The real challenge facing Saudi Arabia’s transformation plan
There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is planning for economic and social change. The real challenge is the willingness of Saudi society to accept these changes.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the driving force behind the Vision 2030 reform plan, aims to make Saudi Arabia one of the top economic powers in the world through the diversification of the economy from an oil base to a knowledge base. This shift includes backing new energy sources and making Saudi Arabia a powerhouse of international investment.
Last October the crown prince announced the launch of a $500 billion megaproject called Neom, a high-concept smart city and economic zone. The crown prince likened it to the seismic change in the mobile phone industry, comparing the old handsets that could only be used for calls to the new generation of phones that can cater for a multitude of personal and professional needs.
The crown prince wants Neom to have the best renewable energy resources in the world, and to be a place that will attract the most knowledgeable people in the world. Neom will be a distinct part of Saudi Arabia with its own rules, regulations, and culture.
It can be understood from the transformational objectives of Vision 2030 that the crown prince wants to introduce innovation in Neom and to also develop innovative projects throughout Saudi Arabia. These would affect Saudi culture and social practices. But research suggests that Saudis are highly resistant to change, are afraid of any future uncertainty and that they strongly uphold their traditional cultural values. This resistance to change is rooted in the fear that Islamic principles will be diluted or lost, even leading some Saudis to become extremists.
The crown prince realizes that the negative impact of extremists has the potential to delay the country’s development. He has, therefore, promised to eradicate extremism and allow Saudi society to live by moderate Islamic values.
The government’s Neom announcement, as well as the sale of 5 percent of the national oil company Saudi Aramco, in order to diversify the economy proves the government’s capability and willingness to meet the first challenge of implementing the transformation plan.
The real challenge is whether the Saudi people, who live in a culture highly resistant to change, will show the same willingness and accept the proposed reforms.
Arguably, the change in culture will take place whether there is resistance to it or not. A minority are open to the changes and are happy about them. They are knowledgeable and have seen the limitations that result from living by strict rules.
But among the majority, those who do not recognize the limitations arising from strict practices, there are some who will be able to cope with these changes while those who do not will soon find themselves outdated.
The feeling of being outdated will make these people unable to contribute fully to Saudi society and their lives will be restricted to religious practices and social gatherings of families or close friends. This scenario would result in a loss of knowledge in the transformation plan of Vision 2030.
• Mohammed Almohammedali is an assistant professor at the University of Business and Technology, Jeddah, and a researcher on the effects of social practice on knowledge.