Beyond Vision 2030: It’s only the beginning

30 August, 2021

Riyadh Al Najjar

KSA Country Senior Leader & Transformation Management Unit Leader, PwC Middle East

This article was first published in Arabian Business

Saudi Arabia raises its sights even higher with new digital targets and ambitious plans to reduce CO2 emissions and ‘green’ the desert

As the region and Saudi Arabia emerge from the pandemic, they are also entering the next phase of transformation, one that will be larger in scale and move at an unprecedented pace. As a result, an important question poses itself: What has Saudi Arabia done to keep the realisation of Vision 2030, namely its goal of becoming a vibrant, ambitious and economically resilient nation, in motion?

Perspective - Vision 2030 as a means, not an end

In April, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman marked the fifth anniversary of Vision 2030’s launch with a wide-ranging television interview in which he emphasized clearly: The initiative’s end-of-decade targets do not represent the limit of Saudi Arabia’s ambition. 

Rather, he explained, they form the initial phase of transformation necessary to enable Saudi “to grow and to prosper and to compete at the world level” for many decades to come. Critically, the Crown Prince revealed that he is already looking towards 2040, when the focus of the transformation shifts from enabling to achieving global competitiveness.

This forward-looking perspective puts the pandemic squarely in context, casting a fresh light on its impact on Vision 2030. While being a profound challenge, one that had varying influences on key areas in Saudi’s transformation plans, the pandemic undoubtedly acted as a key driver of change. 

Despite slowing the Saudi economy during the first wave, as was the case globally, the pandemic may have accelerated trends in digitalisation and healthcare in Saudi that edged it closer to achieving its Vision 2030 targets. 

An example of both trends accelerating is the hugely successful rollout of health-monitoring app Tawakkalna, which has had more than 21 million users since its launch and is operational in over 70 countries. Within the context of ambitions stretching past the decade, such pandemic-accelerated changes and trends can be embraced, harnessed, and managed to achieve desired, if not necessary, transformational outcomes.

Saudi Arabia at the centre of region’s transformation

At PwC Middle East, we are supporting how GCC countries are repairing, rethinking and reconfiguring their economies and societies as they emerge from the pandemic, and it is already clear that Saudi Arabia will be a critical hub for the massive, fast-moving regional transformation ahead.

From my vantage point running our transformation management team in Saudi Arabia, it is also clear that the world will be paying close attention to what is happening in Saudi Arabia over the coming years.

In particular, two Vision 2030 themes – digital transformation and ‘greening’ the desert – are set to have far-reaching regional and global impacts. These future-oriented themes perfectly illustrate why, for Saudi Arabia, 2030 is just a milestone on the way to 2040 and beyond. As the Crown Prince observed, the kingdom’s transformation journey has only just begun. 

Digitalisation – connecting Saudi Arabia for the future

Saudi Arabia’s digital transformation is relevant to every aspect of Vision 2030, from modernising healthcare and improving government services to ensuring the sustainability of vital natural resources. The figures to date are breath-taking. The kingdom now ranks sixth among the G20 nations in the Global Cybersecurity Index of the International Telecommunication Union, having expanded connectivity from 1.2 million homes in 2017 to 3.5 million in 2020. 

All the evidence indicates that the pandemic has accelerated Saudi Arabia’s digital progress, as last year’s enforced shift to remote working, combined with increased business automation and more online transactions, confirmed the critical role of digital services in building social and economic resilience. 

In December, Saudi Arabia announced a new policy framework that is designed to expand the contribution of the digital economy to overall GDP so that it is on a par with leading developed countries. By 2025, the digital economy will account for around 24 percent of global GDP, according to research conducted by Oxford Economics and Huawei, and Saudi Arabia intends to be at the forefront of this transition. 

At a national level, Saudi Arabia is committed under the Vision 2030 umbrella to increasing the share of non-oil exports from 16 percent to 50 percent of non-oil GDP to support Saudi’s goal of becoming a data-driven knowledge economy that is less dependent on oil. 

Of course, Saudi Arabia’s digital transformation will not be complete in 2030, or even 2040. It will be an ongoing national priority, because new, transformative technologies will continue to emerge, rendering their predecessors obsolete.  

‘Greening’ the desert to create an environmentally sustainable future

Saudi Arabia is also thinking far beyond 2030 with its recently announced Saudi and Middle East Green initiatives, which collectively aim to reduce the region’s carbon emissions by 60 percent and to ‘green’ the desert by planting 50 billion trees in the largest project of its kind worldwide. 

Within Saudi Arabia, these programmes exemplify the degree to which different Vision 2030 themes are interconnected – in this case, between the themes of sustainability and quality of life. For example, the Royal Commission of Riyadh City’s wellbeing plans include planting 7.5 million trees by 2030, irrigated by recycled water, and building King Salman Park, four times the size of London’s Hyde Park, with a botanical garden, arts and entertainment venues and public play areas for children.

Internationally, the potential impact of the Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives on regional and global efforts to counter climate change is immense. Saudi Arabia alone aims to generate half its energy from renewables by 2030. Saudi Arabia is also at the forefront of efforts to design more efficient oil production methods, which will be an important element of the future energy mix. 

Owning the future – Saudi Arabia’s rising generation

So why should one back Saudi Arabia to achieve its digital and sustainability goals as 2030 approaches and 2040 transformation targets come into view? Well, like the rest of the region, Saudi Arabia has a youthful population, one that is hopeful and optimistic about the future. 

When we asked 18-34-year-olds about the impact of the pandemic and technology acceleration in our latest GCC Hopes and Fears Survey, we imagined that this rising generation would be downbeat about their prospects after a traumatic year overshadowed by COVID-19. This wasn’t the case; 64 percent are either excited and see a world of possibility opening up before them or are at least confident that they will be successful.

In many ways the human factor is the most important – achieving the kingdom’s digital and sustainable transformation requires a human-led and tech-powered approach. Success will come down to the ingenuity of leaders and employees on the ground, as progress in both areas can only go as far as the people working on it allow. With an inspired and rising generation which has emerged from the pandemic with a positive outlook, the prospects of such success remain in motion.

Moreover, at PwC, we believe that innovative mindsets with the right technologies will be necessary to deliver new sustained outcomes, beyond the tried and tested. Out of the 6,000 jobs we aim to create in the Middle East in the next five years, a substantial number are planned to be based in the Kingdom with a focus on digital and ESG capabilities - looking forward to the future towards digitalisation and environment, as does the Vision.

So, in answering the question: What has Saudi Arabia done to keep the realisation of Vision 2030 in motion? The answer is clear: It looked beyond it.

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