Hundreds of Riyadh’s elites poured into the screening of Marvel’s blockbuster Black Panther, in what marked the restoration of cinema in Saudi Arabia after more than three decades of prohibition. This represents the first realization of the Saudi government’s plans to bolster its entertainment industry, announced at the end of last year. Now, AMC Entertainment, a giant multinational in the industry, has already opened its first cinema in Riyadh and plans to open fifty to one hundred cinemas across the country by 2030. This is followed by plans for a Six Flags to open in 2022 in Riyadh. Last week, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) even inaugurated “Qiddiya entertainment city,” a 130-square-mile entertainment park near Riyadh. These surprising developments in the entertainment sector by Saudi Arabia are just one aspect of its master plan: Vision 2030.
Vision 2030: The Brainchild of Muhammad bin Salman
Vision 2030 is a collection of megaprojects to bolster the nation’s economic, social, and political standing in the world by 2030. According to its official website, Vision 2030 is structured around three central aims: to establish a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.
The first aim, a so-called “vibrant society,” includes plans to double the UNESCO-recognized heritage sites in the nation and establish the world’s largest Islamic museum. It also includes plans to increase Umrah (pilgrimage) visitors to Mecca to thirty million per year by 2030, a number which stands at eight million currently. Alongside these changes, which are in line with the kingdom’s current religious standing, are some relatively eccentric developments. The megaproject coined Daem, a national program to enhance quality of entertainment, has put aside generous funding for cinemas, cultural clubs, and theme parks. The recent development of “Qiddiya entertainment city” is part of this initiative with plans to open further four hundred and fifty registered clubs for cultural and social events by 2020, although they did not specify what these clubs would entail.
Alongside entertainment and cultural aspects of the aim are improvements in education and the health sector. The project intends to encourage parent involvement in children’s education, to increase open-discussion forums, and to launch the Irtiqaa program to measure schools’ performance and modernize the curriculum. The plan aims to have at least five Saudi universities in the world’s top two hundred by 2030. The healthcare plan revolves around the transferring of responsibility to various public and private companies to provide more healthcare choices to citizens. The plan also ambitiously aims to increase life expectancy in the nation from seventy-four years to eighty years by 2030.
To establish a “thriving economy,” the Saudi government seeks to increase women’s participation in workforce by 8 percent, to decrease unemployment by more than 4 percent and to increase foreign direct investment by nearly 2 percent, all by 2030. The plan also aims to increase the private sector’s contribution towards GDP by series of privatization reforms, including plans for floating Saudi Aramco (the national oil company) in what would be the biggest initial public offering (IPO) for New York Stock Exchange in history.
A surprising announcement is the plan to ease visa and residency restrictions for foreign nationals and to increase their access to owning assets in the kingdom. This plan is beneficial for the country as it would bring revenue in the form of foreign direct investment to help improve the country’s balance of payments position. Also included in the economic aspect of the plan is to transform Saudi Aramco, Saudia’s national oil company regarded as the world’s largest energy company in the world, into more-than-just-oil by the Saudi Aramco Strategic Transformation Program. Among other new responsibilities, ironically enough, it also has a role in helping achieve the aim of increasing non-oil revenue from just over forty-three billion US dollars to over two hundred and sixty-six billion US dollars by 2030 through private sector job creation, renewable energy development, and investment in infrastructure.
The third aspect of Vision 2030, establishing an “ambitious nation,” is obvious, as the project is nothing if not ambitious. Under this aspect is the launching of Qawam program to increase spending efficiency, reportedly inspired by the Quranic verse which calls for moderation in spending and not to be extravagant nor miserly. It also includes training five hundred thousand government employees by 2020 to modern standards by building HR centers across the kingdom.
These key aims are to be achieved through various programs which includes a Performance Measurement Program to keep a check on all the other management units and a Regulation Review Program to overlook enactment of new laws and changes in the old ones. Financially, the most important one of these programs is the Public Investment Fund Reconstructing Program, which is entrusted to establish and maintain the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund (to be valued at two trillion dollars) to finance Vision 2030.
In terms of heading the masterplan, according to the official website of Vision 2030, the Council of Ministers has entrusted the newly-formed Council of Economic and Development Affairs to govern the project. The fact that Muhammad bin Salman is the vice president of the Council of Ministers and also the chair of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, provides a clear picture of the current distribution of power in the management of the project.
The giant edifice of Vision 2030 is unprecedented in terms of scale and there is a possibility that political debris could be created. Reports of increasing friction between the grand Mufti, Abdul-Aziz al Sheikh and Muhammad bin Salman are emerging. The grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has a very unique position and many in Saudi Arabia, especially those who are more religious, would prefer his opinion over that of MbS. MbS had earlier lifted the ban on women driving and now with emerging of cinemas, entertainment clubs, and concerts, the reforms seem not at all pleasing to the Grand Mufti, who views them as morally corrupting. If the Grand Mufti and other prominent religious leaders start criticising MbS openly, it would not be beneficial for the project or for Crown Prince’s authority.
