The Radical Remake of Saudi Arabia: What you need to know

Anybody landing at Riyadh airport can’t fail to notice the billboards. Every government institution carries the logo, even the once-feared religious police. Women can buy a long, traditional dress covered with the same branding.

Vision 2030” is everywhere in Saudi Arabia. The grand plan to transform society and the economy defines the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who cemented his power in 2017 to drive changes that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. And every decision, from jailing fellow royals in the name of tackling corruption to allowing women to drive and lifting restrictions on entertainment, is aimed at ensuring its success—and the young prince’s legacy.

Source: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

While 2019 was about selling shares in oil mammoth Aramco, this year was supposed to showcase the next stage of progress as Saudi Arabia welcomes world leaders from the Group of 20. Construction of new cities in the desert from scratch is underway, as are whole new industries from defense to tourism. But then came an oil price war that Prince Mohammed escalated and the unforeseen shock to the globe of the coronavirus pandemic. Now there are question marks over just how feasible “Vision 2030” really is.

By The Numbers

  • 1 trillion riyalsTargeted increase in non-oil government revenue, from 163 billion riyal ($43 billion)

  • 3 Number of Saudi cities targeted to be recognized in the top-ranked 100 cities in the world

  • 7%Goal unemployment rate, from 12%

Why It Matters

Prince Mohammed has a lot riding on his national transformation, which he first laid out in an interview in 2016. The goal is to wean Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, off the petrodollars that have sustained the country since not long after crude was discovered in the Eastern Province eight decades ago.

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman./Source: Saudi Press Agency

Despite the loosening up of its strict brand of Islam and the new job opportunities lauded by millennial Saudis, the country has become more authoritarian under the prince’s leadership. The authorities have jailed activists and silenced the conservative Wahhabi clerics who used to exert so much control over Saudi life. The message is clear: you’re either with “Vision 2030” or against it. Internationally, the kingdom pursued a failed boycott of Qatar, waged war in Yemen and caused outrage when its agents were found to have brutally murdered Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

Since then, the government has cut energy subsidies, added new taxes and fees and removed hurdles that impeded women from taking leading roles in business. But with the economy experiencing deep contraction and the world heading into a new post-pandemic era, the vision itself is facing spending cuts as money gets redirected to public health and aid for businesses. Keeping the vision on track—and a young population behind him—just got a lot more challenging.

Big Gap

Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit is forecast to be one of the biggest in the GCC

Source: International Monetary Fund

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