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When Vision 2030 was launched five years ago I was the recently arrived British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. One year into King Salman’s reign it was already clear that change was in the air. During meetings with then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, we had also gained some idea of the reforms that he saw necessary to secure the future and provide hope for young Saudis.
Even so, the breadth and scale of Vision 2030 exceeded all expectations when it was announced. For weeks afterwards it was the main subject people wanted to talk about as I travelled round the country. Everyone I met recognised that change was necessary. Most, especially the young, were excited about what it meant for their future lives. I have vivid memories of the enthusiasm of a group of women students. Even in private conversations I found little or no opposition. But inevitably some people had questions as they struggled to understand what was proposed. Was Vision 2030 different from previous announcements that had run out of steam? Was it too ambitious? Could it really happen? And if it did, what were the wider consequences?
Five years on, the answers are clear. Vision 2030 is different. It is even more ambitious than first announced. It is happening. And yes, it was always not just about economic reform but also about transforming the personal and social quality of life.
Today, young people in Saudi Arabia can mix freely in public subject only to the kinds of pandemic rules found around the world. Women enjoy legal equality with men as regards rights to travel, to drive, to open a bank account, to get a job and more. The religious police are off the streets and music is no longer banned as a sin. Access to sports, cultural events and entertainment has opened up and is booming, again within the usual pandemic rules. I treasure the memory of attending the first musical event in Riyadh.
In the economy, Saudi Arabia has shot up the rankings of the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. There has been real progress in the transition to grow the private sector, most recently with the launch of the Shareek program to build private-public sector partnership with a goal of 65% private sector contribution to GDP by 2030, generating thousands of private sector jobs for young Saudis. There has been significant progress towards reducing oil dependency for the economy as a whole and for government revenues in particular.
The transition towards clean energy will also bring major climate and environmental gains, as shown by the Crown Prince’s recent announcement of the initiative for a Green Saudi where 50% of the country’s electricity will come from renewable energy by 2030, in addition to major urban greening and marine and desert environmental protection programs. In parallel MBS committed Saudi Arabia to using its regional leadership role for a Green Middle East initiative. These are welcome steps ahead of the UN Climate Change conference to be held in Glasgow later this year.
So, have all of Vision 2030’s goals so far been achieved? This was never going to be possible with such a wide-ranging and ambitious program. But the Saudi leadership has been clear from the outset that it was better to aim for achieving lots of big goals as quickly as possible, and to adapt and reset in any areas where progress was lagging, than to aim for perfect success on a smaller and more limited scale. Life is never perfect and much remains to be done.
But five years after the launch of Vision 2030 the scale, speed and trajectory of change are clear for all to see. The results are positive for the country, the region and the wider world. It is an exciting journey, especially for the hope that it has given to young Saudi women and men. It has been a privilege for me personally as an outsider to witness this economic and social transformation and to support it where I can.