Saudi Arabia is a country near-synonymous with the oil industry, but now the kingdom is moving to end what it calls its "addiction to oil" with a new plan.
That would mark a big change. Since large quantities of oil were discovered in the then-nascent Saudi kingdom in 1938, the oil industry has come to dominate the country's economy. Revenue from the industry earned the Saudi government billions and enabled the ruling royal family to offer generous benefits to Saudi citizens. In recent years, the oil industry had accounted for an estimated 90 percent of the government's income.
However, as oil prices plunged from $100 a barrel in 2014 to less than half that amount in 2015, the kingdom's coffers have been hit badly. Last year, the country ran a deficit of $98 billion, about 15 percent of its gross domestic product. There are widespread fears that without reining in its profligate spending, Saudi Arabia risked financial disaster: A report from the International Monetary Fund released in October warned that the government could run out of money within five years.
Perhaps the most immediate action under the Vision 2030 plan, which was approved by the Saudi cabinet on Monday, will be the sale of shares of the state-owned oil giant Aramco. Although less than 5 percent of the shares will be sold, the size of Aramco — Mohammed says the company would be valued at up to $2.5 trillion — means that it is already being described as the largest IPO in history. Some of the money earned from this sale would be used to help create a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund that would invest abroad. In his interview with al-Arabiya, Mohammed also suggested that the IPO would serve to open up Aramco — and, by extension, the insular Saudi economy — to scrutiny. “People in the past used to be upset that Aramco's files and data are not announced, [or that they were] unclear and not transparent," he said, adding that if Aramco is listed on the market, it will have to publish data every quarter.
A number of other changes to the Saudi economy also have been outlined in the Vision 2030 plan. The Saudi visa system would be restructured to offer a "green card" for Muslim and Arab foreign workers so they can live in the country for the long term. Efforts would be made to increase female participation in the work force. Saudi Arabia will attempt to build up its domestic arms industry in an apparent bid to prevent the defense sector from sending so much money overseas. Additionally, the country is planning to put more money into its tourism industry, with plans to build the world's largest Islamic museum.
Mohammed has played down the plan's link to falling oil prices, adding that the country had to reform regardless. The "Saudi addiction to oil" had caused it to neglect other aspects of the economy, he told al-Arabiya. The new plan, he said, would turn the country into an "investment-driven economy."
Even if it works, it will not be without cost. Saudi Arabia has already begun to cut back on its remarkably generous subsidies to its citizens, and more cuts are likely. Fahad Nazer, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, suggests that the Saudi state may be offering up a new social contract to its citizens. Noting that Mohammed had challenged some of the kingdom's traditional ideals in recent interviews, Nazer said new taxes and cutbacks on subsidies may be "accompanied by a gradual expansion of the space available to citizens in the political-decision-making process."
There are still widespread doubts about Vision 2030, however. The IMF has called the plan an "ambitious, far-reaching effort," but it has also noted that how it is implemented will be key. In the widespread social media discussion of the plan on Monday, some Saudis expressed doubt that the royal family — wrestling with its ever-present regional rivalry with Iran and the threat of Islamist extremism — would ever allow true reform.
Another issue may be the meteoric rise of Mohammed himself, who was rocketed to a position of vast power in the country after his father became king in January 2015 and is widely suspected to be aiming for the throne himself. Although much of his work has focused on reforming Saudi Arabia's economy, he is also thought to be behind the kingdom's sometimes aggressive foreign policy moves, including the controversial Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
"The Kingdom would need to be a much more transparent place to encourage greater U.S. investment," Bruce Riedel, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, said in an email. "With the succession issue up in the air and the rise of [Prince Mohammed], there is much uncertainty about the future."
Sheikha Aldosary in Riyadh contributed to this report.
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