Saudi Arabia’s transformation depends on public participation

Sunday 19/02/2017

For many years, outside observers lamented Saudi Arabia’s glacial pace of change. Some nicknamed it the “kingdom where nothing ever happens”.

Those days and impressions are a thing of the past. Three notable Americans — journalist Thomas Friedman and former senior US diplomats Dennis Ross and Zalmay Khalilzad — visited Saudi Arabia in recent months and wrote about what they observed. There was a common theme among them: The kingdom is undergoing significant changes for the better.

Many of the political, economic and social reforms unfolded over decades. The Saudi government implemented development plans to transform the country from a largely underdeveloped and sparsely populated desert into a modern state in which an estimated 22 million citizens and 9 million expatriates live.

As oil revenues increased sig­nificantly in 1970s, Riyadh spent billions of dollars on modern trans­portation systems, communication networks, health care facilities and educational institutions.

The kingdom sent thousands of Saudi students to study in the United States, Britain and other countries to learn best practices and to return to the kingdom with that knowledge. The hope was that the returning students, now more worldly, would accelerate the coun­try’s development.

Many changes did indeed take place gradually. The Saudi lead­ership was keenly aware of the potential disruptions to traditional way of life and institutions that invariably happen whenever mo­dernity supplants them. That, to a large extent, explains the slow and incremental pace the state adopted when implementing social, political or economic changes.

2015 marked a turning point in Saudi Arabia’s history. After King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as­cended to the throne, some Saudis began referring to this new era as the “fourth Saudi state”, drawing a sharp distinction with the third Saudi state, which marked the founding of modern Saudi Arabia in 1932. The characterisation was not an empty slogan.

In 2016, the Saudi leadership un­veiled an ambitious package of eco­nomic and social reforms known as Vision 2030. The programme aims to change the kingdom’s economy by reducing its dependence on oil revenues and government spend­ing. Under this vision, the private sector would become the engine of the economy, with the government creating the conditions and incen­tives for it and foreign investors to thrive and to create thousands of new jobs. The mining, tourism, ed­ucation, housing and entrainment sectors would be developed while the government steered private and foreign capital towards them.

The person most commonly mentioned as the architect be­hind this vision is Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. In his 30s and known for his willingness to work long hours, Prince Mohammed has shifted the paradigm on government perfor­mance. Gone is the slow, ultra-con­servative, piecemeal approach.

In media interviews, Prince Mohammed speaks with refreshing candour about the problems that hindered the development of the Saudi economy in the past as well as about shortcomings of today’s institutions. His less-formal style, his willingness to elevate Saudis who have distinguished themselves and hold to account those who have underperformed have created a sense of excitement among a large segment of Saudi society, especially young people.

The National Transformation Programme (NTP) sets out bench­marks, goals and timeframes for as­sessing the progress of the various initiatives in Vision 2030. Central themes that figure prominently in both documents include perfor­mance, efficiency, transparency and accountability.

Vision 2030 makes clear that, for its goals to be reached, there must be a collective effort. Each individual Saudi has to play a part. While its wording and Prince Mohammed stress the need to improve the quality of life for Saudis by making available more entertain­ment options, the broader vision is a reminder to Saudi citizens that they must think of themselves as stockholders in a collective endeav­our. They cannot simply be passive observers.

Prince Mohammed has spoken frankly about the challenges ahead and the mistakes that will invari­ably be made along the way but the NTP is very much contingent on a process of constant assessment and evaluation.

In his 1961 inaugural address, US president John F. Kennedy famous­ly enjoined his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Vision 2030 aims to transform the Saudis’ economy and lives for the better. However, it also implies that the social contract be­tween the state and the citizenry is based on a principle of reciprocity: The state has responsibilities but citizens also have obligations.

The unveiling of elements of Vision 2030 has been accompanied by public debate in traditional and social media and in events featur­ing Saudis officials in charge of implementation. That, too, is a departure from the past.

Saudi Arabia is indeed changing and for the better. Stay tuned.