Saudi Vision 2030: A quiet and pragmatic revolution

It is a renaissance project built on pragmatic and scientific foundations

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The Vision 2030 plan announced by Saudi Arabia this week is nothing short of astonishing. It is a renaissance project built on pragmatic and scientific foundations, and a collective workshop aiming to substitute nationalization, rentier, and top-down models with a liberal economic and social approach, a philosophy of rewarding creativity and excellence, and a policy based on citizenship and participation.

The new Vision lays down the foundations for a historical leap that will no doubt shake up Saudi Arabia and the Arab region. It is the antithesis of the outcome so far of the Arab Spring, which had shaken things up without sustainable foundations. Yet the Vision is neither a revolution nor a coup, unlike what the Arab region has become accustomed to, in terms of change through ideology and cycles of anger and revenge. It is a calculated leap of development with an implementation mechanism, to the surprise of the Saudi citizen and the world.

Some have reacted to it with apprehension and resistance to change, and to the loss of privileges under the welfare state system. Others were receptive to the modernizing and enlightened bid for reform and development, and to being part of a national project, feeling as if awakened by a beautiful dream. The announcement of the Vision 2030 closed the curtain on the era of gradual change in Saudi Arabia, yet without losing respect for that chapter of Saudi history.

As soon as it was declared, the Vision was put into effect with immediate changes, inaugurating a new pact not based on blind compliance with the state, but on participation in effecting the future transformations, through creativity, innovation, and initiative-taking, and through embracing technology in medicine, education, agriculture, human capital, and employment.

What happened this week in Saudi Arabia is a recognition of the need for evolution, change, and keeping up with the technological revolution with a new and unprecedented philosophy in Saudi Arabia. This major event will also have extraordinary regional implications in the economic, social, and political spheres.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia is building a new regional political order with clear features, one that is bold, visionary, modernising, and liberal-leaning while also mindful of heritage and tradition. No doubt, this bid will be met with resistance by traditional conservatives and the beneficiaries of the entitlement culture, but the young people of the Gulf and the Aran region will ultimately heed the call of the future coming to them through the roadmap of creativity launched through the Vision 2030 initiative with awareness and dynamism.

The young people of the Gulf are more fortunate than their peers elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, not only because of the abundance of natural resources, but also because of the coolheaded governance revolutions taking place in the Gulf away from the ruckus of populist coups.

The UAE was the pioneer of visionary thinking and extraordinary initiatives. Its leaders have played a leading role that has galvanized young people and imparted on them a yearning for stability and happiness. These were no rhetorical slogans; happiness comes from reassurance about the suture, and from social and economic guarantees for their tomorrow. It comes from job opportunities and conscious plans for retirement, beyond healthcare and education.

Thus, the leaders of the UAE were the first to tweet to welcome the plan announces by Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, deputy crown prince, minister of defense, and head of the Economic and Development Council in charge of the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative and plan.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE ruler of Dubai, who has been a pioneer of renewal, said the Vision was full of ambition and hope for the country and the region, and proclaimed that Saudi’s young leadership will surprise the world with its achievements. He also said the plan is reason for optimism and hope for cultural renewal for the Arab nation, toward better exploitation of its energies, resources, and young people.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, said the vision was an “ambitious program by the king of decisiveness”. Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed said the project is a "giant step not only for Saudi Arabia, but also for the region towards further progress and achievement." "Integration with Saudi Arabia is our approach" he added, stressing that while some spread terror and chaos, “we, led by the wise Kingdom, our approach is building and happiness."

However, the celebration of this injection of reassurance does not mean that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are in guaranteed prosperity in a bubble that isolates them from what is happening in neighboring countries, or the Arab region and the Middle East in general. In truth, part of the new and unusual policies of the Gulf nations is the move by Saudi Arabia to lead an Arab coalition in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the consistent political positions on the Syrian question, and the economic steps vis-à-vis Egypt, for example.

On the Yemeni issue, the Saudi leadership believes its intervention was a necessity, as part of a calculated pre-emptive policy to contain the Houthis in Yemen before they expand to Saudi Arabia, and to make it clear to Iran that violating Saudi borders is a red line. This thinking is similar to the American thinking in Iraq and the Russian thinking in Syria, namely, that it is necessary to right wars “there” rather than “here”, in Russia, US, or Saudi soil.

The new vision is the antithesis of the outcome so far of the Arab Spring, which had shaken things up without sustainable foundations

Raghida Dergham

The Saudi leadership also believes that it has scored major achievements by pulling the likes of Sudan and Djibouti from the Iranian lap, using investment partnerships and not just political accords. In the Saudi Vision 2030, for example, there is mention of investment in agriculture in Sudan – a model qualitative leap that is necessary in the context of practical alliances and visions. Such multifaceted pragmatism characterizes the Saudi vision, whose launching and implementation has been supervised by Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

For one thing, Sudan is in dire need for Saudi capital and agricultural development and technology to increase production. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, would benefit from Sudan’s natural resources, vast and fertile farmlands, and abundant water. This cooperation also comes to serve the objectives of food security. It is a win-win equation, one that is pragmatic, economical, and politically shrewd based on expanding alliances, especially with countries that had been previously coopted over by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tackling Iranian expansionism as the Saudi leadership sees it is a firm and serious decision that Riyadh will not backtrack from. However, Saudi Arabia is adopting non-traditional policies in the process. What matters for Saudi’s leadership is to confine wars outside the kingdom, no matter the cost.

