Three weeks into a cross-country visit to the US, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman sealed a number of agreements from tech to energy aimed at overhauling the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and beefing up the private sector.
A pact between Boeing and Saudi’s defence manufacturing company for a joint venture to develop the country’s nascent military industry was the latest accord reached during the visit. The venture, signed March 30 during the crown prince's visit of the US planemaker’s facilities in Seattle, will localise more than half of the maintenance services for fixed and rotary-wing military jets in the kingdom, transfer technology and produce spare parts domestically. “It’s a great opportunity, Saudis have to move from simple manufacturing of food and perishable goods to something more high-tech,” said Mustafa Alani, senior advisor and director of security and defence at Gulf Research Centre. “We’ve put it on the shelf for so long.”
The crown prince held a flurry of meetings as part of his first official visit to the US since becoming heir to the throne last year. Beyond military deals, 36 memorandums of understanding worth $20 billion were signed at the Saudi-US CEO Forum. Deals included partnerships in sectors spanning healthcare, manufacturing, education and technology. During his visit the crown prince signed an MoU to build a $200bn solar power development, the world’s largest project, with Japan’s Softbank Group in New York.
Developing industries, including defense manufacturing, is part of the kingdom's Vision 2030 transformation plan that seeks to diversify the economy beyond oil revenues, create jobs for young Saudis and expand the role of the private sector. It also features allowing greater participation of women in the workforce.
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Building a home-grown military industry is one of the key goals of the kingdom's economic reform plan. With that in mind, the country’s sovereign wealth fund established Saudi Arabian Military Industries, or SAMI, in May. It plans to manufacture equipment and provide MRO services. The ultimate goal is ambitious: Half of Saudi’s military procurement must be done locally by 2030, up from about two per cent currently. Saudi Arabia has earmarked $56bn for military spending this year, the biggest item on its budget.
SAMI’s target includes contributing $3.7bn to the Saudi economy by 2030, creating 40,000 jobs and investing $1.6bn in research and development, according to its website. The venture with Boeing is expected to generate revenues exceeding $22bn and create 6,000 jobs by 2030, according to a company statement.
It will likely take Saudi another five years to build a viable domestic military industry and up to 20 years to transfer knowledge and train a generation of engineers, according to security analysts.
Building a military industry from scratch means Saudi Arabia could potentially look to expand its market beyond local requirements.
“No doubt the decision behind indigenous defense industry is aimed at sale to regional neighbours and perhaps beyond,” Theodore Karasik, senior advisor to Washington-based Gulf State Analytics, said.