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Vision 2030 & the Political Costs of Saudi Reforms

Vision 2030 & the Political Costs of Saudi Reforms thumbnail

A pillar of the Saudi social contract has been the allocation of oil rents to the population in exchange for loyalty and fidelity to the Saud clan. A key weakness of Vision 2030 is its lack of focus on the potential political consequences of economic reforms. The plan seems to assume that its ramifications will be easily borne by the Saudi population.

However, the IMF postulates that the potential failure of the reforms to produce economic growth and ultimately private sector jobs for Saudis may lead either to rising unemployment and social pressures or increased public employment, which would have negative fiscal implications. If the government becomes unable to sustain its current level of payouts to the population, this will almost certainly result in rising public dissatisfaction.

As more austerity measures are pursued, the social contract between the population and the government is likely to come under unprecedented stress. According to a report by Chatham House, an effective renegotiation of the social contract is critical if the government is to secure the public’s buy-in on the socioeconomic changes that it is attempting to make.

This renegotiation is already unfolding. While it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will democratize soon, the recalibration of its authoritarian bargain may mean greater avenues for involving the public in decision-making and some increased transparency and accountability.

Seven years after the Arab uprisings, chaos has resulted in some of the region’s countries affected by changes brought on in 2011. Consequently, Saudi Arabia’s argument for stability holds strong sway.

The government is presenting itself as a bulwark against regional instability. It has also encouraged hyper-nationalistic discourse, which was evident in the 2017 National Day celebrations, and its rhetoric regarding the ongoing GCC crisis.

According to the Arab Gulf States Institute, this push to reinforce the Saudi identity is part of a long-term effort by Gulf states that aims to increase a sense of national belonging, where loyalty to the state takes precedence over the tribe, region, or sect.

The arrest of a number of Saudi princes and business tycoons in November 2017, besides helping Prince Mohammed consolidate his power, is also designed to show the population that King Salman and his son are serious about fighting corruption, however selective this fight may be.

Overall, the government needs to increase its levels of transparency and openness. While all these new monitoring and reporting institutions are admirable, they are still government bodies. For Vision 2030 to have a chance for success, there has to be involvement from civil society actors and more freedom of the press.

The exact opposite has been happening as the government has cracked down on dissent and has jailed many of its critics, including a number of journalists and writers.

Barriers to transformation: Education and training

As a result of the government’s push to increase the employment of Saudis in the private sector, companies are facing substantial difficulties in hiring and retaining suitable local talent. Education and training remain key issues as the Saudi educational system—despite going through a multitude of reforms—is still unable to provide enough graduates who are able and willing to work in the private sector.

Saudi workers demand higher wages and underperform in the private sector, creating an array of issues for multinational firms operating in the country that need to meet their Saudization quotas.

By 2030, a full half of the Saudi population is expected to be under the age of 25. Educating, training, and placing those youth in economically productive jobs is one of the biggest challenges Saudi policymakers face in the coming decade.

Significant investments in education over the past two decades have led to a sharp increase in university enrollment figures, making the kingdom a regional leader in terms of educational attainment.

However, the quality of Saudi education remains a key issue. Primary and secondary education has historically been biased toward religious subjects at the expense of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

In the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) global rankings which take place every four years, Saudi students ranked in the lowest tenth percentile in both mathematics and science. Similar to other Arab countries, the Saudi education system encourages memorization over the development of problem-solving and creative thinking skills.

At the university level, increased investment has led to a rise in the number of graduates, but the Saudi economy is increasingly unable to absorb them into the workforce. Sustained economic growth over the past two decades has indeed increased the number of white-collar private-sector jobs. However, many of these new positions are being filled by expats.

Saudi women: the fight for equality continues

In the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia ranked 141, ahead only of Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen. The male guardianship system in the kingdom remains a major obstacle toward equality. Saudi women need their male guardian’s approval to access healthcare, get married, travel, work, or open a business.

Over the past decades, Saudi Arabia has made incredible progress in terms of women’s education and currently more than half of all university graduates are women. Despite this progress, the unemployment rate for women is 32.7 percent. Saudi women continue to face formidable cultural and regulatory barriers of entry to the labor market.

Women tend to work in a limited number of sectors such as healthcare and education. There are also restrictions on mixed gender workplaces, which further constrains employment options for women.

The Vision 2030 document states that the goal is to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent. The end of the driving ban for Saudi women is a step toward achieving that goal, and signals the government’s willingness to pursue socioeconomic liberalization and face down pressure from the religious establishment and more conservative elements of society.

