Vision 2030: The statesmen or the businessmen?

The issue is not the GDP, or export or manufacturing data but the stability of the nation and its citizens and a healthy work culture

Jamal Khashoggi

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Let us imagine the Saudi Arabian authorities are caught between two options while implementing Vision 2030 and giving final touches to its objectives. Suppose they have to choose between the statesman and the businessman. Should they help underprivileged citizens or the country’s big businesses who want to make large profits or should they pursue the policies framed during the oil era?

Since the choices might be difficult to understand, let me simplify by building two scenarios – one of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, the second at Dulles Airport in Washington DC. In the first scenario you see Saudi Arabian customs and immigration officers surrounded by dozens of laborers, performing menial tasks that don’t require experience. So, in this scenario, Indians in uniform with their company logo on their back, help travellers with their baggage.

At the Dulles Airport, all officers are Americans, including those who perform these tasks. These include young and elderly, women and men, working for hourly wages to earn a living.

The issue is not the GDP, or export or manufacturing data but the stability of the nation and its citizens and a healthy work culture

Jamal Khashoggi

Returning to Jeddah, we see businessmen keen to save money and increasing profit margins by signing deals with subcontracting maintenance companies. The company owner who gets the tender secures more worker visas. He then hires low-cost laborers to make bigger profits and hires those with no training or work experience.

He may be the only Saudi Arabian citizen in this company and may be keeping few other citizens on the register in order to meet the Ministry of Labor requirements. There is no creativity involved, no experience needed. It is pure quick profit motive that lasts several years until he loses this tender to another Saudi citizen.

Everyone is satisfied with this arrangement. The security officer is assisted by obedient workers, the traveller is happy and so is the civil aviation administration. Unfortunately the country’s economy suffers and a healthy labor culture isn’t developed.

Taxpayer vs unemployed

In Washington, and most of the airports around the world, the country provides the largest number of jobs to its citizens.

These countries prefer to turn them into taxpayers instead of leaving them unemployed and dependent on donations or social security. Citizens also help maintain work culture in the community and there is no need to hire unskilled people for unnecessary jobs.

These employees are not geniuses whose inventions add billions to the US gross national income. These are instead students working to save money to complete their education. They might be regular men looking for regular jobs or women contributing to the household expenses. What is important here is that a healthy work culture is alive in the community and tens of millions of Americans are contributing to the country’s economy, even though they continue to demand higher wages.

I would certainly hope that Saudi Arabia prefers to help its poor and not the businessman whose manipulate figures. I am sure that the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, leader of the Vision 2030, will make the right decision. This already became clear when he said that there are 10 million jobs occupied by foreigners but we do not want to put pressure on the private sector, unless this is our last alternative.

This also became evident with the creation of Labor and Social Development ministry by merging the Ministry of Labor with the Ministry of Social Affairs and appointing the Minister as the Chairman of the Independent Commission of Religious Endowments. It was important because the latter controls billions worth of assets that could be utilized to employ those in need of jobs.

Earlier, the king would give orders to the Minister of Finance to allocate additional billions and put it at the disposal of the Minister of Social Affairs whenever needed. But experience has shown that this is a vicious circle and will not prove adequate in the future. The solution is to employ the beneficiaries of Social Security (estimated to be around 20 percent of the population) into the labor market. However, this will be difficult since there is a wide network of operation and maintenance companies who dominate the market due to cheap labor.

This is the mission of a state, not a businessman. The issue is not the GDP, or export or manufacturing data but the stability of the nation and its citizens and a healthy work culture. The role of businessman and entrepreneur in engaging and strengthening the culture by creating opportunities for unemployed young citizens trained abroad is also critical. They must help the young men and women who have studied at the best universities around the world and utilize their skills in industries and services within Saudi Arabia.

A healthy society does not leave the weak behind. It empowers them “as the advocate of free markets” as the Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman said. Everyone wins through this process of empowerment.

This article first appeared in Al Hayat on May 14, 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

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