Saudi Arabia is “just getting started” on the journey to diversifying its economy, some of the kingdom’s top officials say after a major retrospective on progress towards realising the goals of Vision 2030.
In a documentary released by the National Transformation Programme on Sunday, high-ranking government ministers were among officials who discussed the challenges the kingdom has overcome in the first five years of the scheme.
Announced in 2016 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Vision 2030 is an ambitious scheme that intends to completely reshape the kingdom’s economy into one that is self-sufficient, progressive and diversified.
In The Transformation Journey, which was released on Sunday, Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb shared insights into what it is like to work alongside Prince Mohammed on flagship development projects.
“If you work with the Crown Prince you see the level of ambition changing,” Mr Al Khateeb said. “The bar keeps getting higher and higher.”
The Vision 2030 scheme includes ambitious targets including increasing the capacity for Umrah visitors from 8 million to 30 million, lowering unemployment, increasing women's participation in the workforce and increasing foreign investment.
Mr Al Khateeb says in the film that those goals “were ambitious but logical”.
The Minister of Investment, Khalid Al Falih said: “The kingdom used to have financial and export surpluses. We didn’t feel the need to have a diversified economy.
"Vision 2030 sensed this shortage and the need for diversification.”
The Ministry of Investment has been working to attract greater foreign investment since Vision 2030 was announced.
The "Invest in Saudi" initiative increased the number of new foreign investments in the kingdom by 54 per cent in 2019 from 2018.
The kingdom moved up 29 places in the World Bank Group’s Ease of Doing Business Index in 2020.
National Transformation Programme chairman Mohammed Al Tuwaijri said being able to respond to a changing world was also important.
“The whole world is changing," Mr Al Tuwaijri said. "There are geopolitical and market shifts, trade wars and other types of disasters.
"Keeping pace with this change has to be taken seriously to conserve the kingdom’s geopolitical status and its position at the heart of the Islamic and Arab heritage, as well as a global hub.”
Improving women’s participation in the economy is a major part of the Vision 2030 scheme.
Some of the kingdom’s most high-profile women in business and politics reflected on the changes the country has already undergone in this area.
“The leap in women’s participation in the labour force is unprecedented," said Hind Al Zahid, head of women’s empowerment at the Ministry of Human Resource and Social Development.
"Today Saudi women can work in every field and in leadership roles.”
Majid Al Hoqail, Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing, said: “The world is changing and it is natural that we lead this change."
The Minister for Human Resources and Social Development, Ahmed Al Rajhi, said: "Increasing women's participation in the labour market is one of the strategic objectives assigned to the National Transformation Programme led by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, where the percentage of women's share in the labour market reached 31.8 per cent in 2020."
Minister of Justice Dr Walid Al Samaani praised the major human rights reforms made in the past five years, many of which were in favour of women and children, despite significant hurdles.
“There were many obstacles in the way that delayed granting rights to women," Dr Al Samaani said. "Women weren’t allowed to drive or work in all sectors.”
Saudi Arabia opened its doors to foreign tourists for the first time in 2019 as part of Vision 2030, and helping to expand the kingdom's tourism sector is a crucial part of the programme.
Among its targets is more than doubling the number of Saudi heritage sites registered with Unesco.
Mr Al Khateeb reflected on the growth of the Saudi tourism industry despite the pandemic.
"By March 2020, the kingdom had welcomed more than 440,000 tourists from around the world," he said.
The kingdom now had five heritage sites listed with Unesco, Mr Al Khateeb said.
Alongside the documentary, the NTP also released a report on the achievements of the programme’s first five years.
Digital transformation features prominently in Vision 2030 and programme chief executive Thamer Al Saadoun detailed some of the advances in digital infrastructure.
More than 3.5 million households in the kingdom now have access to fibre optic internet, Mr Al Saadoun said.
He said the average speed of internet connections had increased from 9Mpbs in 2017 to 109Mbps in 2020.
This growth, and improvements in other areas of the economy, helped the kingdom to weather the coronavirus pandemic.
“In this year which is full of challenges, we Saudis should be proud of this nation’s ambitious vision, which has proven its viability and importance at the time of distress as it ensured the nation’s resilience against crises,” Mr Al Saadoun said.