So plentiful and senior was the participation that the conference was dubbed “Davos in the Desert.” Like Davos, Bloomberg, CNBC and co were busy airing interviews with senior business leaders, who explained their corporate strategies.
It was another opportunity for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to present Vision 2030 to the world’s most important economic players. The CEO of the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), Yasir bin Othman Al-Rumayyan, delineated his organization’s strategy going forward. But the biggest stir was created by the unveiling of NEOM, a futuristic megacity to be built on the shores of the Red Sea and financed with $500 billion.
This special economic zone will span three countries, and its territory will be bigger than half of Switzerland. The location is strategic, because 10 percent of international trade passes through the Red Sea and 70 percent of the world’s population is within eight hours’ flight.
The megacity will be solely powered by renewable energy and focus on sectors such as mobility, industry, biotechnology, media, technology and tourism. This is an undertaking of truly epic proportions. The beauty of NEOM is that it neatly fits into another grand geo-economic design: China’s “One Belt, One Road” vision.
The naysayers were quick to point out the difficulties in creating such a metropolis from scratch — as they had been in describing the obstacles to implementing Vision 2030. Are the vision and NEOM ambitious? Yes. Will there be many hurdles to overcome, and will there be setbacks? Yes. But 70 percent of the Kingdom’s population is below the age of 30 (roughly 23 million people). The country urgently needs to create jobs to accommodate this “youth bulge.”
With 70 percent of the Kingdom’s population below the age of 30, the country urgently needs to create jobs to accommodate its ‘youth bulge,’ and Vision 2030 and NEOM are set to provide just that.
The dominant oil and petrochemicals sectors are not labor-intensive enough to achieve this goal, so the government has no alternative but to come up with ambitious plans. In order to move an affluent and conservative society, one probably needs to set ambitious targets. Sometimes one has to “shock” the powers that be and the people a bit in order to move the needle.
Where the Kingdom and the FII got it right was that job creation on this scale needs a vision, and a bold one at that. Visions need momentum. There is nothing to focus the mind more than sharing these plans with world leaders and getting their buy-in. This creates excitement on a global strategic level, which in turn creates an obligation on behalf of the host government to deliver.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region needs to create in excess of 100 million jobs over the next 10 years just to stand still. Countries urgently need to provide employment for their young populations. The region outside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is sadly affected by many internal and external problems, as well as by political strife. This means the debate never moves on from politics to economics, but it needs to if the young are to find employment.
MENA needs major infrastructure projects to be designed and implemented to get economies moving. Public and private sectors need to coordinate investment to create the much-needed jobs. Maybe Vision 2030 and the conference can serve as an inspiration. NEOM can hopefully become a catalyst and an example for neighboring countries.
The economic debate is crucial, because it is not possible to create stable and peaceful societies with unemployed young men roaming the streets. The youth of the region needs and deserves a perspective.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert.