Saudi Arabia’s ongoing economic program, known as Vision 2030, has caught the interest of investors around the world since it was released in 2016. The Saudi state, despite its continued extraction of oil and gas and being home to the world’s largest oil company, Aramco, is still widely considered to be an untapped economic landscape. The rise of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) into the upper echelons of political power in Riyadh was a signal to some that a generational shift was on the horizon in a country that is renowned for its traditions, heritage, and conservatism. In reality, his seemingly progressive Vision 2030 plan is merely an effort to whitewash abuses in the kingdom while simultaneously building up the economy.
The motivation behind Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic expansion is mainly influenced by the kingdom’s dependency on oil to finance the country’s growing list of expenditures. Vision 2030 is aimed to further diversify the Saudi economy as oil prices have proven to be growing evermore volatile. As the Guardian has reported, “the plan seeks to enhance the generation of non-oil revenues, by raising fees and tariffs on public services, gradually expanding the tax base (including through the introduction of a value added tax), and raising more income from a growing number of visitors to the kingdom.” Huge investments will be directed towards the Saudi domestic arms industry with the goal of reducing foreign dependency on missiles, warplanes, and tanks, while simultaneously investing in their domestic economy.
It is also looking like the Saudi government is set to initiate an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of a small part of the state owned Saudi-Aramco, the world’s most valuable company (valued between $1 and $2 trillion). The proceeds from selling off up to 5% of Aramco would inevitably be reinvested back into Vision 2030 projects.
Vision 2030 and the Lack of Human Rights
Vision 2030 claims to strive for a “strong, thriving, and stable Saudi Arabia that provides opportunity for all,” yet the plan makes no mention of human rights or democratic reform. Without either of these major components, the plan cannot lead to greater stability and opportunity.
Some believe there has been a slight shift in the Saudi ruling family’s attitudes towards women, starting with a change in government policy relating to a woman’s right to drive. Greater gender parity is allegedly a part of Vision 2030, with women being viewed as an essential component of economic expansion. Vision 2030 aims to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%, as well as giving women the right to join the military.
However, despite these new opportunities for women, their place in Saudi society remains that of a marginalized second class citizen. The male guardianship system continues to barricade Saudi women into the sidelines of life in Saudi Arabia, requiring them to obtain authorization from a male figure, usually husband or father, for common activities such as attending higher education or traveling.
Additionally, the lifting of the driving ban does not demonstrate Saudi Arabia taking a step in the right direction for women’s rights and modernization. The lifting of the ban was mainly driven by economic reasons, and the arrests of those advocating for the right to drive just weeks before the ban was lifted shows the true nature behind the decision – another attempt at whitewashing the Kingdom’s abuses.
The Future Investment Initiative (FII), nicknamed Davos in the Desert, is an annual investment forum held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to discuss trends in the world economy and investment environment. In the immediate aftermath of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Turkey last year, big name investors began to pull out of the FII – including Jamie Dimon, boss of JPMorgan Chase, John Flint, head of HSBC, and Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of Uber.
“Perhaps the biggest risk companies face in doing business with Saudi Arabia is from America’s Congress. Repulsed by the latest incident, on top of the war in Yemen, even senior Republicans are threatening to impose sanctions on the kingdom and curbs on future arms sales, if Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for the suspected killing of Mr Khashoggi is proven.” (The Economist, 2018)
The rampant human rights abuses that continue to play out in Saudi Arabia add to the political and financial risk that faces future investors in the Kingdom. Vision 2030 makes no reference to respecting international human rights law or to protecting the freedoms that most advanced economies adhere to. The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which unfortunately is just one of many cases in which the Saudi government takes extreme measures to silence dissent, has and will continue to undermine the goals of Vision 2030.
Saudi Arabia consistently ranks among the world’s top five state executioners. Since the launching of Vision 2030, at least 300 people have been executed by the authorities, meaning that according to current trends, the Saudi government will execute 2030 people by the year 2030, many of whom are simply calling for a greater standard of living and the protection of their fundamental freedoms.
Most recently, on 23 April, the Government of Saudi Arabia executed 37 men for alleged terrorist crimes. At least three of the individuals executed were arrested as teenagers and tortured into false confessions according to sources. Many, if not all, of the men executed were tried in the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which has become notorious for fair trial violations, including routinely admitting evidence obtained through torture.
Labor & Employment Issues
Significant obstacles exist within the government’s employment and labor practices. Government policy actively discourages foreign workers from coming to Saudi Arabia’s growing cities, inflicting a charge of 400 riyals ($107) per month for each foreign worker, with a discount if the Saudi companies employ more Saudi nationals than expatriates. Almost one million foreign workers have left the Kingdom since the start of 2017. The exodus of foreign laborers has not been replaced by young Saudis, who are reluctant to work in low skilled jobs. Low skilled and low paid foreign workers have contributed to almost all of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries who have experienced economic expansion over the last 15 years.
MbS has proposed to develop various cultural and entertainment hubs with the launching of a multibillion-dollar project in Qiddiya, nicknamed the “Entertainment City”. It is a 334 sq. km theme park that is expected to attract 17 million visitors by 2030. In January, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority announced 2019 as the “Year of Entertainment” in the kingdom with a $64 billion approved budget by MbS. The construction of these super cities will ultimately require such cheap foreign labor, where human rights are often treated as secondary rather than primary concerns. This issue is best represented with construction worker deaths ranking the highest in the Gulf region when compare to any other region on earth. These numbers can be attributed to poor health and safety standards, low wages, and abhorrent living conditions for workers.
As has been noted, Vision 2030 will face a multitude of challenges relating to the Kingdom’s addiction to oil rents, labor issues, skeptical future investors, and an overall hesitation towards societal change amongst Saudis. But the ultimate shortfall of Vision 2030 lies within the explicit ignorance for fundamental freedoms and the protection of human rights. The violent suppression of human rights defenders and those critical of the government will continue to overshadow any form of economic expansion in Saudi Arabia, and will further delegitimize its economic endeavors.
Andrew McGill and Angela Modica Scala are Advocacy Volunteers with ADHRB in Ireland