Saudi Vision 2030 is probably the most ambitious plan of human development, social transformation and economic growth ever made. If realised, the project could have a significant impact on the distribution of power in the international system, speeding up the transition towards multipolarity.
Saudi Arabia is often described as a declining energy superpower based on a petroleum-addicted economy and incapable of starting a process of economic and social modernisation due to the high power played in the key sectors of society and politics by the clergy and the royal family.
The country has traditionally tried to assume a leading role in the Islamic world by taking advantage from hosting the Two Holy Mosques of Al-Masjid al-Haram and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, the most sacred places for Islam, but the simultaneous strong alliance with the United States and the ambiguous position regarding the funding of Islamist terrorism and the promotion of Wahhabism all over the world have undermined its status and its legitimacy among the Ummah.
Many essential challenges coming from both domestic and international panorama have emerged in the recent years and could represent an opportunity for growth or a risk of implosion for the monarchy: the longstanding semi-religious conflict with Iran and the Shia galaxy in which have recently entered Qatar and Turkey in support of Teheran, the spectrum of an infinite war in Yemen, the instability of the petroleum sector which convinced the royal family of the need to diversify the economy, a growing and young population requiring a more active and incisive role in civil society and in public and private sector, the importance of starting up a process of semi-secularization based on a reduction of the social and political influence of the clergy, on the granting of more rights to citizens and on the eradication of Wahhabist, Salafist and Qutbist ideology in order to truly open the country to the world and to attract the necessary investments for growth and development.
On 25 April 2016 the First Deputy Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, son of King Salman, announced a long-term plan named ‘Saudi Vision 2030’ with the aim to convert the country in a great power from different points of view: economic, trading, political, technological and military, by means of up to one trillion dollars of investments in education, public services, health, infrastructures, army, research and development, labor market, high tech, tourism and entertainment.
Vision 2030 is based on three main pillars: the importance of remaining the core of Islamic world, the ambition of becoming a global investment centre and the complete transition towards a post-oil economy strongly diversified and based on cultural and religious tourism, entertainment, and world trade by exploiting the geostrategic position among three continents.
The re-legitimation of the country to the eyes of Ummah is not only due to religious convictions but mostly for geopolitical reasons: the containment of Turkey and Iran, which are forming an anti-Saudi axis, and in extension anti-American and anti-Israeli, through a series of proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Ansar Allah, and Qatar.
The level of estimation of the Turkey-Iran axis in the Islamic world is growing faster, particularly after the US recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, followed by the Iranian decision to pass a bill recognizing the city as capital of Palestine and by the Turkish call for an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting which brought to the Istanbul Declaration on Freedom for al-Quds.
King Salman expressed concern and nothing else, showing that the Palestinian cause is no longer a milestone for the country, which is more interested in strengthening the ties with the United States and with Israel.
While in Iran there is an Islamic republic founded on a rigid application of Sharia and in Turkey the Justice and Development Party is reversing the process of Westernization opened by Kemal Ataturk, Vision 2030 seeks the eradication of Wahhabism and of other conservative and extremist Islamist schools of thought and the promotion of a tolerant and moderate Islam in order to clean the image of the country in the world.
The plan also aspires to increase the number of Muslim pilgrims visiting the country each year to perform the Umrah and the Hajj: about 10 million people in 2015, according to government estimates, a growing number requiring more facilities and infrastructures in light of the ambition to reach quota 30 million by 2030. Several projects have been put under development to achieve this target: the modernization and the enlargement of the national airports in order to increase their capacities, the expansion of the Two Holy Mosques area, the improvement of the transport system and of the highway and railway connections from and to Medina and Mecca and the simplification of the visa application procedures; besides, in Medina is under construction a museum dedicated to the history of Islam.
The second pillar is the transformation of Saudi Arabia in a global investment powerhouse and to achieve this objective is expected the conversion of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) into the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund endowed with up to 2 trillion dollars of financial assets. The attraction of international investments will be used to stimulate the economy and diversify the revenues.
Last but not least is the transition towards a post-oil economy. As of 2017, the oil sector accounted for about 42% of GDP, 87% of budget revenues and 90% of export earnings, without including the jobs created in relation to the oil production and distribution – Vision 2030 aspires to create an economic system highly developed and mainly based on the primary, tertiary, quaternary and quinary sectors.
Since today, the citizens have been living in a sort of tax-free regime due to the high revenues provided by the oil sector, which have allowed to the royal family a widespread distribution of wealth among the country, and the plan is to reduce the dependency of the Saudis on public spending and to increase their role in the private sector, currently hegemonized by foreigners coming from all over the world, through a process of “Saudisation“, i.e., the replacement of the foreign specialists with Saudis.
