Saudis Look Beyond Oil to New Economy in Desert

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[MAP: Economic cities in Saudi Arabia]
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 17, 2008

MEDINA, Saudi Arabia -- Clouds of yellow dust swirled in the air as tractors moved back and forth, leveling a huge, barren piece of land dotted with billboards announcing the city that will rise from the sand here.

Over the next few years, Saudi officials say this stretch of desert will be transformed into a buzzing hub of scientific research and development, with cutting-edge universities, hospitals and housing for more than 130,000 people attracted by the idea of living in the city where Islam's prophet Muhammad is buried.

The project, called Knowledge Economic City, represents a first serious step by Saudi Arabia toward building a post-petroleum economy. It is one of six major industrial centers planned to rise over the next 15 years. At a cost of more than $100 billion, the sites are expected to provide housing and jobs for the country's fast-growing population, half of which is younger than 21.

These cities-from-scratch are the most ambitious projects to date launched by a kingdom enriched almost entirely by oil since its disparate regions were unified into a state more than seven decades ago. In beginning to construct an economy to survive the end of its natural resources, the Saudi government is drawing on lessons learned during a previous oil boom when profits were squandered in part by spendthrift princes and short-term planning that emphasized infrastructure over education.

"The ruling dynasty is under pressure to show its population that the oil money is being reinvested for the good of the people. The al-Sauds have suffered from the image of the ruling family as corrupt and spending lavishly," said Rochdi Younsi, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm that provides political risk analysis of countries around the world.

With oil prices peaking above $145 a barrel in recent weeks, the kingdom is reaping an unprecedented windfall from its vast reservoirs of oil, which represent a quarter of the world's proven reserves. Saudi Arabia reported oil income of $200 billion last year and projects $700 billion in revenue over the next two years. The kingdom earned an average of $43 billion annually throughout the 1990s.

But Saudi officials have long feared that too-high oil prices would push the world toward alternative fuels, a concern captured by one former oil minister's tart reminder that "the Stone Age did not end for lack of stone."

To meet rising demand, as well as to slow the world's rush to develop alternative energy sources, Saudi officials have raised oil production by 500,000 barrels a day since May.

Though increased production means the Saudi reserves will be depleted faster, the government is using a burst of additional capital to develop an economy it hopes will eventually be untethered from the price of oil.

The new cities "are part of a broader effort to diversify the economy away from oil and away from its reliance on the public sector. The cities are intended to develop more of a non-oil economy, well before the oil runs out," said Jane Kinninmont, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research and advisory company that provides industry and management analysis of countries around the world.

Based on economic zones around the world, the cities aim to trade Saudi assets -- plentiful and cheap oil and vast open spaces -- for foreign expertise and training. But the cities also have social aims, analysts said, including creating jobs to stave off political unrest.

"When there was money, it was easy to absorb young Saudis into public jobs, but the population kept growing and the local education system did not produce enough candidates for the local job market. That caused resentment and allowed militant groups to launch against the local dynasty," said Younsi, referring to a spate of al-Qaeda-related attacks in 2003.


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