Recently, public attention has been focused on the ambitious plans of Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to modernize the economy and some of the customs of oil-rich but medievally governed Saudi Arabia, a nation of roughly 28 million centrally located in the Middle East. Central to the plan is an IPO of Aramco, arguably the only world class organization in the country. This would be intended to generate funds for current domestic investment, and perhaps load some of the risk in the oil markets on foreign investors.
Most observers and commentators agree that modernizing the economy and customs of the country would be desirable. And there is no reason to doubt that this ambitious prince wants to accomplish his grand development plans, in concert with international capital markets and government alliances. This is to the good.
But there is a great deal of dubiety about whether MbS can pull off the project as envisaged. Reasons range from disappointing results from prior grand plans of the Royals, an ill-prepared labor pool, the cultural drag of an extremely conservative society and its clerics, possible challenges from other members of the Royal Family who have had power and wealth rapidly siphoned off, concerns of potential investors that their investments and local partners therein may be subject to Royal shakedowns like the famous Ritz Carlton squeeze play (let us note, not as brutal as the Russian gulag), fears that resources may be wasted on ambitious foreign adventures like the Yemen war, and fears that the IPO itself may be difficult to pull off, at anything like the levels projected. Not to fail to mention that the timetable is daunting for any transformation of the society this large and comprehensive.
One of the central issues is the position of the Saudi Royal Family and what will be done about it, going forward. MbS wants to centralize control, in addition to modernizing it. But what will be done to open more economic and social opportunity to non-royals, and what will be done about the future power and wealth of thousands of royal family members which is not justified by their future ‘skill, foresight and industry’ in the basic terms of a competitive and democratic society?
The current-funds allowance system for Royals is famously, and one presumes purposely, opaque. Changing that in any substantial way may be about as welcome as a dentist poking a live nerve in an abscessed tooth. But if doing an IPO on Aramco necessarily entails not only disclosures about the operations of Aramco (not exactly publicized heretofore) but also clear and definitive disclosure of how oil-generated wealth is to be distributed in the future, what shall be known about the Royal Take-Out? If the Saudi society is to be made more open, flexible, competitive, and parasite-free, how can this issue not be addressed? And if the non-royals are to be asked to make some sacrifices of previously oil-funded entitlements, why should they submit if the Royals rollick on? How is MbS to have his cake -- society modernization -- and eat it too -- preservation of dynastic privileges?
To address all these issues successfully, the young Prince may need to be even bolder than he has shown himself to be thus far. He may need, in basic substance, to shift his ‘power base’ from his family and clerics to the population.
Though it now seems too daring to imagine, let us suppose that the Aramco IPO were accompanied by an explicit distribution of some of the funds to the Royal Family as a buy-out, on the condition that the Royals should have no guaranteed privileges as to directorship of significant enterprises, the awards of major government funded contracts, and the like. The upfront payout would be the Novocain for the tooth. (The buyout could conceivably be phased, to accommodate such financial realities as may be revealed, if the closure were guaranteed and irreversible),
What about MbS himself? Some form of constitutional monarchy could leave his leadership position intact. He need not fear poverty should his current liquid position not be impaired. He would be in a position to be the second, 21st century, founder of the country.
Any such program would be extremely challenging, to say the least. It would take enormous negotiation skills, as well as highest-level financial skills. MbS would need to realign his development plans from those of a rich man’s dreams (like Neom) to efforts more directly related to and desired by constituencies around his diverse country. He might need to develop ‘listening’ programs demonstrating his willingness to relate directly to his population.
Perhaps no one can pull off so daring a reorganization of this famously archaic State at this point. But the current vision 2030 is not guaranteed success. Nor is the position of MbS certainly secure, notwithstanding his swift and thus far successful consolidation of power. Were a buyout of the Royal Family openly and rigorously performed, the society could stand on better foundations, and the constructor of those foundations would have historic stature. And if this cleansing of antique and burdensome privileges is not done now, it may be done later by less civil means.
Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of United States Justice Department’s Antitrust Division's ‘Public Counsel and Legislative’ Section, Assistant General Counsel of Agency for International Development with responsibilities in Near East, South Asia sector, National Insititute of Public Affairs fellowship at Cornell, Deputy General Counsel, White House Office of Consumer Affairs, law practice relating to pro-competitive regulatory reform, and innovator of virtual office system for attorneys and others.