October 25, 2016

Saudi Vision 2030 and “A Day in Riyadh”

View of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

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.

During the last week of September, Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Development Authority – along with other governmental agencies including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Commerce, and The King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue – organized a five-day event at the United Nations secretariat building in New York City called “A Day in Riyadh.” In a clear attempt at rebranding, the organizers of the event sought to challenge Western assumptions about Saudi Arabia in general and its capital, Riyadh, in particular. Additionally, the event was an appeal to a Saudi audience to market Vision 2030, an ambitious package of economic and social reforms spearheaded by the Saudi deputy crown prince and head of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Mohammed bin Salman. This grand vision and its more detailed corollary, the National Transformation Program, which aim to reduce the Saudi economy’s dependence on hydrocarbons, have put economic and social reforms at the center of King Salman’s still unfolding legacy. At its core, the vision is a restructured social contract.

The events in New York were part of the Saudi government’s broader effort to not only promote Vision 2030 but also to convince international investors to look carefully at opportunities in Saudi Arabia. One of the objectives of the plan is to increase foreign direct investment from 3.8 percent of gross domestic product to the international average of 5.7 percent of GDP.

But at the same time “A Day in Riyadh” appears to have been part of the Saudi leadership’s campaign to sell the vision to the Saudi public at large. It is the Saudi people who are being asked to make sacrifices as the government has begun to reduce spending by cutting subsidies to water, electricity, and fuel. But it is also the Saudi people who would benefit from the plan’s success. According to a number of panelists over the course of the event, Vision 2030 aims to provide incentives for Saudi citizens to live and work in the kingdom, keeping their disposable income in the country. At the same time, tourism is a major focus of Vision 2030. Saudi planners are banking on the tourism sector to not only employ thousands of Saudis but also to keep the billions of dollars Saudis spend while vacationing in Dubai and Manama inside the country by exploring Saudi Arabia’s “hidden treasures” instead.

Four panels over the course of four days stressed one central theme: Riyadh has undergone tremendous changes over the last five decades and it will continue to develop and grow. Not only has Riyadh’s population increased, from below 50,000 to 5.5 million, but so has its actual landmass. The event’s presentations, interactive displays, and promotional videos all emphasized that change was the one constant in Riyadh. A number of speakers focused on the King Abdullah Financial District, which is envisioned to be a financial center that will compete with Dubai, the current financial center of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Others spoke about what is billed as the biggest transportation project in the world – the Riyadh Metro and the related Riyadh Bus project. Though much of the attention about the metro project has focused on its size and cost, its ultimate aim, like the broader Vision 2030 itself, is to change the way Saudis live their lives. Only two percent of people living in Riyadh currently use public transportation.

Notably, the speakers did not pretend that Riyadh’s development has proceeded in a linear and uninterrupted fashion. Some acknowledged that Riyadh’s difficult topology and harsh climate has at times created somewhat unique obstacles as the city was transformed from a small walled city of a few thousand to a sprawling, modern city. Speakers spoke about some of the difficulties planners faced in trying to develop a modern metropolis while still maintaining Riyadh’s heritage. Vision 2030 stresses this theme, recognizing that Saudi Arabia’s economic cities were well-intentioned projects, but that they have largely not lived to their promise or potential. However, even projects that have not been successes are framed as potential opportunities.

As Saudi Arabia begins to implement the National Transformation Program, skepticism about its success abounds in the West and also among some Saudis. However, there is also a significant segment of Saudis who appear to value it as a much-needed effort to wean the country off its dependence on oil revenue. At the same time, some Saudis are eager for a restructuring of the social contract that redefines the relationship between the state and its citizenry. Vision 2030 aims to make Saudi citizens stakeholders in building the future Saudi economy emphasizing public-private partnerships, accountability, transparency, and efficiency. There is no doubt that the package of reforms is as ambitious in its goals as it is broad in its scope. The question remains if the stated commitment of the Saudi leadership to its implementation will survive the many challenges that lie ahead.

Fahad Nazer is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.