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Feature Article
Vision 2030: A Dangerous Game? 2016-09-16
The Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has staked his future on the outcome of an ambitious blueprint for economic transformation, a plan whose success hinges, paradoxically, on crude oil prices - the lifeblood of the Kingdom and the source of royal wealth - remaining permanently suppressed. Will a resurgence in energy markets spell doom for Muhammad's vision?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Expert opinion is divided over whether Vision 2030, the vision of the young Muhammad, son of King Salman, to dramatically transform Saudi Arabia from an energy exporter into a nation with a properly diversified economy is even achievable, especially in light of the fact that other, similarly ambitious projects launched by the Kingdom in the past have foundered on the rocks of reality. Certainly, it works on paper; the American consultants brought in for its incubation have seen to that. The biggest challenge for Vision 2030's success, in fact, will be overcoming resistance from within the royal family itself. Already suspect and resented for his career trajectory and outsized influence, Muhammad faces an uphill battle to carry his project to completion.

Muhammad unveiled his plan on April 25, fast-tracking the reorientation of the economy away from oil revenue in the face of collapsing commodity prices. Near panic had set in after the Kingdom recorded a budget deficit of SR367 billion in 2015, and 2016 projections were for a deficit of SR326 billion. Reserves built up over decades helped to cushion the blow but the pace could not be sustained indefinitely - the International Monetary Fund said a year ago that the Kingdom would be bankrupt by 2020 if the situation continued (other estimates brought this unhappy event forward to 2017). Wastefulness and inefficiency added to the problem (every year as much as $100 billion of the budget is wasted, by some estimates). Though past diversification drives had failed spectacularly (the $10 billion King Abdallah Economic City being the best known example), the new crown prince believed it was well past time for aggressive action to be taken. Accordingly, his proposal calls for an increase in non-oil government revenue from SR163 billion to SR1 trillion, an increase in the private sector's economic contribution (from 40% to 65% of GDP), and an increase in direct foreign investment. The share of non-oil exports in non-oil GDP are projected to rise from 16% to 50%. The potential IPO of at least a part of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, has also attracted attention, and criticism.

It is to Muhammad's (and his advisors') credit that the need to swiftly recalibrate in the face of a changing world is recognized. He also appears to accept that current levels of energy consumption cannot continue without dire environmental consequences. At the same time, his isolation cannot be overlooked. The deputy crown prince occupies a unique position in the family hierarchy - favored by his father, the king (like the sons of King Saud before him, who were given posts and honors far beyond their merit or experience), educated within Saudi (rather than abroad, like so many of his generation), and entrusted with unprecedented responsibilities, Muhammad is neither a technocrat, nor Western-oriented, nor can he properly be called a traditionalist. As a result, he has few allies, numerous enemies, and hardly any supporters among the royal family. In addition, he is locked into what can only be called a power struggle with the crown prince (though neither he nor Muhammad bin Nayif would characterize it as such). Simply put, if the king dies and his uncle takes the throne, the younger Muhammad is out of a job. Nothing prevents the crown prince from altering the succession to replace his heir and bringing in someone new, even if the succession mechanism is technically law, and a commission of princes is charged with deciding such matters. It has proven malleable enough before. On the other hand, the king may decide to elevate his son and bypass bin Nayif entirely (though that manoeuvre would be risky in itself, given that the crown prince is also the Interior Minister and a power in his own right). The power dynamic adds another layer of complexity to the implementation of Vision 2030, with its very continuity in question; will the project be stillborn, the victim of family politics?

family politics in the way?
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