Handicapping Saudi Arabia’s audacious plan to save itself

When Saudi Arabia's King Salman replaced his oil minister and reshuffled his cabinet on Saturday, he did so with the goal of executing an audacious plan to transform the country’s economy. “Saudi Vision 2030,” the brainchild of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, seeks to end the Kingdom’s oil addiction and improve government transparency and efficiency.

Highlights of the plan include listing 5 percent of Saudi ARAMCO on the Saudi stock exchange and internationally in New York, London and Hong Kong; reducing unemployment from 11 percent to 7 percent; increasing the role of women in the work force; privatizing huge swaths of Saudi Arabia’s economy so as to increase the private sector’s share of GDP; and creating a military industrial holding company that will supply half of Saudi Arabia’s weapons, thereby reducing the government’s yearly defense spending.

If even half of these milestones are achieved, it will be the Saudi equivalent of the moon landing. Saudi Arabia has been dependent on oil for its survival since its inception. Its vast petroleum reserves have brought it leverage abroad and stability at home. Vision 2030 seeks to upend that tradition and seemingly transform Saudi society overnight into a 21st century economy.

Can he deliver?

Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s plan faces many obstacles, least of which is political stability in the kingdom. He is the deputy ruler and technically second in line to the throne, yet he wields enormous power from being the son of King Salman and his influence is tied to his father’s reign. He holds the title of defense minister and in that capacity has overseen a disastrous war in Yemen, described by the UN as “a humanitarian catastrophe.” He also chairs a powerful council that manages the economy.‎

When King Salman passes away, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef will assume the throne and he could remove Prince Mohammad from the line of succession. This is exactly what King Salman did when his predecessor King Abdullah died in January 2015. Unless King Salman elevates his son to crown prince, it is not clear if Mohammad Bin Nayef will bring to fruition many of the policies that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has initiated. Under the current plan of succession, the end of King Salman’s reign could also mean the end of Saudi Vision 2030.

Taking on the establishment.

Prince Mohammad has taken aim at the Wahhabi religious establishment, something that the royal family has been reticent to do in the past. He is aligning himself with the country’s youth, which represent 70 percent of the population. Recently, he was believed to be behind the new law forbidding the religious police from questioning, harassing or arresting Saudi citizens. Many young citizens, hungry for greater social freedom, took to social media to celebrate the new law.

By passing a law that undermines the authority of religious elite, Prince Mohammad risks inspiring resentment among a key constituency that has long held vast sway over Saudi Arabia’s government and society. In fact, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef has been instrumental in cultivating their support in his fight to root out al Qaeda and Islamic State. It’s not clear if this support will continue if their powers and funding are curtailed. Part of Saudi Vision 2030 is reforming the Saudi education system to focus more on the skill sets needed for a modern economy and less on austere religious teaching. How Prince Mohammad navigates his relationship with a religious establishment that gives the royal family legitimacy in mosques and schools will be vital to the stability of the Kingdom.

Aramco IPO: More than meets the eye?

The most scintillating part of Saudi Vision 2030 is Prince Mohammad’s desire to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. He intends to do this by listing up to 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, the state-run oil company that is singular in the world in terms of reserves and production. Oil exports accounted for 78 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 2015 revenue, according to the International Monetary Fund. Yet the dramatic decline in the price of crude has forced Riyadh into a budget deficit.

Prince Mohammad’s response to this shifting dynamic in energy markets is a two-part plan: Combine IPO revenues (expected anywhere between $100-200 billion) with the $500 billion in U.S. Treasuries currently under the auspices of Saudi Arabia’s Public Pension Fund. Then supplement that pool of capital with state-owned real estate and industrial holdings - all in an effort to create a $2 trillion fund that will ensure Riyadh’s economic viability for years to come.

However, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has yet to answer the fundamental question about his plan’s premise: Why would investors buy shares in Aramco? Investors look for transparency, corporate governance and rule of law. To date, Aramco has never published financial statements, revenues or profits. Why would an investment in Aramco be more logical than one in a company that has a long history of being regulated in public markets, such as ExxonMobil or Shell? Moreover, the remaining resources going into the sovereign wealth fund do not represent fresh capital, but rather a transfer of assets from one government balance sheet to another. It’s difficult to see how this fund can supplement Riyadh’s declining oil revenue.

The pace and complexity of these reforms will be unlike anything this deeply conservative country has ever seen. Prince Mohammad Bin Salman will need to carefully manage the palace intrigue and forces in Riyadh that do not want the old order disturbed. Many will view Vision 2030 with deep suspicion for fear that it could bring social unrest and economic uncertainty to Saudi society. Nevertheless, it may be the Kingdom’s last best chance at transforming itself into a healthy, functional country.

Amir Handjani is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and Board Member of the Atlantic Council. The opinions expressed are his own.

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