Regardless of whether or not he has the approval of the Grand Mufti, MbS is on his way to forward the social changes that are part of Vision 2030, as evidenced by the recent appointment of the first female to the board of the world’s most profitable company, Saudi Aramco. This represents a continuation of events from last year, where the first female chair of Saudi Stock Exchange was appointed. On top of that is MbS’s plan for a new megacity by the name of “Neom” on Saudi Arabia’s border with Jordan, which will be larger in size than Dubai. It is planned to be run largely by robots which can be an idea not liked by conservative Islamic clerics who would see it as disrespecting humanity. In addition to this, the clerics would also not like the project because it is supposed to be built on liberal ideas, relatively free from religious conservative regulations enforced in other parts of the country, in order to attract western audience. Although MbS has said that alcohol wouldn’t be allowed in the new city, the current plan still has the potential to lose support from the religious leaders of the country, who may see it as lifting Sharia (Islamic law) from part of the kingdom.
Furthermore, the speedy consolidation of power by MbS himself is a potential threat to the project. At the end of last year, he led operations against some of the wealthiest and most prominent figures in Saudi business and political arena, freezing assets of some and placing others under house arrest. Among these were Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest men in the kingdom, who has shares in Citigroup, Twitter, and multiple top hotel chains, along with Prince Miteb who was the former head of the National Guard. However, If these opposition figures are able to unite and covertly plot against MbS, there could be negative consequences both for Vision 2030 and MbS’s leadership as a whole.
The International Context
The kingdom hardly has friendly diplomatic links with all of its neighbors, which can prove to be a potential threat for success of Vision 2030.
To the south, Saudi Arabia is directly involved in the war going on in Yemen where it has led a direct military intervention to drive away the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, largely due to MbS, who was made the defense minister right before the intervention and has recently launched a series of air strikes in Houthi-held areas. Now, with the kingdom incurring huge economic costs in the Yemen war, it can potentially see itself facing an economic crisis in the future, considering the billions of dollars that it must spend to achieve the goals of Vision 2030.
Furthermore, last month MbS announced that Saudi Arabia would develop nuclear weapons if Iran does so, which is a very real possibility, given President Donald Trump’s aversion to the Iran Deal and the imminent May 12 deadline to renew it. This tussle for influence in the region would not be seen as a good sign by the potential foreign investors that MbS seeks to attract.
To the West, Saudi Arabia has United States as its ally. Earlier this year, MbS had a three-week state visit where he met with Trump and other senior leaders of the United States. One purpose of his state visit was to gather financial support for Vision 2030 in form of foreign investment, worth thirty-five billion dollars. Thus, with US support for the project, MbS has a strong external backer in the face of so many fronts back home. However, in general, Saudis and Americans carry mixed feelings for each other. Saudis back home are skeptical of US intentions because of changing US policy towards Iran, among other things, while Americans are suspicious of Saudi Arabia’s motives because of its history of state-sponsored religious extremism.
Vision 2030 presents challenging, ambitious tasks, the likes of which the kingdom has never seen. It will be a unique challenge for MbS to walk the tightrope between modernization of the country and Saudi Arabia’s unique status as land of two holy cities. Political conflicts with neighboring countries such as Yemen and Iran, along with internal opposition from some religious elements, add to the hurdles for effectively achieving the aims of Vision 2030.
The plan could fail, leaving the country in economic distress with billions of dollars invested with no significant output. It could end up like past mega-projects such as that of Jazan Economic City and King Abdullah Financial District, that were also made with similar aims in mind: to diversify an oil-based economy. Previous attempts failed because it was too daunting a task to get the country out of the giant oil system it had itself created; benefits of this system are easy to reap so productivity among locals is low, and profits are so lucrative that it's hard to work on other options while it lasts.
Nonetheless, if MbS manages to navigate through these difficulties and Vision 2030 succeeds, it will usher a new era of economic prosperity for Saudi Arabia. High unemployment in the local population would be mitigated as new jobs are created, the Saudi economy could finally come out of the economic crisis that falling oil prices has pushed the kingdom into, technological advancements would help bring the kingdom to the global standards of the twenty-first century, and a strong economic drive would strengthen the kingdom militarily. Saudi allies in the Middle East would also benefit from success of Vision 2030 as a globalized Saudi Arabia would mean more trading opportunities, more offshore jobs, and more foreign investment in the region. Moreover, success of the project would potentially change the political dynamics of the region in favor of Saudi Arabia and its allies as the kingdom gain strength over its rivals, economically and militarily.
Considering the viewpoints of Saudi government and its critics, it seems that the project may not achieve its official goals. However, it may also not break down completely, instead would end up giving results that are beneficial to the Saudi economy.Hanzla Rasheed is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and was taken by White House photographer Shealah Craighead. The original image can be found here.