In addition to the end of the driving ban, the government has moved to remove a number of restrictions on women over the past years including the ability to access some public services and attend sports events in stadiums. The next phase for the fight for women’s rights in the kingdom is to dismantle the male guardianship system. This will be the true litmus test for Saudi modernizers in the government.

Neom: Desert dreams

The plan to build Neom, a city operated by artificial intelligence, manned by naturalized Saudi robots, and powered by the sun, is certainly ambitious, but the plan raises more questions than answers.

To start with, aside from the robots, who will build and work in the city? The Saudi government already struggles to convince Saudis to work in the private sector, and executing a plan of this magnitude will certainly require, at least in the short to medium term, a surge of foreign consultants and contractors to build, then operate such a city.

Secondly, Saudi Arabia’s technology and industrial sectors do not have the capacity to undertake such an endeavor, meaning that all the necessary technology and equipment will have to be imported.

Thirdly, the costs of building and sustaining such a city can easily consume much of the amounts raised from the ARAMCO IPO and other revenue-generating initiatives, and there is no guarantee that the city would generate the types of returns needed to attract outside investment.

Such urban megaprojects have had mixed results in Saudi Arabia. The six “New Economic Cities” announced in 2005 are yet to be populated and as a result are not operating as intended. The most advanced of them in terms of development and infrastructure, King Abdullah’s Economic City (KAEC), has not been able to attract the projected number of residents, businesses, or investors. So far, nothing about Neom shows that it may have a different fate.

A prince with a plan, or a plan with a prince?

Central to Saudi Arabia’s drive to reform and Vision 2030 is Prince Mohammed, who was promoted to Crown Prince in June 2017 in what was considered a bloodless coup against a respected and powerful veteran prince, Mohammed Bin Nayef. Is Saudi Vision 2030 a historical attempt at reforming the kingdom, or is it a vehicle for an ambitious young prince to become king and rule Saudi Arabia for decades to come?

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. The combination of lower oil prices and demographic changes has certainly increased the pressure on Saudi policymakers to attempt to deal with these issues before they come to a head at a later stage.

To that end, Prince Mohammed is the right prince at the right time to attempt to push through some of these much-needed reforms. However, should the plan stall or fall short of realizing its ambitious goals, the Prince Mohammed brand is likely to be tainted—domestically, regionally, and internationally.

The internal cohesion of the Saudi royal family remains an issue in light of Prince Mohammed’s moves to consolidate power, most recently by removing Prince Mutaib Bin Abdullah from command of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and arresting him with a number of other princes, technocrats, and businessmen.

While such moves may endear Prince Mohammed to the Saudi public as a fighter of corruption, internally they may add to Saudi royals’ resentment over the meteoric rise of Prince Mohammed. Should Vision 2030 stall or fail to achieve some of its stated objectives, it is likely the prince would face increased internal opposition from disgruntled elites resentful of his meteoric rise and the ongoing purges.

The relentless speed at which Prince Mohammed and his team are trying to remake Saudi Arabia is a cause for concern. According to IMF’s Director of Middle East and North Africa Masood Ahmed, “the transformation of oil-exporting economies is no easy task and will be a long-term project. It will require a sustained push for reforms and well-thought-out communication.” The kingdom would be better served by pursuing reform plans that proceed at a slower but more sustainable pace.

Saudi Arabia faces a number of long-term structural obstacles in education and employment, which may take generations to fully overcome. Doing so will require strong political will, flexibility, a willingness to reassess goals along the way and the public’s acceptance of the reforms, as they will take years to bear fruit. Time will tell if Prince Mohammed has the patience, or aptitude, for a slow-paced but sustained transformation of the kingdom.

*This piece originally appeared in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.


81 Comments on "Vision 2030 & the Political Costs of Saudi Reforms"

  1. MASTERMIND on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 10:25 pm 


    Steve Jobs’s father was an immigrant..And immigrants increase your countries GDP..

  2. makati1 on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 10:35 pm 

    MM … and decrease the percentage of Whiteys like you, AND the average income of Americans. A white American laborer wants $20/hr. A Latino will work for half of that, or less, and really work. Ditto for most green card holders. Silicon Valley hires Indians because they will work for less and do a better job than Americans. THAT is the real world, but you are blind to it, obviously.

