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“Saudi Arabia’s Vision for the future - it is an ambitious yet achievable blueprint, which expresses our long-term goals and expectations and reflects our country’s strengths and capabilities. All success stories start with a vision, and successful visions are based on strong pillars.”

Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

My recent visit to Riyadh, for participation in the 6th edition of Future Investment Initiative (FII) 2022, and subsequent meetings with government officials, including Khalid Abdulaziz Al-Falih, Minister of Investment of Saudi Arabia; Mohammed Abdullah Al-Jadaan, Minister of Finance of Saudi Arabia; and Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, Governor, Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, as well as various business houses and corporate leadership, has me impressed and inspired by the changes and developments that have come by leaps and bounds, in sync with KSA’s Vision 2030, which goes hand in hand with their preparation to host the World Expo 2030.

A powerful vision that carries vibrancy has enabled the nation and leadership of KSA to follow and intrinsically transform into a dynamic financial hub. This vision comes from the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman. A visionary with an industrialist mindset, he has taken KSA on a road to fast-paced progress in multiple dimensions, giving it scope for centuries to come.

The changing face of Riyadh, the federal and financial capital of KSA, inspire me beyond words to share the story with stakeholders in Pakistan, in the hope that we can emulate it.

The rapid transformation is appending cultural and historical legacies with steady technological and industrial development. Riyadh is all set to be the new center for 21st-century dynamics. It has expanded its core to include key strengths like education, women empowerment, industrial design and growth, food security, entertainment, sustainability, and business supremacy. The Saudi government is now working with three main pillars as provided by the Council for Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA), built around three primary themes across twenty-four government bodies with Vision Realizing Program (VRP) acting as a check on the process;

  1. A vibrant society – urbanism, culture and entertainment, sports, Umrah, UNESCO heritage sites, life expectancy – all to contribute towards the pillar of making KSA the heart of the Arab and Islamic world.

  2. A thriving economy – employment, women in the workforce, international competitiveness, Public Investment Fund, foreign direct investment, and non-oil exports to contribute to the pillar of becoming a Global Investment House.

  3. An ambitious nation – non-oil revenues, government effectiveness, e-government, household savings and income, non-profits, and volunteering, contributing to the pillar of making KSA a Hub, connecting Africa, Europe, and Asia.

That it is happening is clearly illustrated in the working setups and the changing landscape, but how it is happening is something that compelled me to pick up my pen again to continue from where I had stopped in my last article on the trade relationship with KSA that Pakistan needs to work on.

KSA is visibly and swiftly shifting from the singular identity of an oil exporter to a multi-dimensional powerhouse. They have strategized their approach towards this goal and the visibility of action with evaluation is strongly embedded. All the teams that I came across or met with seemed deeply and enthusiastically immersed in projects under the pressure of deliverables and deadlines – complacency had no room. With merit being the strongest criterion for selection and retention, I found the speed of work phenomenal!

I never thought such a change was possible in such a short period of time. As a Pakistani, I have seen many visions announced and shelved. Our demand for a permanent policy framework is yet to be met. Our plans for cross-border trade and economic corridor activities are still part of the wish list and our basic education standards are still way behind international ones.

As a developing third-world economy, Pakistan seems to be a ship in the doldrums, with an urgent need for mechanic propellers to push it in the right direction. On the other hand, within six years of sharing of the vision by Mohammed bin Salman, KSA is poised as one of the new economic centers of the world by focusing on developing expertise in advanced manufacturing. It has realized the need for evolution and is fast achieving it with exemplary aplomb and efficiency.

Pakistan can do well by adopting this approach and for that, I would like to outline a few features here for easy reference;

The programme is designed in three sets of 5-year plans. Each has assigned objectives and milestones with timelines, as well as built-in checks on the desired trajectory.

The strong benchmark for qualifications and merit, with no exception, is a game changer. Everyone is called to task and, in case of weak performance, replaced by a merit-worthy colleague, the royal family being no exception.

Global experts have been attached on a where-needed basis to ensure excellence and relevance with the changing times.

Sustainability is a common denominator in all projects and comes out most aesthetically, as seen in projects like Neom’s The Line in Tabouk or Amaala’s residential project, Red Sea Triple Bay, Sedra by ROSHN, Diriyah Gate, etc.

Tourism is being looked at not only for luxury, but also for medicine, by developing a chain of hospitals, interlinked for the best possible facilities and expertise. This, I feel, is a great pilot for Pakistan to study, given our strategic location and excellent medical schools.

Increased employment and opportunities are inbuilt into each venture, guaranteeing to bring unemployment down to an almost negligible level.

Youth development and women empowerment are addressed strongly as two of the defining features of the vision.

Sustainability with green energy and entertainment are being given a structure and events are held to highlight the uniqueness of the Saudi ecosystem while staying compatible with an international flavor. Cinema, music, and theme parks are prominent parts of the new landscape.

The Saudi Government allocated the equivalent of almost USD 44 million to education to bring qualifications at par with international standards and combined it with fast-paced digitization to cut into delays and tedious bureaucratic red tape, enabling teams to maintain their pace as per the deadlines.

With such a structured action plan, the magnitude and speed of social change has been dramatic too. In just a few years, they have removed the religious police, introduced judicial reforms, eased restrictions on women, increased female workforce participation from 17% in 2016 to 36% (reaching a 15-year target in 5 years), allowed cinemas, concerts and other forms of entertainment, and, for the first time, opened up to non-religious tourism.

By 2030, Riyadh aims to become one of the world’s 10 most competitive and livable cities; as a result, it is looking to attract leading global companies, educators, and schools. With Vision 2030 Giga projects, already valued at almost USD 1 trillion and expected to further increase in scale, several British organizations are actively seeking to establish physical presence to gain a foothold in this high-growth market.

I come back to my Pakistan perspective now. I believe it takes a lot of courage to review where we stand with this golden opportunity and blueprint for development right in front of us. KSA has showcased how progress can be maximized within a stipulated time, how a stable framework with high merit can change the game, how focus on education and technology can ensure excellence, how diversity and inclusion bring about social development and cohesions, and how sustainability, as a core, gives all projects longevity and future relevance.

I began the article with a quote from the Crown Prince, for I genuinely would like a visionary like him to steer Pakistan out of this quagmire. The action plan taken up by KSA is doable, and the targets set are achievable. Pakistan has only to gain from this unfolding canvas of the future.

All we need is a set framework and commitment by the stakeholders. We must understand the significance of security and stability for investments. The dearth is not of opportunities but of vision and willingness. Pakistan also needs to take a deep dive into the opportunities available for Pakistan’s workforce, especially the white-collared workers, entrepreneurs, technology experts, and established business houses for joint ventures and new businesses. The World Expo 2030 and Vision 2030 can be goldmines for Pakistan, given our commitment and promise to deliver.

Countries are created once, and nations build them. To build Pakistan, we need to move away from a grant-and-subsidies mindset, towards collaborative partnerships, joint ventures, and new opportunities. Vision Pakistan needs to be construed and realized for the good of this country by creating collaboration opportunities, eliminating red tape, bringing transparency in processes, and focusing on digitization. For Pakistan’s rise, KSA’s Vision 2030 seems like an excellent roadmap.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

Muhammad Azfar Ahsan

The writer is the Founder of the CORPORATE PAKISTAN GROUP, former Minister of State and Chairman, Board of Investment

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