WASHINGTON – Bloomberg Businessweek placed Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on its cover (April 25 – May 1) underneath a caption that says he is “preparing Saudi Arabia for the end of oil”. The lengthy cover story is all about this energetic young Prince who –all alone– is determined to spearhead a series of bold initiatives and reforms aimed at re-engineering a country whose vast richness come from gigantic oil revenues, and not the skills of its citizens. Of course, being the son of the King helps a bit in what is still a top-down, absolute monarchy.
Plan to diversify the economy
The long article explains how the Deputy Crown Prince plans to diversify the economy. He wants to start selling shares of Saudi Aramco, probably the single largest oil company in the world. He would then invest the proceeds in a number of global companies. After this diversification, in the future Saudi Arabia’s economic fortunes will be less tied to the ups and downs of oil prices.
No more subsidies
At a different level, the Prince wants to cut back the vast web of subsidies provided by the Royal Family to almost every Saudi citizens. But this may be a bit tricky. It is an open secret that direct or indirect payments to millions of people are the means through which the Saudi government keeps a lid on Saudi society. In a region marred by unrest and civil wars, not much anti-government unrest in Saudi Arabia, since almost every citizen gets a regular check from the government.
Problem: no real middle class
Well, so far so good. Except for one thing. Even assuming that all these reforms will work, at best Saudi Arabia can become more efficient. But it simply cannot become a modern society the way we understand it. For the very simply reason that Saudi Arabia does not have basic political freedoms and a modern middle class that can act as the engine of self-sustaining growth.
Here is the simple truth. Except for vast amounts of easy to extract and therefore highly profitable oil, Saudi Arabia does not have a real economy. Saudi Arabia does not have a sizable educated middle class with a fair number of entrepreneurs engaged in profitable, innovative businesses.
Monarchy controls oil
Saudi Arabia is an oil Kingdom (second largest crude reserves in the world) essentially “owned” by a mostly parasitical elite. This elite, (the extended Royal Family), controls all the oil wealth. The same leadership distributes some of the oil revenue proceeds to the rest of the country, in many cases via bogus government jobs that produce no value. It is fair to say that most Saudis do not do any real work. In the Kingdom real labor is provided by foreign workers.
No modern middle class
Now, given this picture, I submit that unless these fundamentals are drastically transformed it is essentially impossible to re-engineer the Saudi society. Capitalistic economies succeed mostly because of the existence of basic political freedoms and because of a solid, entrepreneurial middle class. By that I mean large numbers of reasonably well-educated, driven individuals who engage in money-making enterprises. Their activities are supported by bankers, lawyers, accountants, marketers, public relations professionals and what not.
In other words, modern competitive economies do not exist without a vibrant middle class that can produce at least some capable entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs understand the value of innovation. They understand competition within a rules based system fairly managed by an independent judiciary that can act as a reliable referee in case of disputes.
Oil is the only productive sector
Well, guess what, none of this exists in Saudi Arabia. And I sincerely doubt that any of this can be created –essentially out of nothing– by an energetic Crown Prince eager to modernize a rent based economy in which, with the exceptions of the few skilled people who are in charge of the highly profitable energy sector, nobody has done anything even remotely approaching real, productive work for decades.
Rules based democracy
You want modernity? Well, then you need a rules based democracy in which people really understand and agree upon the proper balance between private and public, in which all players agree that the private sector is the driver of economic growth, while all economic actors appreciate the need to have and follow clear rules. You also need a government that is efficient, open, transparent, and fully accountable. Finally, you need basic freedoms, including laws that guarantee freedom of expression, and therefore truly free media.
Tinkering is possible; but no transformation
I see none of this in Saudi Arabia. Despite formidable constraints, I can see that some tinkering is definitely possible within the existing environment. If his reforms work, Prince Mohammed may be able to make the existing system less wasteful, less corrupt, and less dependent on the price of oil. And this is a good thing.
But he cannot create a brand new country and a new Saudi society. And without these two prerequisites in place, there will be no modern country.