In the aftermath of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s unveiling of the unprecedented Vision 2030 reforms, a sense of renaissance seems to exist in Saudi Arabia.
Diversifying the oil economy along new routes for rapid progress, it is definitely the brainchild of the young Prince; however, he modestly insists he is only “one of 20 million people. I am nothing without them.”
Nevertheless, such a holistic package for economic, cultural and societal reform has not been seen before in recent Saudi history.
Opening up Saudi Arabia to the world, the Prince announced his country would become “moderate” and “open” and that he would “eradicate” radical Islamist ideology.
“We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam open to all religions and to the world,” he told an audience of world luminaries attending a major investment conference in the country.
Announcing a futuristic new city named “NEOM,” 33 times bigger than New York City to be built along the Saudi border with Jordan and Egypt, the Prince said its location would make it a global hub connecting three continents and enable 70 percent of the world’s population to reach it in less than eight hours.
Not only that, it would be fully automated, run on wind and solar energy and be managed largely by robots.
The project, it should be noted, was announced on the same day as the Prince’s vision of a moderate, modernized Saudi Arabia.
Being unfolded in phases, Vision 2030, as visualized by the Prince, started with a “year of the quick fix” in 2015, with 2016 as a “year of organized quick-fixes,” and then fast forward into 2017 as the “year of vision.”
By 2030, the National Transformation Plan will feature mixed revenue, foreign direct investment being raised from 3.8 percent of GDP to an international norm of 5.7 percent, while green cards will be issued to foreign workers in a bid to slow down the outflow of remittances currently standing at $10 billion a year.
For the very first time, foreigners are to be given property rights and this should boost real estate sales. In fact, the makeover of Saudi Arabia is to turn it into an attractive tourist destination, with visas available to all nationalities under the condition that they respect local traditions.
Most significantly, there are plans to put 5 percent of State oil giant Aramco upon public sale by 2018, the funds generated being used in executing the Vision 2030. In the future, Riyadh is planning to enable strategic foreign investors to own at least 10 percent of listed Saudi companies under the National Transformation Plan.
Still being fine-tuned, the NTP is currently due to continue to 2020; however, in reality, it might require implementation up till 2025 or even 2030. Notably though, the partial privatization of the Aramco does not come under its ambit, though the plan does include a focus on privatizing State assets, as well as plans to reduce unemployment and create 1.2 million new jobs by 2020.
On the sidelines, Saudi women are being given more space to participate in public life. For the first time, they were allowed to attend the recent 87th National Day celebration in the country’s biggest stadium.
This was followed up by removing the decades-old driving ban to the delight of women such as working girl Sumaya Fayad, who said: “Something is definitely happening here, it feels different. I don’t feel as limited as before. There has been progress in personal freedoms, so we don’t have as much fear anymore.”
Despite opposition, women will also be given high-profile jobs. It is expected that, just as Saudi society opposed the idea of women owning cell phones in the beginning and then gave in, these reforms will also be accepted eventually.
Restrictions on Skype and Whatsapp messaging applications were also done away with recently, and it is expected that public cinemas will soon open.
As the dramatic shake-up continues, the debate continues over its prospects for success, even though many leaders have been appreciative. Sebastian Sons from the German Council on Foreign Relations says the old guard still has to be considered. “You can’t forget that, historically, the royal family would not have had any power without the religious support of the Wahhabis.”
Undoubtedly, reforms cannot be achieved without meeting challenges. However, though conservatives disapprove, the Prince’s popularity has soared among the youth which constitutes 70 percent of the population.
Foreign visits were undertaken recently to attract foreign direct investment in key projects to ensure overall success. As a result, having set Saudi Arabia on the path towards progress and economic self-reliance, the Prince has emerged as a powerful leader and reformer to reckon with.