Can the national transformation plan, announced by Saudi Arabia to move away from oil dependence to becoming a global economic power, succeed? Can the country ensure the success of this plan without political reforms, democratization of its institutions and greater accountability?
Inspired by many newspaper articles, several writers, educationists and people showing interest in public opinion have addressed this question. Almost every foreigner I have met asked these questions. My answer has been the following: “I prefer the plan to be monitored and those executing it to be held accountable via democratic means, through the Advisory Council (Majles-al-Shura) for instance.
However, since I am an ordinary citizen with no executive power, my wish may never come true. In fact, there is no popular desire or pressure exerted to implement democracy in the country, which has almost became a bad word among Saudis who are watching what is happening around them (since the eruption of the Arab Spring.)
For this reason, I’m quite satisfied with the KPI program. This term has become common among the population and means “measuring the performance”. It was elaborated in the Vision 2030 framework – adopted recently by the Council of Economic and Development Affairs – that we Saudis consider minimized government with large prerogatives. It is a very complicated plan and has been published by all Saudi newspapers. It aims to monitor specific goals of each government entity and coordinate with each other, setting an all-inclusive national plan.
The National Center for Evaluating the Performance of Public Agencies, for instance, will be tasked with monitoring the plan and holding its executors accountable with full transparency. In my article on Vision 2030, I wrote that the National transformation plan will not be implemented by an elected parliament but rather by the above-mentioned National Council.
I like to simplify things for a better understanding before I try to make others understand them. That’s why, I try to imagine the National Center as an operating room where in the middle is the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as the chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs surrounded by ministers, members of the Council, and other experts.
Right in front of them, I imagine personal computers linked to the room’s database and a few meters far many screens showing numbers and graphics with goals set for each ministry and government institution. I also imagine the chairman of the Council zooming in on one screen to see the reasons behind flaws and the concerned minister explaining why they occurred and suggesting solutions to tackle them. This system, as I imagine it, is able to make every minister work hard and held accountable.
From this scope, can the plan be monitored and its executors held accountable with complete transparency without an elected Council and without the basis of democracy to achieve the success of both the transformation plan and the Vision? Personally, I think this is possible but it can only happen in Saudi Arabia considering its social and cultural background, which is based on Islamic ethos and considering the fact that others have done it as well.
The Chinese model
The second frame of reference is China’s huge economic success, comes alongside arguments related to democracy being a precondition for progress. Therefore, we are witness to a new “Chinese model” different from the commonly spread model of Western democracy. The Chinese model seeks to achieve stability and prosperity at the same time. Another model was implemented in Vietnam in Asia and in Burundi in Africa.
I would also expect a Sudanese reader who upholds the ruling system in his country to tell me that Sudan has also done it. In fact, Sudan did not receive during the peak of the Arab Spring what its neighbors have received. The only explanation would be that the economic governance was successfully implemented in spite of the large opposition.
The Economist, in a detailed article, writes about democracy and economy with Harvard professor, Lary Summers saying that the United States is currently at its peak in achieving economic growth and has doubled its living standards. But, to reach what it had reached, the US needed 30 years. However, China has been able to realize it three times in the last 30 years, each time in one decade.
Chinese elite mentioned by the magazine argue that the growth model firmly implemented by the communist ruling party and based on efforts to create job opportunities, employ highly qualified people and encourage them to take leadership positionsin the party. This, according to them, is more efficient than democracy. The magazine also mentioned that the Chinese political leadership is changing every decade while benefiting, at the same time, from competent elites.
However, what the magazine did not provide is an answer for the question: Why did China succeed in realizing this while Russia failed to, despite the fact that Russia provided us with statistics showing that the number of Russians who prefer a strong economy is four times more than the number of those who prefer a good democracy (almost 80% and 20% respectively)?
The reason might be principles of Confucianism that were taken into consideration in China and that make balance when it comes to satisfying self interests, which was encouraged by the party. The reason might also be the common belief that the presence of a government that serves its people is necessary according to the high principles of morality.
In fact, the Chinese economy has always been and continues to be a fair economy compared to similar totalitarian regimes. Moreover, the Chinese economy is suitable for all classes of the society and displays a firm determination to fight corruption to the point that leaders, who get involved in corruption, including receiving briberies or committing frauds, are executed.
I think Saudi Arabia can achieve the same because of its cultural background. It is an Islamic country that is ruled by Sharia, which formed the foundation of country 300 years ago with Sheikh Mohammad Abdulwahab. Saudi Arabia upheld the freedom of economy, the right to personal property and encouraged initiatives with justice after it implemented the Sharia laws in a society that is far away from the modern world and from prosperity, a society that lacks natural resources and ways to earn income and realize well-being.
Saudi Arabia’s society then moved from Islamic civilization 10 decades ago after groups left Najd and took with them several generations from different tribes to the Levant, Iraq and North Africa and even to Andalus. Then the Islamic appeal for reform took place and made a village with no natural resources or geographical characteristics turn into a place of prosperity.
I reiterate that Saudi Arabia has the potential to achieve the progress it longs for. With its successes in the transformation plan, Saudi Arabia must move toward more democracy under the umbrella of the ruling Sharia. This way, there will be further participation and more accountability and monitoring of elected councils.
In the case of Arab Republics that have witnessed modernization, only democracy would help them lift themselves and move toward stability. The latter will serve as the basis for these countries on which they can build their vision for the twenty or thirty or forty years while Saudi Arabia has already guaranteed its success and has only now to move toward a brighter future.
This article first appeared in Al Hayat on June 18, 2016.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi