My colleague in Al-Hayat newspaper, author Fahd Dghaither, attended the National Transformation workshop, which was launched to introduce Saudi public opinion to the most important development plan the kingdom will witness. The details are expected to be announced officially in a few weeks.
He came back from the workshop enthusiastic, as he has always insisted on the need for reform and raising productivity. He raised in one of his articles the most important question: Why pay a salary of 8,000 riyals to a Saudi young man when an Asian worker would take the job for 2,000 riyals?
The answer will determine which path will prevail in the plan, as the aim is to reduce the reliance on oil by diversifying sources of income and doubling Gross National Product (GNP), which will create 6 million jobs for Saudis and improve citizens’ quality of life.
This matter came to the forefront again last week with the announcement of the Saudi budget. It differed from any previous budget as it seemed more like an introduction to a bigger development plan called the National Transformation Plan, led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
What matters to the government politically is to satisfy and serve its citizens rather than pleasing othersJamal Khashoggi
The budget and relevant decisions included orders to raise the cost of gasoline and various hydrocarbons, in addition to electricity and water. Everyone will be affected by these changes, but what matters to the government politically is to satisfy and serve its citizens rather than pleasing others.
The Saudi Ministry of Economy and Planning must take the entire population of 30 million into account when devising its expenditure plan, but at what cost? How much will the government save if it succeeds in implementing the directives it issued around a decade ago to limit foreign residents to 20 percent of the population? If it succeeds, the National Transformation Plan will cater for 24 million people instead of 30 million. However, our airports continue to receive more foreign workers.
The ministry’s planning should consider the consequences of rising prices of goods and services following the government’s decision to raise fuel prices. The increases will be tolerable if the money goes to Saudi citizens in small and medium-sized enterprises, as it will become part of the state’s financial cycle and positively affect GNP. However, the increases will benefit foreign laborers who own cover-up small and medium-sized businesses.
One might ask how we can increase production and double national income without foreign workers. However, they do not only take Saudi jobs, but worse, they obstruct Saudis from acquiring the skills required to earn and achieve more. People can only gain experience when they are in the job market, but foreign laborers have turned it into their own environment, in which ambitious Saudis have become strangers.
Foreign laborers are no longer mere grocery or factory workers - they have become owners of enterprises via cover-up businesses. They start by gaining experience, then they become independent and establish their own businesses. Meanwhile, Saudis have become more and more used to them. Each Saudi manager has a foreign assistant who gradually gains experience and ends up knowing more.
This matter, with all its political sensitivities, should be a top priority in the National Transformation Plan. It should become a national cause that is more important than the wrath of an influential businessman complaining that this is destroying Saudi industries. The answer should be that any factory that was not designed to employ Saudis, and that needs constant state support, is unwelcome.
A prominent farmer might yell: “Which Saudi worker will accept to earn 1,000 riyals a month?” The answer should be: “We don’t want more farms that can only operate via cheap labor and consume precious water resources.”
We must establish a plan parallel to the National Transformation Plan in order to liberate the Saudi market and economy from foreign workers. Let such a plan be gradually and fairly implemented, but what matters is to begin implementing it. This does not mean we will isolate ourselves. Let us welcome foreigners who will add a marginal advantage to our economy, like the Americans and Europeans do.
The number of immigrants in the United States and Germany is 12 percent of the population, and a lot less in other countries. In Saudi Arabia, foreigners comprise a third of the population - that is a lot. It is a long and difficult battle, and we will only win when we truly believe that an economy based on the work of anyone other than its citizens is not healthy or sustainable. Therefore, we must not develop Saudi Arabia for the benefit of non-Saudis.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 2, 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