  3. MASTERMIND on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 10:42 pm 


    Whites still make around 70 percent of the country. In the cities there are a lot of minorities but in the rural areas its pretty much 100 percent white. And I really dont care because I know the global economy is going to collapse in the near term..So if you or clogg want to worry about stupid immigrants. Then go right ahead. In a few years we will be wishing our biggest worries were immigrants.

  4. makati1 on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 10:45 pm 

    The war drums are beating louder…

    “Navy Deploys Destroyers To Black Sea To “Desensitize” Russia To US Presence”

    If you ever read “1984” you know that this is “doublespeak”.

    If the Russians did this in the Gulf of Mexico, the US would be going nuts. Well, more then usual. That 3AM flash is getting closer and closer, America. Duck & Cover!

  5. MASTERMIND on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 10:46 pm 

    Remember when our President had balls? This is how you stare down a Nationalist

  6. MASTERMIND on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 10:49 pm 


    Their is a wall mart in my town last week. That some kids got onto the intercom. And they played a recording that said North Korea had just fired missiles at America. And one was headed for Chicago…And tons of customers scrambled and ran for the exits..Luckily nobody ws hurt but the police and the people in my town were furious..LOL I thought it was a hilarious prank.

  7. MASTERMIND on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 10:51 pm 


    Dont you get it? Putin is totally on his own. The US has europe and israel, and Japan, etc..He is never going to attack us because it would be the end of his life…Nobody can fuck with us..Keep dreaming!

  8. makati1 on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 10:52 pm 

    Dream on MM, dream on. You live in your own little world.

    “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino, percent, July 1, 2016, equals 61.3%” (and shrinking)

    Meanwhile YOUR income will be continually decreased as more immigrants will work for less and work harder than you. THAT is life in the US today. Adjust.

  9. makati1 on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 11:01 pm 

    MM, that 3AM surprise will shock most Americans but the odds are that it will happen if the US keeps beating on the bear. Did you ever hear of “Use it or lose it”? A military term meaning if you don’t fire the missiles now, you may not be able after. Putin is NOT alone. He still has more nukes than the US and his systems work. The US, who knows? Not to mention China.

    BTW: the US “has” no one. Europe is not going to go to war with Russia. Israel is not going to go to war with Russia and Japan has no nukes and is not going to go to war with their oil/NG supplier. They learned that lesson in WW2. Dream on. Duck & Cover! Better yet. Sleep in the basement if it is below ground level. LOL

  10. GregT on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 11:22 pm 

    “America will have to retreat to the B-league as a result of its decades long insane immigration policies.”

    No kidding.

    “Immigrants and their U.S.-born children now number approximately 86.4 million people, or 27 percent of the overall U.S. population, according to the 2017 Current Population Survey (CPS).”

    Add to that another 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants and their children, and that number is easily over 100 million.

  11. MASTERMIND on Wed, 21st Feb 2018 11:29 pm 

    This is what a degree and student loans gets you nowadays?

  12. Anonymouse1 on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 12:06 am 

    Mak, the exceptionalist is just trolling you. He has his goats, you have your own experiences, with HUMANS. No need to justify anything to a nut cases sock.

  13. makati1 on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 12:10 am 

    Yep! And a life time of servitude to your masters, the bankers.

  14. Cloggie on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 12:13 am 

    Remember when our President had balls? This is how you stare down a Nationalist

    Putin wasn’t stared down by Obama.

    In fact this butler of the Soros bunch got his *ss kicked by Putin in Syria, in war the US started. But which war didn’t they start?

    I love it when Washington gets kicked in the teeth by Europeans. And this is only the beginning. The whole world has enough of Washington and is preparing for the coming showdown and subsequent overthrow of the US empire, when the US deep state will be (briefly) back in power after Trump and start to throw their Americans against the Chinese Wall like a sack of potatoes.

    You’re on your own (apart from perhaps Britain) in the coming battle that will rip your country apart.

  15. makati1 on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 12:16 am 

    I know. Occasionally I weaken and reply to his goat shit posts because I’m bored. It doesn’t take much thought to give an intelligent reply. .

  16. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 2:34 am 

    “I know. Occasionally I weaken and reply to his goat shit posts because I’m bored.”

    Obviously I have both you and the Canadian weasel pegged and disturbed. I throw back your regurgitate prattle and ask you to say something new and on topic. The Canadian weasel just stalks and pricks because he doesn’t have anything to say or anything better to do. Billy 3rd world, you are just an old man in a little condo in Makati, Manila with no life. I can see why you are both bored. Can you say anything intelligent is the question?