According to the view of the leadership, the war in Yemen is neither lost nor costly, and will not become a quagmire for Saudi Arabia, contrary to what experts have been saying. Some analysts have called for precautionary measures to prevent becoming implicated in a quagmire in Yemen, but Saudi officials have responded that keeping the war in Yemen contained within Yemen has been an achievement. Meanwhile, the current negotiations are serious and intend to secure an exit strategy for the Houthis, and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has lost the means to drag Saudi Arabia into a quagmire, hence the negotiations taking place in Kuwait, the officials argue.

In Syria, some are calling for a new military strategy to support the political strategy towards Syria, similar to the one pursued by the axis of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. They are calling for supplying the Syrian opposition with Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles stocked in Gulf warehouses – to avoid the US veto. These missiles’ range can hit Syrian planes but not Russian planes, which fly higher than their range. The main challenge to such a call is that there is no confidence in two main things required by the desired strategy, namely, momentum and sustainability.

If these two elements are otherwise secured, then it may be possible to induce a radical change in the negotiating equations, which remain far from being able to ripen a solution. But whether the negotiations conclude with a settlement or the devastating war in Syria is prolonged further, it will not be possible for Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, or Egypt or pretend they are immune to the Saudi-induced transformations in the regional political order. Nor will Iran be able to ignore the challenge coming from Saudi Arabia in a radical and fateful way, whose key title is political openness, privatization, and diversity.

This is a new philosophy for the Gulf states that Tehran had not expected to see come out of Riyadh. Iran had wagered instead on the weakness of the traditional philosophy that had bound Saudi Arabia and given it a reactionary reputation around the world to the advantage of the mullahs of Iran, some of whom took to the world their smiles of “reform” and “moderation” while hinting that Saudi Arabia is rigid and incapable of modernizing. Now, things will be different, requiring Iran’s leaders to reassess their policy based on the old rigid Saudi Arabia rather than the new liberal-leaning Saudi Arabia. This will have implications for regional policies, from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Yemen.

Indeed, it is not possible that the countries of the Middle East would be unaffected by the new regional political order launched by Saudi Arabia. To be sure, the entire Middle East is poised to change and be affected by the new liberal reforms, including the Gulf countries and Egypt, and trade between the Gulf, the East, and the West is set to receive a huge boost, amid major investments and an unprecedented new role for the private sector.

All this is part of a renaissance at the level of all sectors, from industry, agriculture, and administration to health, education and employment, as privatization is unleashed, ministries are restructured, and mechanisms are developed for monitoring and accountability.

The tough decision has been taken, and the implementation will now begin as part of mechanisms that are new for the Arab region. The decision has been made to stop the tradition of slacking and entitlement, and with the abolishment of the paternal welfare state that has killed the Gulf and made its people over reliant on oil. Nationalization has been replaced with competitiveness, creativity, and talent.

A quiet revolution has occurred in the relationship between the private sector and the traditional ministries under the Vision 2030. Oil, at the decision of the government, will now be outside state control, and the powers of the Ministry of Oil have been reduced in favor of the board of Aramco. This is no simple matter, particularly since the oil wealth in the Gulf region is a strategic and extraordinary commodity, according to a Gulf veteran. This would be the first time a company manages oil resources in the Gulf rather than a government.

And for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia, the decision of privatizing part of the national wealth in the local and international stock market will proceed, with 5 percent of Aramco’s shares offered for purchase, worth according to some reports more than $2 trillion. As the deputy crown prince put it, putting only 1 percent of Aramco’s shares to a public offering would be the largest in the history of the world, which would bring benefits including making Aramco more transparent and under the monitoring of Saudi and international banks.

As for the sovereign fund, which will ensure the government’s revenues come from investments rather than oil, this in turn is the result of the conviction that there has been an addiction to oil, as Prince Mohammed bin Salman put it, that has disrupted development. The fund will control 10 percent of the investment capacity in the world, and will not be run by Aramco.

However, investment and economic reform are not the only feature of the quantum leap in the Saudi vision. Indeed, it has also tackled the issue of improving life for expats and benefiting from them economically, and improving the role of Saudi women in the labor force, with their participation set to increase to 22-30 percent.

The right to excellence, merit, competition among talents, and creativity are new themes in the Arab region, particularly Saudi Arabia. Fulfilling citizenship through equality rather than the size of the tribe or sectarian identity is a major development. These are grand leaps that are not part of the traditional concepts and approaches based on gradualism. It is a quiet pragmatic revolution with a practical approach and mechanism, towards a new, exciting chapter in the region’s history.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Apr. 29, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

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