WASHINGTON – What is going in Saudi Arabia? Probably too much. We have now an odd stew of engineered low oil prices that created huge economic and fiscal constraints, in Saudi Arabia and in other oil-producing countries, mixed with a new “Master Plan” for the country that includes extremely ambitious reforms unlikely to succeed.
Low oil prices
Let’s look at oil prices. We know that the Saudis have willfully caused the global oil prices collapse that began in 2014, and continues today, by refusing to cut their massive output (in excess of 10 million barrels a day) when crude prices became soft on account of the extra supply created (in a very short time) by US shale oil producers.
With Saudi Arabia opposed to production cuts, the OPEC cartel had no choice. They had to endure the consequences of dramatically lower prices until Riyadh will change its mind. So far, it has not.
What is the end game?
Why is Saudi Arabia doing this? Who knows really. I believe that this is an anti-Iranian move, and by extension, a move also directed against Shia dominated Iraq.
We know that for a while at least Saudi Arabia can afford to lose billions of dollars, the result of the lower prices it has imposed, because it can count on a significant financial cushion, in the neighborhood of $ 628 billion.
A huge price
Still, it is clear that the Kingdom is already paying a huge price. The Saudi state depends almost entirely on its vast oil revenue to finance all public expenditures. Dramatically lower revenue means huge public deficits. Last year the shortfall was almost $ 100 billion. Again, the Saudis can afford to do this, at least for a few more years. But, at some point, their reserves will be gone. And then what?
Major reforms announced
But this is not the only major development underway in Saudi Arabia. No, there is plenty more going on. Just as the Royal Family running the state is adjusting its policies to the lean years it has created, it came out with a new plan aimed at transforming the country. And this is no exaggeration.
The plan has been developed under the guidance of Prince Mohammed bin-Salman, the 30-year-old son of King Salman and now deputy Crown Prince. The young Prince (who is also Minister of Defense) is in charge of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs. The Council is a new institution established in January 2015, and placed in charge of planning future economic policies.
Privatizations, and a lot more
Here are the highlights. There will be large-scale privatizations, including health care services. There will be a deliberate effort to move Saudi citizens away from cushy state jobs and into a soon to be created private sector (I am not making this up) that will not rely on the established oil economy. (Currently, two-thirds of all Saudi workers are employed by the state). There will be an end to fuel subsidies and other freebies.
In other words, the plan is to make Saudi Arabia into a modern, vibrant, innovation-driven, private sector-led economy, no longer dependent on its enormous hydrocarbon resources.
Slim chances of success
In principle, this is not at all a bad idea. In practice, it all depends on the time line and the quality of both the plans and the execution. Let’s say this plainly. Usually these Grand Reform Plans do not work. And they do not work because the objectives are unrealistic, because people resist change, because sleek blueprints drawn by highly paid consultants fail to take fully into account the drag created by entrenched cultural habits and traditional mind sets. And in most cases all participants under estimate how long it takes for anything of substance to be implemented, and become eventually self-sustaining.
Look, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has essentially failed in his noble attempt to revitalize Japan. He called it “Abenomics”. And there was a lot of suggestive imagery built to support it. Abe talked about arrows in his quiver and how they would reach their targets. But it simply did not work.
And yet Japan is a highly advanced industrial democracy, with many world class companies, a modern state, and lots of highly educated people. Nonetheless, Abe’s Grand Plan, did not work. There is too much inertia, there are too many political, institutional and cultural obstacles. The Japanese people are unable to get out of their complacent, (and in the end self-destructive), mind set.
Now, if modern Japan cannot quickly embrace and own a vision of vibrant change, what makes Prince Mohammed think that sleepy Saudi Arabia, a country in which most people do nothing, (large numbers of foreign workers have been hired to perform most tasks), while oil money subsidizes the entire economy and society, will do much better?
In Europe, welfare reforms almost impossible
Welfare and subsidies create dependence. Of course, in theory it is possible to wean people away from dependence on public largesse. But it is extremely difficult. Look everywhere.
In Europe all entitlement programs are essentially untouchable. Greece had to get all the way to the edge of the abyss before any political leader would accept the notion that the government had to reduce unaffordable social programs.
In other words, it took complete financial ruin before real reforms (this means cuts) could be contemplated. And even under those extreme circumstances reforms were fiercely resisted by most citizens.
Better results in Saudi Arabia?
Given these examples, one needs a truly heroic level of optimism to believe that Saudi Arabia will eagerly embrace change and quickly transform itself into some kind of Big Singapore in the Middle East.
This is a country that lives under a heavy blanket of religious conservatism. It is an absolute monarchy in which basic human rights are unknown. Women are second class citizens. It is a nation where, beyond oil and refining oil products, there is essentially no other industry. And this is the soil where the leaders want to plant the seeds of innovation and modernity? Good luck to them.
May be in 20 years
Look, assuming a perfectly modulated plan and a 20 to 30 years time horizon, some real changes may be possible. But the impression here is that Prince Mohammed is in a hurry. The perception is that we wants everybody to get busy, right now. “Give me a private sector-led, non-oil economy, today”.
So, here is the thing. It is good to have bold dreams of modernization. But in the case of Saudi Arabia, this new reform plan looks a lot like lunacy.