  17. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 2:43 am 

    “I love it when Washington gets kicked in the teeth by Europeans.”

    ??? You drinking tonight neder?

  18. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 2:50 am 

    “the US keeps beating on the bear.”
    Dorks talk like that. Is that supposed to be intellectual? I like how you mention the “3am” NUK attack. This shows the depth of your understanding of military matters. It reminds me of the 10MIL men under arms on the Korean Peninsula. That was a blooper. Right old man you remember what bloopers where, right? LOL.

    “Use it or lose it”? A military term meaning if you don’t fire the missiles now, you may not be able after.”
    “He still has more nukes than the US and his systems work. The US, who knows? Not to mention China.”
    My god we have a regular university professor of war on the board. Man this is a funny night. DUMBASS CAN’T TOP THAT.

    “Duck & Cover! Better yet. Sleep in the basement if it is below ground level. LOL”
    Is that what you tell your big family in the US that you bugged out on like a coward?

  19. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 2:52 am 

    “Yep! And a life time of servitude to your masters, the bankers.”

    billy 3rd world, you are a slave to your measly social security check you don’t deserve. What would you be without that? Most people acknowledge responsibility. You on the other hand run from it.

  20. makati1 on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 3:06 am 

    And Davy, I keep telling you that my SS is just extras. You have no idea of my net worth or investments here. None. But you want to believe that I am some kind of slave to the US, like you. Not so.

    I hope the US goes down tomorrow and ALL the ‘social safety nets’ end. No loss to me other than extra preps missed. The DOW can go to ZERO and I would not care. But you will never understand true freedom. You will never experience it. I do every day.

    Try to remember that fact or do I have to repeat it another 100 times?

  21. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 3:15 am 

    “And Davy, I keep telling you that my SS is just extras. You have no idea of my net worth or investments here. None. But you want to believe that I am some kind of slave to the US, like you. Not so.”
    Not hard to figure you out billy 3rd world. I have been following your lies and distortions for years now. You blabber about how wonderful you are until it comes back to bite you in the ass like now and then you whine how no of what you said in the past is true.

    “But you will never understand true freedom.”
    LOL, yea, freedom for you is having nothing left to lose. An old man walking the street homeless in Manila.

  22. MASTERMIND on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 9:46 am 


    Madkat is so naive. All of his prepps will be stolen in five mins by all of his neighbors when society collapses..He is totally outnumbered by a million to one. This is why you only see stupid fundamentalist religious people become preppers..Liberals are smart enough to know if society collapses..You are fucked no matter what.

  23. GregT on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 10:03 am 

    Seriously Davy,

    It’s been five years. He still doesn’t love you anymore. Nothing that you say makes any difference to him.

    It’s time to move on.

  24. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 10:28 am 

    Shut up greggie how about everyone, including you, move on and this board goes back on topic? That won’t work for you because you are about double standards. You want peace on your terms. Please spare me your drivel when you are loading up this board with your shit. Let the stupid old man fight his own battles. Is he such a pussy you have to hold his hand every time he gets in an argument?

  25. GregT on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 10:48 am 

    You’re obsessed with the guy Davy, to the point that it’s become a sickness.

    Let him go already.

  26. MASTERMIND on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 12:30 pm 

    Remember when our president had balls?

    This is how you treat a Nationalist!

  27. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 1:20 pm 

    Shut up hypocrite. You are enabling a guy obsessed with hate. You are obsessed with hate as well as your cousin the millennial waste case anonymouse1. You three are disgusting people that have destroyed this board. Go choke on something already slimy.

  28. GregT on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 3:19 pm 

    “Shut up hypocrite. You are enabling a guy obsessed with hate. You are obsessed with hate as well”

    You are one seriously messed up nasty piece of work buddy.

  29. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 3:29 pm 

    Greggie, do you have a stutter, already?

  30. Davy on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 3:30 pm 

    Oh, and I am not your buddy, pervert.

  31. joe on Thu, 22nd Feb 2018 5:41 pm

    Can people get their facts right. Steve Jobs didn’t do shit for computers. He was a lucky salesman not an inventor!!!

    He made apple big by focusing on quality to high end customers and exclusive software packages but all this stuff was invested by the smart guys decades ago. Fuck Jobs. Nice guy, quit apple, then came back when the stock was cheap and lucked out when tech became popular and really user friendly.

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