Vision 2030 also seeks to realise a Western-style feminisation of the workplace and the ongoing expansion of the civil rights of women started by Mohammad bin Salam expected to have the double function to modernise the society and the labour market.
Just like the One Belt and One Road Initiative will try to convert Beijing in the leading player in Eurasian affairs, Vision 2030 will try to turn Riyadh in the central regional power of the Middle East and of the Persian Gulf by exploiting the potential offered by its geostrategic position and by the unexplored fields of natural resources like gold, phosphate, uranium and other minerals.
Aramco, the national petroleum and gas company, currently the most valuable enterprise of the world and of the largest by revenue, will be transformed into a global industrial conglomerate involved in several trades and sectors.
The most ambitious plan in this context is NEOM, a transnational city based on a special economic zone regime and under construction along the border region of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Neom will cover a territory of approximately 26,500 square kilometres and will be connected with Egypt through a bridge named after King Salman. The entire project will have a planned cost of about 500 billion dollars, and the first phase is expected to be completed by 2025.
The entertainment industry would play an important in the future economy. In May 2016 a royal decree established the General Authority for Entertainment with an initial budget of 2 billion dollars. The agency handles the funds devolved to the promotion and to the expansion of sports, culture, cinema and entertainment in the country.
Under the guidance of the GAE took place two historical events in 2017: the first public live music concert in 25 years in Riyadh in May, and the 87th anniversary of the Saudi funding in September, during which women for the first time were allowed to enter into the King Fahd International Stadium.
As part of the entertainment revolution is expected the re-opening of the cinemas all over the country starting from the second half of this year, with the goal of building up to 300 cinemas by 2030, and the building of a mega entertainment city near Al-Qidiya of approximately 334 square kilometres, composed by theme parks, safari, sports and culture area, a snow park, a cinema complex and other infrastructures.
Tourism also will be a key-sector of the future economy. Along the Hejazi coast is expected the building of a mega-beach resort on a territory of approximately 34,000 square kilometres composed by 50 islands, luxury hotels and several facilities and services for leisure and amusement destinated to international tourists. The project will be funded by the PIF and strictly monitored because considered as the catalyst of the economic rebirth of the Red Sea region, indeed, would create about 35,000 jobs and an initially scheduled income of up to 4 billion dollars.
The mega-resort will be given a semi-autonomous status and will be governed by a legal system aligned with international law to allow tourists to perform activities forbidden to the citizens like the wearing of bikinis or the drinking of alcoholics.
Tens of billions of dollars are being devolved to urban development and army modernisation and several public authorities have been established to drive reforms aimed at improving the quality of bureaucracy, e-government, fiscal balance, human capital and life.
Vision 2030 started with optimistic and very high expectations, but outside Saudi Arabia, many actors considered the plan to be too ambitious and destined to be a partial failure. According to IMF in the next future, the country could face several risks potentially lethal such as the absence of foreign reserve currency and the increase of non-performing loans and the fiscal deficit.
Hilal Khashan, MENA expert for the Middle East Forum, noted that the success of Vision 2030 depends on many factors whose importance has been underestimated: the strict relationship between economic and political development, i.e., the fluctuation of oil prices, the difficulty to modernise and to disrupt corruption and nepotism in a few years in a society based on tribalism and familism.
Furthermore, the “Saudisation” of the private sector requires more investments in improvement of national education system in order to train workers as qualified as the foreigners, salary adjustments to push citizens to accept jobs currently characterized by lower wages and more working hours and a general increase in size by means of privatization of state-owned companies and foreign investments to cut down the rising youth unemployment and to prevent a bankruptcy risk due to the unsustainability for the government to support such a large public sector in the long term.
For each criticism, Vision 2030 seems to have a response. Indeed, each authority supervises a series of projects for whose realisation, budget, feasibility and failure are individually responsible and at the end of every year redacts a report regarding the development status of the single projects which is read by Mohammad bin Salman, the supervisor of the entire plan.
In less than two years from its starting many social openings have been made, particularly regarding the civil rights of women, and almost each urban development project has been begun, but the situation in the Middle East is rapidly getting worse due to the renewed activism of Iran, Turkey, Russia, Israel, Hezbollah and the United States in the region.
Vision 2030 is probably the most ambitious plan of human development and economic growth ever made, and its success could redefine in a very significant way the status of Saudi Arabia in the future international system, whose transition from unipolarity to multipolarity has already begun and this plan is the evidence.
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Emanuel Pietrobon. Graduating in International Sciences, Development and Cooperation at the University of Turin. Currently, he is enrolled at the University of Economics and Humanities in Lodz (Poland) thanks to the scholarship for the study of Information and Communication Sciences. Passionate about religious and energetic geopolitics, religion in international relations, sociology of religions and the masses. I speak English, Spanish and Romanian correctly.