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Advancing Saudi Arabia’s government structures

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

While examining Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, spearheaded by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, there are several challenging long-term and short-term commitments that must be assessed.

Establishing a huge logistics center linking three continents by air, sea and land is a strategic and ambitious project that will require a lot of time, effort and money, as well as plans to attract 30 million pilgrims a year by 2030.

When it comes to cutting down government bureaucracies, in terms of reducing big government and easing the roles in which administrative systems play at, will inevitably lead to a reduction in wasted time, helps in mobilizing efforts and spare some costs. If done in the right way, it would help widen the circle of stakeholders involved.

The process of developing efficient working systems should not take much time and costs but rather requires good management to follow through. Reorganizing will help overcome obstacles and introduce the necessary reforms to the systems and modernize them.

I do not imagine any of the Vision 2030 objectives can be achievable without firstly reforming structures and doing away with lengthy bureaucracy.

Reorienting the structures

The late Saudi politician, Ghazi El Kasaybi, was one of the foremost critics stifling bureaucracy and considered it one of the main obstacles in governance. He even wrote a famous book about it title “Life in management” based on his deep experience in facing bureaucracy.

I once asked him whether bureaucracy was from the fault of the government employee or vis-à-vis the environment said government employee was working under. He replied with a smile on his face: “Not everyone is like Ghazi.” This revealed his own unique character in fighting impediments, which is something that we don’t always see in others who simply follow the system and can’t find alternative pathways to get things done.

Through huge economic entities, Saudi Arabia will be able to move to the next stage that will enable it to rehabilitate the society to a more productive one that can compete with today’s modern demands.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

The Saudi government has been functioning now for more than half of a century. Back then, it started operating with simple measures; a small piece of paper was enough for past finance ministers to get things through instantly. Today, the same formality would take days.

The state’s institutions are now preoccupied with adopting procedures and protocols instead of focusing on specific goals and objectives they were set out to achieve. So many of these long-drawn administrative structures don’t go hand-in-hand with the modernizing philosophies of the government.

Contrary to popular beliefs, officials in the public sector spend time more than their counterparts in the private sector just to achieve one task.

Therefore, it is quite necessary that the mindset has to change as the role of the state evolves. This has to be done as the state now plays a role in the daily life of the Saudi citizen – from birth to retirement, from home permits to his child’s education.

Half a century later, modern-day life has placed more burdens on the citizen’s shoulders and hence, leading to higher expectations demanded of the government to perform.

Before, the population could be counted in millions. Now, the population accounts for more than 24 million inhabitants. Because of all this, the old ways don’t cut it anymore.

Enabling the private sector

The government has initiated ways in which the private sector plays its part by employing citizens and providing them with the basic services. The Vision 2030 is set to create new opportunities for the private sector to invest in more vital areas like education and health and promises to reform the system and legislation.

But I don’t envision the government solely relying on the capacities of the private sector, which might not be ready to take on the burden. I think it will slowly move to establishing huge economic entities to plug the holes and bridge the gaps and eventually, limit the economic slowdown.

This would be a great opportunity for Saudi Arabia because reorienting its economy to big institutions, as opposed to heavily populated countries like Egypt, will need to further break down its sectors on a wider scale.

Through huge economic entities, the country will be able to move to the next stage that will enable it to rehabilitate the society to a more productive one that can compete in today’s modern demands.

In Saudi Arabia, some sectors have been able to break away from big governance like the petrochemical and communication ministries, banking companies and businesses like dairy giant ‘Al Maraai. So no doubt that small businesses have stayed vulnerable and suffered with the failure to provide adequate training and nationalization efforts to see it succeed.

The government will lead the change in the markets during the first phase, by the privatization of some of its services like the health ministry.

The path to privatization will inevitably face doubters to its path to potential success. I can recall a similar case in the 1990’s when there were demands for full privatization of the telecommunications sector by the state.

The ministry of communication opposed the idea citing two reasons: the high incomes of the phone sector that represented a second source of income for the country after oil, and secondly, the question of security. But after the telecommunication industry was privatized, the government’s income doubled threefold and did not pose threat the country’s national security.

Saudi Arabia needs to move from the Rentier state mentality to one embracing the free economy market.

This is where re-structuring the systems to do away with bureaucracy will help jumpstart the expansion efforts toward developing a freer and bigger economy.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 7, 2016.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.