There are two sides to socio-economic reform: the number and the story. Every data point is just a number from today amplified by a story about tomorrow. Behind the success of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are millions of equally meaningful yet deeply personal success stories.
The Middle East’s most ambitious reform project – Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 – is no exception. It may be hard to reconcile in the statistical mind of the average policy wonk – an individual not viscerally impacted by, or invested in, this comprehensive reform blueprint. But from the perspective of Saudi youth, the Vision’s primary drivers and beneficiaries, the precedence of transformative success stories over abstract statistics is self-evident.
Quantitative metrics and indices can only go so far in relaying what the Kingdom’s reform-based trajectory means to Saudis. Let us define reform, in its harmonious duplexity, like a waltz between stories and statistics; out of this dialogue comes a tensile strength, a holistic picture with a narrative-shaping force far more potent than raw data. Novelist Richard Powers captures that efficacy: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
Vision 2030 outlines a plethora of objectives to pursue a diversified economy and a thriving society. The goal of increasing female labor force participation from 22 per cent to 30 per cent is a clear case in hand. Today, that figure is at 33 per cent –exceeding the initial KPI ahead of time is, however, just one side of success.
The other, less quantifiable dimension is the elation felt by Saudi women now actualizing unmet potential, the visceral sense of empowerment that thousands of mothers will pass on to their daughters, and the fulfillment that comes with a meaningful career at the heart of national development.
The impact of this empowerment transcends the confines of your average desk job. Saudi footballing prodigy Farah Jefry would undoubtedly agree, as the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) recently launched the inaugural edition of the Saudi Women’s Football League.
With over 70 per cent of the Saudi population under the age of 35, Saudi youth are well-positioned to shape the future of the Kingdom. This unique demographic trend warrants greater emphasis on social innovation and entrepreneurship – raising the current contribution of SMEs to GDP from 20 per cent to 35 per cent is a crucial Vision 2030 objective. Today, that figure hovers around 30 per cent.
As far as impact is concerned, the Saudi tech transformation extends beyond what we can compute. The ubiquitous opportunities offered by the sector are rapidly transforming how young Saudis think about success, failure, social impact, and where they stand vis-à-vis national development.
Historically, the career progression for many young people in the Kingdom followed a relatively predictable path: graduate from college, land a lifetime job at a large organization or the public sector and retire. That path no longer cuts it. Saudi youth today are acutely aware that this generation is uniquely positioned to shape the future of the Kingdom and are venturing out, and even excelling, in the unpredictable world of entrepreneurship.
It was certainly the case for Mohammed Aldhalaan and Aziz Alsaeed, co-founders of Noon Academy, the fastest growing Edtech company in the MENA region. The entrepreneurial shift we see today will blaze a trail of inspiration for upcoming generations, whose entrepreneurial verve will build on the success of visionaries responsible for the likes of Jahez, Hungerstation, DokkanAfkar, Unifonic, and others.
Closely related is the inclusion of more than 400 cultural professions in the Unified Saudi Occupational Classification as a byproduct of Vision 2030. That’s the number, but what about the story?
The young, eccentric Saudi designer passionate about nexus fashion and sustainability can now, through creative expression, positively impact national development by launching their own green fashion line—ditto for the aspiring Saudi film producer or underground musician.
More than ever, Saudi youth - in creative industries and beyond - feel heard, respected, valued, and included; they feel that their contributions to society are essential forces for development. Cold-hard data can’t capture the magnitude of that change. Is this an attack on the efficacy of data-driven metrics? Certainly not, but rather a sharp reminder of daily lives being transformed.
These stories encapsulate what statistics can’t – biases, hopes, faith, dreams, attitudes, affiliations, emotions, and the transformational potential they carry. These things are hard to measure, predict, or even model in a spreadsheet, yet collectively form Vision 2030’s most potent force: the Saudi individual. And that’s the beauty of reform’s dichotomy.
Vision 2030 is intended to guide the country’s reform-based trajectory rather than serve as a predetermined forecast of the future state of the Kingdom. Vision 2030 is not one big math equation. Saudis understand that the Vision should not be viewed as a set of goals where success hinges on an abstract relationship between inputs and outputs.
Data fails miserably in relaying the nuance of reform - the beautiful grey area where policies evolve, empower, inspire and transform. The onlooker who limits Vision 2030’s success to a set of data points is as regressive as the individual willingly ignoring its progress. Perhaps even more regressive, as figures are only truly understood through the lens of the stories and individuals catalyzing them.
There is boundless power in the unquantifiable. To rob reform of its qualitative dimensions is to rob a portrait of its color. From the perspective of its main drivers and prime beneficiaries, Vision 2030 is a canvas - one in which the brush of policy makes careful strokes, where the number and the story are integrated into one holistic portrait. The onus is on every Saudi to put that masterpiece, in all its facets, on full display for the world to see.