Can Vision 2030 improve the quality of life for Saudis?

Sunday 05/03/2017

It has been nearly a year since Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz unveiled an ambitious package of economic and social reforms known as Vision 2030. The main objective of the plan is to wean the Saudi economy off its dependence on oil revenues and public-sector spending.

To that end, Saudi planners want to create incentives to allow other sectors of the economy, including mining, tourism, education and health care, to develop. Going forward, the government’s main role will be to create a suitable regulatory environment in which the private sector would become the engine of the economy.

Much of the debate around the vision has centred on measures the government has implemented to reduce spending and the much-anticipated initial public offering of 5% of the national oil company, Aramco, in 2018.

A closer look at the components of Vision 2030 suggests that one of its objectives has been overlooked: Improving the quality of life for the 20 million Saudis and approximately 9 million expatriates living in the kingdom.

A careful reading of the Vision 2030 document, which provides an outline of how Saudi planners aim to effect structural changes in the Saudi economy, suggests this: The vision seeks to change the way Saudis — and foreign workers and visitors — live their lives in the kingdom. The two sectors that hold the most promise to improve the quality of life of Saudis and potentially alter the way they live their lives are entertainment and tourism.

Among several government agencies that have been created as part of Vision 2030 is the General Entertainment Authority, which has been tasked with organising and sponsoring theatre, music and art festivals and other events. The aim appears twofold: To support the burgeoning arts scene in the kingdom and second to provide Saudis with local entertainment options. Saudi planners clearly view the dearth of options as a distinct disadvantage, which makes it more difficult to recruit foreign talent.

More importantly, planners want Saudis to spend the billions of dollars spent vacationing abroad at home. It is estimated that Saudis spent $670 million abroad over a recent 9-day school holiday. The number one destination was Bahrain.

Events the General Entertainment Authority has sponsored have received extensive local and international media attention. It is clear many Saudis support this initiative and appreciate the renewed interest in art, theatre and music. They see these events as gatherings that celebrate Saudi culture and encourage Saudi talent.

Some conservative elements, however, appear reticent, especially about the potential for some venues to encourage gender mixing. The plans for greater entertainment are moving forward, with global companies such as Six Flags opening theme parks in the kingdom looking like a real possibility. It is welcome news to many.

The Saudi government is even more optimistic about the potential of domestic tourism. There are plans to develop the sector beyond religious tourism, to celebrate Saudi culture and even ancient cultures, the remnants of which are preserved in Mada’in Saleh, which includes Nabatean ruins, and other places.

This prospect is a potential boon for the Saudi economy in general and for local tourist attractions more specifically. Saudi Arabia is not likely to compete with the United States or Europe as a global tourist destination any time soon but there is hope that the country, which has many hidden treasures along its coastlines as well as in the north and south, could compete with regional tourism hubs such as Manama and Dubai.

In addition, tourism has the added benefit of being labour intensive. It is estimated that 200,000 Saudis enter the work force every year. Reports in the Saudi media suggest that a high number of graduates from a tourism school in Medina find employment shortly after graduating.

As is the case with developing the entertainment sector, there are challenges here as well. One is Saudi Arabia’s hot climate, which can occasionally prove difficult even for locals. Western tourists who have explored what the kingdom has to offer paint an inviting portrait of the landscape and its people. However, it remains to be seen if some of the kingdom’s more conservative cultural norms would make it a less attractive destination for Western tourists.

Last September, the Arriyadh Development Authority showcased projects it is working on to transform the Saudi capital at an exhibit at the UN Secretariat in New York. Saudi experts representing different professional backgrounds spoke about the history of Riyadh, how it has developed and how they envision the city will look in 2030.

The planners clearly have ambitious plans for Riyadh, which they hope to include on the list of the top ten most liveable places around the world by 2030. A big part of this transformation includes places where families could be entertained. There is also an equal emphasis on preserving Saudi culture and heritage.

The Metro, currently under development and rumoured to be the most expensive underground project in the world, is a centrepiece of Riyadh’s development. Its aim is to reduce people’s commutes, while simultaneously encouraging them to walk and exercise more.

Like virtually all aspects of Vision 2030, developing the tourism and entertainment sectors will face challenges. Planners have made it clear that there will be a learning curve. Nevertheless, this is indeed a far-sighted vision that seeks to improve many aspects of Saudi lives, not just their economic well-being. I, for one, am very optimistic.