The Kingdom Comes Together

By Nicholas Harvey, Regional Director – InterSearch Middle East

On a recent visit to the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia), my Chairman and I were sat in the departure lounge reviewing the pros and cons of the trip.  As I wrote in an earlier article, the country is facing a number of unprecedented challenges from a number of fronts including the current modest oil price, military conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, as well as funding earlier over-zealous spending commitments.  Moreover, significant payment delays on public-sector projects has had a considerable knock-on effect to private businesses, many of whom have been forced to make radical cuts of resources and to budgets.

However, the response from the country’s leaders has been encouraging.  In a nation famously guarded, they have openly highlighted the fact that the days of heavily subsidized utilities are numbered and that it will be the Saudi people who can lead their country into its next chapter echoing sentiments from JFK’s famous line “..ask not what your country can do for you, as what you can do for your country..” (or perhaps alluding to Churchill’s promise of “..nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”!).  Well, not quite.  With sizeable foreign reserves, billions in US bond and a huge war chest, things haven’t quite reached crisis point – however, a strong response is being delivered in the shape of the National Transformation plan, now in its second year.

What both my Chairman and I did agreed upon, is that the Vision 2030 has successfully reached the forefront of intentions within the office space in the country, both in the public and private sector.  Typically, the GCC Arabs are an extremely patriotic bunch and coupled with a very persuasive Government/Royal Family we have seen an unprecedented shift of Saudis moving from the Private sector into the realm of ministerial or advisory positions with the Government.
Moreover, even those not directly employed – are being sought out to assist in the implementation and development of key objectives in the National Transformation Plan – e.g. The Job Creation and Unemployment Control Authority.  One of the differing factors from the earlier National objectives in the current Transformation Plan has been the way the private sector has been engaged.  Earlier efforts have faced criticism that policies (whilst robust in theory) haven’t succeeded to their desired extents through ineffectual implementation.

On interviewing a number of leading Saudi Executives, all agreed that there has been a clear policy to engage the private sector to help roll-out a number of these key objectives.  Transforming successful businessmen into the civil service isn’t of course an entirely new concept.  One of the key drivers of the current Transformation plan, HE Eng. Adel Fakeih, is the former Chairman of Savola, before becoming the Mayor of Jeddah and is now having considerable impact as the Minister of Economy & Planning.

However, it was of great interest to hear about the number of ‘think tanks’ and committees that have been set up to utilize the practical know-how of those leaders in the real working world (as opposed to that of theorists and pure academics).  One such example of this highlighted to me by the current CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer) of large family group in Jeddah is that of women in the workplace.

Contrary to some of the views in the western-world, Saudi women are permitted to work.  However, the fact is that of the Kingdom’s unemployed, nearly 80% of the total are women, pointing to significant barriers to entry into the workplace.  The CHRO and others have been asked to inquire what is keeping so many women from the workplace and the results have surprised some.  Many (including myself) assumed that age-old conservative stigma or the lack of infrastructure in the office would be primarily to blame.  It is however, the cost and difficulty of transportation that came out as the biggest obstacle for woman taking up junior positions.

Coming in at an entry level position, graduates often earn just SAR3,000 – SAR5,000 ($800-1,300) per month and the cost of getting a driver every day coming in at around half that sum (as of now, there isn’t really an adequate public transport system in most Saudi towns and cities) it simply doesn’t make economic sense to work.  Naturally, this barrier to entry will prevent women gaining a career and climbing up the ladder.  Think-tanks are now evaluating alternatives, such as working from home or the cost of providing company transport.

Not all are celebrating the benefits indeed – whilst many see the positives of bringing more commercially minded individuals (with some may say) a stronger work-ethic – others argue that this ‘transformation’ has led to an exodus of seasoned bureaucrats and senior civil servants who knew how to administer Government.  i.e. it’s all very well bringing in new blood to fuel drive and energy, but without the seasoned guides there is a danger that the efforts will be confused or misdirected.

One benefit of the ‘job for life’ scenario previously seen in Government is that the Ministers/ Under Secretaries really got to know their department, framework, structure etc… Much of that know-how could therefore, be in jeopardy.  Others argue, that Government officials are still in the post and that the influx of numerous advisors and ‘experts’ from the private sector has simply doubled or added to the wage bill.  Those that have suffered under incompetent (bureaucratic-ridden) for long periods will counter that it’s high time the whole public sector went through a shake up (better an internal than external revolution) regardless of a bit of pain.

Most agree that moving forward reforms, not just within Job Creation, by also the Energy Reform and Fiscal Reforms the challenge will be on the delivery.  Presently the population appear to be supportive; however moving forward, it is likely there will be anxiety amongst the people on how the changes will impact them and the money in their pocket.  It is incongruous to suggest that the delivery will be linear, however, what has been consistent, to date, is the messaging.

One over-riding observation from the trip was the sense of an almost confucionist unity on achieving these united goals.  In every meeting, Vision 2030 or National Transformation Plan was at the forefront of most conversations and the Government can heap praise on itself for driving this vision to the minds of all.

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