The Politics of Economic Reform in Arab Gulf States
Ulrichsen, Kristian Coates
Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud laid out an expansive long-term plan, labeled the “Saudi Vision 2030,” on April 25, 2016, intended to transform the Saudi economy and accelerate the transition toward a post-oil era. “Saudi Vision 2030” built upon a series of lengthy and in-depth interviews Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave to The Economist and Bloomberg that revealed plans to partially privatize Saudi Aramco and transform it into a global industrial conglomerate that would act both as the spearhead and focal point for the reforms. The dizzying pace and ambition of “Saudi Vision 2030” and associated developments—such as the restructuring of key government ministries and the appointment of former Saudi Aramco CEO Khalid al-Falih to head a new “super-ministry” of energy, industry, and mineral resources—have been uncharacteristic for a kingdom more used to periods of incremental change unfolding slowly over time. This policy report goes beyond the headline initiatives of “Saudi Vision 2030” and the various measures unveiled in other Gulf States in response to the fall in oil prices to examine whether the attempts to shift toward genuinely post-oil economies are likely to succeed or not. It has two main parts each divided into multiple sections. Part I focuses on the political economy implications of the decline in oil prices and government revenues for the Gulf States, while Part II suggests incentives and recommendations for sustainable reform that can translate policymakers’ aspirations into successful policy implementation. Part I commences with an overview of the economic volatility that has buffeted the Gulf States since oil prices began to fall in July 2014 and assesses the implications for the so-called “ruling bargains” based on the redistribution of oil wealth from state to society. The final two sections analyze two of the initial policy responses to fiscal pressures—the issuing of debt and the scaling back of energy subsidies—and argue that while these policies have enabled governments to put off more politically sensitive measures, they are by themselves unlikely to resolve the underlying challenges facing Gulf economies. Part II of this paper starts by placing “Saudi Vision 2030” in the context of the poor record of achievement of other long-term comprehensive economic “visions” unveiled elsewhere in the Gulf over the past decade. For the Saudi plan to succeed where most others fell short it is imperative that it be underpinned by a set of plans that spell out the detail and the mechanics of the policy changes, but the National Transformation Plan intended to accompany Vision 2030 has been repeatedly delayed. The following sections analyze in depth the need for policy planning as well as the importance of securing strong local buy-in and dislodging vested economic and political interests that otherwise can obstruct and even defeat policy reforms. The paper ends with concluding observations that underscore the point that while low oil prices have created a window of opportunity for “visionary” leaders to think outside of the box and push through reforms, this window is not open-ended and must produce results sooner rather than later.