador Alyami, graduate student in international relations
Abdullah Alaoudh, PhD candidate
Khaled Almaeena, editor-at-large, Saudi Gazette
Abdelsalam Alwail, professor, King Saud University
Anmar Fatheldin is a serial entrepreneur from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He tweets @jidanmar.
Fatheldin: It’s the first time that I, as a youngster, as a 27-year-old, can relate to the government. Hearing [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman talking that day made me feel like there was someone in power who understands what we want. Now it all depends on actually doing it or not. The theory is all great; as a serial entrepreneur, it gives me great hope that I can go into diverse or different businesses. It all depends on how well they will empower us in terms of regulation. I know they don’t want to spend money; they want us to spend the money, and that’s just fine. It gives us great hope that someone who is in power actually says what we want to hear. Now it all depends on… I don’t know how I trust that [sic] regulations are going to come in and help and empower us to do it. So we can go into businesses and different fields that weren’t available in the past, let’s say. It also gives us hope that our kids could live in a country that’s not addicted to oil, as he said.
But again, I don’t know how trusting I am of plans actually getting into play and being executed by people at the top and at the bottom. Adding to that, it just makes me also fear that we’re transforming into a company. We might forget poor people, they might be left behind. People who do not feel at home with these words that the deputy crown prince said, you know, using English terms (“PMO,” and “by far,” and “trade.”) Simpletons who won’t relate to what he said, are they going to be left behind or not? Because I don’t know, maybe my kids or grandkids become simpletons [sic] and people who do not fit into the business world of the source [sic] that the deputy crown prince was speaking about. So, I’m filled with hope and at the back of my mind there is a bit of skepticism, if that’s a real word, I don’t know, and a bit of fear about turning into a company, and not a country that takes care of all the people in it.
Tawfiq Alsaif is a political analyst and writer from Qatif, Saudi Arabia. He tweets @t_saif.
Alsaif: Saudi Vision 2030 was of great interest to me for its emphasis on the principle of economic diversification. This is a question that repeatedly included [sic] in each of the 10 economic plans since 1971, but unfortunately it has never materialized. The Vision’s emphasis on the Saudi society being capable of handling its path to a better future was also interesting. There are, however, [a] few points to be said.
First, the Vision has said a lot of good things, but without details or action plans. We shall wait [for] the release of the National Transformation plans, due in May or June. The plans should spell out how the Vision will be implemented. Second, despite the Vision’s focus on transparency and the reduction of corruption, this mission requires essential reforms in the legal system and judiciary. We know that openness, equality, and accountability are preconditions to attract serious and long-term investment. Third, large economic mobility brings about a variety of social changes – changes in the value system, individual roles, and political culture. I do not see any indication that those changes are properly considered. The state needs to prepare the necessary plans to accommodate the outcomes of this social change. Otherwise, we might see a chaotic situation similar to the one [in] the 1980s. In general, Saudi Vision 2030 is promising. We need to, however, address a serious question. The previous economic plans have not fully succeeded, everyone admits. Why? And what are the lessons we learned from that failure? Reviewing what went wrong should help to avoid a similar fate.
Alshaikh: My opinion [on] the national vision for 2030 is that it is focusing mainly on the economic role, which is important, but will not achieve this vision without the development of the political, social, and cultural roles. I couldn’t find an active role for the woman as [an] equal citizen and as an important factor in sustainable human development. I’m looking forward for changes (sic) at all levels and to see the woman playing a major role, as a citizen, to sustain the human development.
Tamador Alyami is a columnist for Albilad News and a graduate student in international relations from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She tweets @TamadorAlyami.
Alyami: About the Saudi Vision 2030: It sounds promising. It was due [a] long time ago in my opinion. I mean, it’s a known fact – oil is scarce. It was projected actually by economic experts, whether foreign or local ones, that soon we will have to depend on other sources of income. But nobody did anything about it. So, I guess that for it to show up late is better than it not to show up at all. So as much as it is promising (the plan and strategy) – I speak for myself – I think I have some doubts about the execution, whether it will be as promising. I mean, we had a lot of disappointments before, hearing about a lot of initiatives that weren’t carried out in time or effectively. So, this time I’m crossing my fingers hoping that they will walk the walk, not only talk the talk. And let’s be optimistic about it, we need to.
One thing the Saudi Vision was lacking was to be inclusive of other reforms besides the economic. I mean, it focused on diversifying income sources and the word “investments” was like the most [frequent] word mentioned in [Deputy Crown] Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s speech – specifically, foreign investments and investing in tourism. When asked if tourism will be open for foreigners and individuals from other religions, he answered yes. I think by itself, [this] will require other kinds of reforms besides the economic. We will need social reforms, ideological reforms, [and] educational reforms. I mean, our local environment as it is right now is not welcoming of foreigners as businessmen and professionals, let alone welcoming them as tourists. People are not so accepting. [The] religious establishment and religious police are not as accepting. I think opening this income source will be faced with a lot of obstacles. In my opinion, it will (sic) backfire had it not been accompanied with social, educational, and cultural reforms, which were expected to be, you know, incorporated in the Saudi Vision together with the economic reforms suggested. That is my opinion. I hope that other reforms will come along, even if not specifically stated in the mission. They have to, for the mission to actually see light. That’s about it.
