Article originally in FT (https://www.ft.com/content/a41812d2-2121-11e8-a895-1ba1f72c2c11).
Saudi Arabia cannot achieve its ambitious reforms alone
As the Kingdom’s reliance on oil wanes, overseas companies can benefit
Mohammed bin Nawaf
Saudi Arabia is changing, and changing fast. This week and next, the architect of that social and economic transformation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is visiting the capitals of Egypt, the UK and US, outlining his plans and seeking support.
Central to his message is an effort to shift the country from dependence on oil to a more diverse economy. As part of that effort, he is emphasising the international business opportunities on offer, in all manner of industries and services.
For Britain, the Crown Prince’s visit and its purpose could not be more timely. As the UK seeks to reshape its economy and forge new trade relationships after Brexit, the expansion of the Saudi Arabian market represents an important opportunity.
Not that British and Saudi Arabian trade is a new phenomenon. For close to 100 years, the two countries have had a strong and close relationship.
But there is no doubt, too, that the image of Saudi Arabia as it is portrayed in the UK media is often negative. However, we are asking and encouraging the British people to see our kingdom through the new lens afforded by the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 reform programme that he will explain this week.
Our nation’s social change is real and it is happening with rapidity. For example, Saudi women are now allowed to drive. More than half of university graduates are female. Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah, deputy labour minister, has just become the first woman to be appointed to a senior government post.
Already, women are proactive members of the country’s business community and contribute to our economy. We have removed barriers that prevented women from starting their own businesses.
The Saudi cultural and entertainment industries are also opening up — the General Entertainment Authority will stage more than 5,000 shows, festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year.
To western eyes, some of the changes may seem minor, but taken together these incremental steps add up to a big leap in a social and economic transformation.
We are under no illusion, either, about the challenges ahead. This modernisation will not be easy, nor will it be something we can do alone. We will need to tap the expertise of others. So, as we transition away from our historic reliance on oil, enormous commercial avenues will open up for overseas companies to work with, and invest in, Saudi Arabia.
For the UK in particular this could be hugely beneficial. Saudi Arabia is already Britain’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East, with more than 200 joint ventures worth £11.5bn, involving the likes of HSBC, Marks and Spencer, and Jaguar Land Rover.
During the past five years, UK-Saudi trade has increased by more than £2.3bn. In 2016 the flow in goods and services between the countries was worth more than £8bn. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has already become a prime target for UK exports and imports. But the potential is enormous for much further growth, at a faster pace, as Vision 2030 unfolds and we move away from reliance on oil.
The Crown Prince’s visit will build upon and broaden this relationship, developing more links in education, health, training, culture and the arts. As Saudi Arabia looks to refashion our economy, we will be seeking to develop technology and creative industries, to grow the service and tourism sectors and to expand our infrastructure by constructing new housing, transport links, hospitals, and hotels.
As Britain seeks to boost its prosperity through reinvigorated global trade relations, its companies — large, medium and small — are well placed to play a key role in Saudi Arabia’s transformation. Come work with us, and strengthen the UK economy by helping us build ours.
The writer is Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK.