July 18, 2016

Saudi Students Welcome Vision 2030

King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia ( Abdulrahman Y. Idlbi)
by Mark C. Thompson

This post is part of an AGSIW series on Saudi Vision 2030, a sweeping set of programs and reforms adopted by the Saudi government to be implemented by 2030.

Since Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) unveiled Vision 2030 in April a great deal of analysis has focused on the potential impact of the plan at the national level. Saudi youth are a natural constituency for the MbS-led transformation program, and not surprisingly, there have been concerted efforts to reach out to them. But how has Vision 2030 been interpreted by young educated male Saudis, many of whom are struggling to enter the labor market at a time of economic uncertainty? Saudi male undergraduate students at the prestigious King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) – principally majoring in engineering and finance – had an opportunity to voice their opinions about Vision 2030 as part of a globalization course term project. What follows are some of their thoughts.

Publicity and Transparency in Vision 2030

In Saudi Arabia it has often been the case that highly publicized government initiatives have gone relatively unnoticed by large parts of the population. However, to a greater degree, it appears that Saudi Vision 2030 has resonated – and been welcomed – by these KFUPM students as a positive step forward. Many feel “optimistic and excited” with one individual stating that he follows news about Vision 2030 closely as it “could change the kingdom’s history forever.” According to a finance student “Vision 2030 is what the kingdom needs at this time” because with the decline in oil prices the government must take actions to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil. However, there is consensus among these young men that reducing unemployment and providing affordable housing should be the “top priorities” of Vision 2030.

Students point out that the manner in which Vision 2030 was announced was unprecedented. Many of these young Saudis were happy that MbS “spoke his mind” and appeared transparent, not only about his plans, but also about the challenges facing Saudi Arabia in the near future. As an electrical engineering senior comments “We never saw this kind of transparency before, not just domestic transparency, but also global transparency.” Nonetheless, a major complaint among other students is that in its initial stages they had to learn about the National Transformation Program from foreign media sources such as Bloomberg and The Economist, which to them “indicated a continuing lack of transparency.” Still, several students contend that following the launch MbS’s transparency has encouraged public debate about Vision 2030, which is extremely positive in their opinion. There is a strong belief among these educated individuals that Vision 2030 cannot succeed unless society is included so that ordinary Saudis, youth in particular, have a say in the future of the kingdom.

Youth Speaking to Youth

One striking aspect of Vision 2030 has been the leadership role played by the young deputy crown prince. Indeed, for these young Saudis this is something “new and very exciting – a 31-year-old prince outlining the future of the kingdom particularly as we are used to hearing this type of news from the 60+ generation who, however well-meaning, are out-of-touch with the way that young Saudis think.” For many it is refreshing to see a younger Al Saud “who is more in tune with the kingdom’s young population talking about issues linked to our hopes and aspirations.”

In the opinion of one engineering graduate, the most interesting aspect of Vision 2030 is how it reflects the importance of Saudi public opinion, or indeed the emergence of a “new online Saudi civil society.” Another individual notes that following the unveiling of Vision 2030 on Al Arabiya, “social media accounts were inundated by primarily positive comments from young Saudis.” Other students note that the way Vision 2030 has been highlighted on social media is a “new development for the kingdom” and in consequence, this is one of the main reasons the launch of Vision 2030 resonates with many of them.

Doubting Implementation, Questioning Goals

Although these young Saudis welcome Vision 2030, some also sound a note of caution citing Vision 2030 as being “overly optimistic.” One student comments that he is not sure how these “ambitious plans” can be implemented by 2030. In his opinion “It is certainly a ‘big ask,’ as the implementation of these ambitious plans might be another thing altogether as quite clearly the devil is in the detail.” Many individuals agree that the implementation of Vision 2030 will be more important than its unveiling: “In the beginning it was just an abstract,” says one student. “From now on it’s got to be the full paper.”

Indeed, some of these young Saudis wonder whether Vision 2030 can – or will – be fully implemented. They also stress that it needs to be “implemented correctly” as this is an opportunity to prevent future economic crises and maintain, or even raise, living standards in the kingdom. These students acknowledge that the kingdom must diversify its economy “sooner rather than later” as the country will need alternative sources of income due to economic realities of low oil prices. That said, there are certain areas that are “off limits” to Saudi society and others, such as the “sin taxes,” that society accepts. MbS obviously realizes this, and that is the reason that an income tax proposal is not on the table – something that, according to these individuals, Saudi society rejects totally. Vision 2030 cannot work unless MbS has Saudi society on his side, they argue.

Why is Vision 2030 needed? According to one individual it is because having a vision is better than having no vision at all: First, you set the goals and then try to build a plan to achieve those goals. Others point out that Vision 2030 is not one-dimensional as it also encompasses sociocultural issues: For example, increasing the number of Saudis who exercise daily from 13 to 40 percent. As one young man comments, “This is an interesting goal as we have never really heard a senior prince discuss this type of issue before.”

A group of Saudi Shia students thinks that another extremely important issue is that the government has so far failed to produce policies and plans that target specific Saudi societal constituencies. In their opinion, the government cannot treat the citizens of Al Qassim in the same way as the citizens of Jeddah, or their own Shia community in Qatif. These are very different groupings with very different requirements and aspirations, all of whom require “different Visions.” Nonetheless, other individuals interpret Vision 2030 as a blueprint for more inclusivity and societal participation, i.e. a renegotiated Saudi social contract. These students argue further that if Vision 2030 fails to meet societal expectations the political consequence could be the destabilization of the existing social contract.

The “Honeymoon Period”

Fortunately, for MbS it seems that most of these young Saudis understand that the guiding principles behind Vision 2030 are necessary because the kingdom has entered a new era that requires adopting a completely new “post-oil mentality.” Even if some individuals admit to little knowledge of the details of Vision 2030, they believe Vision 2030 is important in the long term as it “could demonstrate the extent that the rulers are interested in developing the kingdom with significant input from its young citizens.” Although for the moment MbS appears to have the backing of young Saudis, his actual National Transformation Program has to deliver on the details. Hence, for the time-being it seems that many of these young Saudis are giving MbS the benefit of the doubt – that is a “honeymoon period.”

As Khaled Al Maeena argues in “No Turning Back,” in TRENDS: The international magazine on Arab affairs, these new reforms are giving young Saudis hope. Thus, it is imperative that the Saudi government includes the majority of the population – its youth – in Vision 2030. A society that deprives half its population from nation building is doomed to failure.

The final word should go to one young Saudi graduate who argues that many media sources are missing the point by saying that Vision 2030 “is just goals and that there are no real plans yet.” In his opinion, Vision 2030 “has a clear and significant goal and that is to shift the attitude of youth to become more future oriented – to set goals and try and achieve these goals. In other words, to be ambitious.” I, for one, hope that Vision 2030 provides them with the opportunity.

Mark C. Thompson is an assistant professor of Middle East studies at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.