Abdullah Alaoudh is a writer and an SJD/PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. He tweets @aalodah.
Alaoudh: My name is Abdullah Alaoudh and I’m commenting on the Saudi Vision 2030 that was just announced in the country. The main idea in the Vision is to diversify the sources of wealth in the country. The Vision talks about the street and talks to the street and leans on the public for support and assistance, which is a relatively new language. It seeks and emphasizes the importance of transparency. The plan is so promising, but the transparency that it has been (sic) promised cannot be achieved without representation of the street and the public in an elected parliament in order for the Vision to ensure the popular support, and realize accountability and transparency.
Khaled Almaeena is a veteran Saudi journalist, commentator, businessman, and the editor-at-large of the Saudi Gazette. He tweets @KhaledAlmaeena. (An edited transcript of his interview with AGSIW can be found below.)
Almaeena: When Prince Mohammed announced the sale of ARAMCO and other utilities [in a January interview with The Economist], people were anxious and they didn’t know what to do. Frankly speaking, even as a critic, I found it [the April 25 Al Arabiya interview with MbS] the first time that somebody in government was so clear. There was a clarity in his vision. I think they [the Saudi public] took it in a nice manner. They were very confident and understood what was being said. Now, having said that, there were others that thought, at the same time, most of the talk was about business. The human angle was not mentioned. People wanted to know more about the political process, human rights, and transparency. One thing that was missing was the women’s issues. People thought that this issue may come in the next talk that he might give. By and large, it was a bit of a relief that we know something is going to happen.
The plan promised the Saudi public that there is going to be a very business-like approach to the economy in Saudi Arabia. It also promised the Saudi public that there is going to be some kind of accountability. The revenue from oil will not be the main focus of the government; there will be a diverse economy. The plan, while clear… people want to know how it will be implemented, what are the mechanics and the means, and what are other bureaucratic hurdles that have to be removed. In an Arabic paper, the deputy crown prince said he is the enemy of bureaucracy. To me, as an ordinary Saudi, I find that unless we streamline our bureaucracy, unless you bring people up, the transformation of people should be there before all this happens.
I think the main hurdle would be to enhance the productive qualities of the bureaucrats, the Saudis… how to involve ordinary Saudis. People want to be stakeholders, they want this program to involve everyone. The deputy crown prince has said that he will involve everyone. But, at the moment, I think it’s important that people feel it. We have to walk the talk. It’s very important that people around the deputy crown prince know this, that they should not let him down. I want people from the Eastern Province, from Tabuk, Qatif, Riyadh, Jeddah, to be shareholders in the great enterprise that is going to be called the new Saudi Arabia.
They talked about the inclusion of people in NGOs, voluntary work, and all. I think this plan has to be on paper and implemented. I really believe that the implementation which is 45 days hence should be very open and the transparency should be there. There should be involvement of all young people across all regions, from the Eastern Province to the north, south, and central. There should be concerted efforts to get all youth involved. All of them should be treated equally, no one is better than the other. My advice to the deputy crown prince – no nepotism, regionalism, tribalism. Otherwise, it won’t be as fruitful as we think. All of us should feel as part of this great transformation.
Abdelsalam Alwail is a professor of sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh. He tweets @salamalwail. (Only text commentary was provided.)
Alwail: Saudi Vision 2030 contains very ambitious aspirations, which is great. Nations need to be inspired. The Vision was constructed according to the challenges we currently face, such as sources of revenue other than oil, creating jobs that meet the very pyramidal population structure in regard to age, and the contradiction between good household incomes and very narrow avenues for entertainment and tourism, which is caused by cultural conservatism of some social groups. The document deals with these issues clearly.
However, my concern is about the Vision’s cultural barriers . We have had ambitious national plans every five years since 1970. The second plan, announced in 1975 with the rise of oil prices, was exceptional in its aspiration by calling for a societal transformation toward science and technology. But because the variables, such as political and societal attitudes toward modernization, were given little attention, the plan was not successful in achieving its goals. Forty-one years later, Saudi society stands on more solid ground in terms of transforming visions and plans into actual policies and achievements. By “more solid,” I mean a more modernized society. Education, modern lifestyles, job structure, social media, the middle class, and trained manpower make the chances of the current vision’s success more probable now than in the 1970s. What we really need is to pay attention to the cultural resistance against such a vision. Ignoring these variables may leave us with similar results of past national plans.
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