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Saudi Arabia’s Agenda of Economic Diversification is More Urgent Than Ever
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The Saudi government has released a development plan every five years since 1970, yet across each one, a central objective has remained constant: economic diversification away from hydrocarbons. But the ubiquity of this goal is a signal of the country’s failure to achieve it. In 2016, however, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly referred to by his initials) dumped the traditional five-year plans in favor of Saudi Vision 2030, an ambitious, comprehensive plan designed to radically transform the Saudi economy—understanding that long-term prosperity necessitates a diversified, and resilient, economy.

In September 2019, the IMF proclaimed that the Saudi authorities had made “good progress” carrying out this agenda, increasing non-oil growth and revenue, developing the private sector, and strengthening female labor force participation and employment. Yet the threefold challenge of the pandemic, resultant low oil prices, and an international reputation at its nadir threaten its realization—an outcome that would hurt Saudi citizens and the region’s future broadly. In fact, some observers have deemed Vision 2030 dead. But economic diversification is a patient man’s game that requires horizons of years and decades, not months. Adroitly managed, each of these three challenges can be surmounted.

Like all countries, COVID-19 upended any vestige of normalcy in the Kingdom. Since the tourism and entertainment sectors are key targets of their economic reforms, one would reasonably assume that major projects like Neom, Qiddiya, and Amaala would be jeopardized, yet the Kingdom’s response (bolstered by its experience with MERS) and forthcoming vaccines means they should continue, albeit potentially in a modified form in a post-COVID world.

While Saudi Arabia’s true case count is unknown, the measures taken seem to have prevented any (known) severe outbreaks after nearly all restrictions were lifted in June. This included subsidies for wages and failing businesses during the height of the pandemic, mitigating the economic fallout—indeed, the IMF recently revised its economic forecast upward. While Saudi officials have acknowledged the pace of reform will temporarily slow, they are pressing forward, having since tripled the VAT and decreased public sector employee’s cost of living allowances, which are early steps towards increasing non-oil revenue, reducing subsidies, and incentivizing citizens to enter the underdeveloped private sector.

Second, persistently low oil prices has renewed claims of “peak oil” and predictions of collapsing petro-states. While the industry is undoubtedly threatened and the advent of scalable renewables may be hastened as a result of the pandemic, not all petro-states will suffer equally. Saudi Arabia is the world’s lowest cost producer of oil, meaning they are likely to be one of the last standing, resulting in increased market share over time.

Moreover, widespread perception that the oil industry is inexorably in decline means that investment will likely decline and prices will rise as supply fails to keep up with demand. As Jason Bordhoff aptly noted, this creates a paradox whereby this boon for low-cost producers could simultaneously hasten their downfall as higher oil prices make renewables more competitive. Nonetheless, this reality makes producers like Saudi Arabia more resilient than observers care to admit, allowing more time for diversification efforts to bear fruit.

Lastly, the declining reputation of Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince may be the hardest to overcome if what’s past is prologue, posing an existential threat to Vision 2030. MBS’s egregious actions—from the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Ritz Carlton fiasco, the intervention in Yemen, infiltrations of Twitter to surveil critical expats, amongst others—have significantly dampened appetite for investment and partnerships. Just how far the Kingdom’s fall into disrepute has been was exemplified recently when the UN Human Rights Council rejected their bid for membership but accepted Russia and China in the wake of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s poisoning and crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, respectively.

Nevertheless, it is conceivable that MBS could temper his actions. Given the severe blowback, it would be rational—even for a leader like MBS whose primary objective is self-preservation—to exercise more restraint given the realization that his efforts to suppress dissent and consolidate power are actually making the Saudi government less stable and less likely to achieve Vision 2030 as long as they remain an international pariah.

Similarly, a drawdown from internecine warfare in Yemen would not only alleviate some international pressure, it would free up funds to reallocate to diversification. Further, pressing forward on cultural reform would attenuate criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s draconian laws and improve the economy. Over time, these actions would unlock needed foreign direct investment.

Yet, while reform prior to the pandemic was moving apace, there are significant risks to their top-down method. Their primary investment vehicle, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), is chaired by MBS himself, which creates a high-risk scenario in which success is largely dependent on his counsel—which, as revealed earlier, is fickle to say the least. The centrality of the PIF in Vision 2030 has only risen after Saudi Aramco’s debut on the Tadawul failed to raise as much capital as anticipated.

But, ultimately, the Saudi government may attempt to employ more crafty tactics to advance Vision 2030. Given evidence of the House of Saud’s softening stance towards normalization with Israel, it is not unimaginable that they would leverage their position as the regional centerpiece for Israel-Palestine peace to secure investment in Vision 2030. This would be a double-win as bilateral trade and investment deals with Israel would also support diversification.

The irony is that declining oil revenues have made it more difficult to diversify but all the more important to do so. If Saudi Arabia persists with reform, manages the pandemic deftly—including swiftly and safely delivering a vaccine to its citizens—and ceases committing gross human rights violations, they can emerge more resilient and eventually serve as a model for other petro-states in a world where renewable energy predominates. Saudi citizens, and possibly the House of Saud itself, depend on it.


Peter J. Whiteneck received his M.A. in International Relations from American University School of International Service in August 2020, focusing on U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security.

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