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An Arabian future

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Time: April 27, 2018

In 1918, the 1,320-km Hejaz railway line between Damascus and Madinah, which took three days to traverse, began to be closed. A century later, the new 453-km Haramain high-speed railway project between Makkah and Madinah will open, taking three hours to reach its destination.


But that no longer suffices. In 2018, the Kingdom also announced its formal interest in its first ultra-high-speed Hyperloop, with the near-1,000 kms between Jeddah and Riyadh traveled in 76 minutes. Disruptive change is, therefore, being harnessed to forge an Arabian future, which is now accelerating at tremendous velocity.


Saudi Arabia is in a chrysalis-like state, as the Kingdom commemorates the biennial anniversary of the launch of Vision 2030, its socio-economic strategic plan with a timeline to nearly match four US presidential terms. In 2010, the United Nations recognized the Kingdom as the fifth most transformed country over the previous 80 years. Saudi Arabia is, once again, in a state of transformation, led by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman who launched the Vision on April 25, 2016, but this time, the pace of change has been strategically disrupted, accelerated and consolidated.


The words of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz about Vision 2030 at its outset suffice. His first objective was for “our country to be a pioneering and successful global model of excellence.” Vision 2030 is also built around three themesabout the future of the Kingdom: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation, so the aspiration of the global model of excellence is imbibed with these.


A vibrant society


What could further help to make the Kingdom a vibrant society? In two words: human development. In Saudi Arabia in 2011, McKinsey & Company launched the 3Es –Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship policy initiative to tackle youth socio-economic challenges. The 3Es were subsequently adopted globally by the EU, World Bank and OECD, and championed by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, making them as applicable today.


On education, one key principle of the world’s top-rated education system in Finland, which matches traditional Arabian learning, is of facilitating play-based informal and heuristic learning for children till the age of seven. On employment, whilst promoting vocational skills is required for a growing population, a need also exists to develop a generation of Arabian talent which has “life-readiness” skills such as financial literacy and active citizenship and a sense of purpose and mission based on concepts such as “Ikigai” and “Lima Khuliq”. Then, as LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner says, the dam will break.


In healthcare, with over three million cases of diabetes in the Kingdom, the imperative to encourage healthy eating and exercise is underway, but wearable health tech to measure physical activity could become the norm. Sustainability as a principle can also permeate every household, from the greater deployment of renewable energy, greenery and the sustainable use of water, both desalinated and underground. With urbanization on the rise, municipalities can also further enable knowledge transfer between the Kingdom’s cities, from traditional centers like Jeddah and Riyadh and future metropolises like King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) and NEOM.


Arabian hospitality is world-renowned. This originates from basic human kindness in sharing water with a stranger in the Arabian desert to welcoming travelers for centurieson all coasts of the Arabian Peninsula.


The faith of Islam is being revivified within the Kingdom itself, following the first official visit from the Vatican in April 2018, a drive for women empowerment and to demonstrate an appreciation of diverse schools of jurisprudence. The Kingdom’s faith is its greatest soft power, at the forefront of a potential global narrative represented by the Maldives and Dubai, architecture like the Taj Mahal and Petronas Towers, sportsmen like Muhammad Ali and now Mohamed Salah, and Britons like Professor Timothy Winter and Sadiq KhanThirty million Muslims will visit Makkah and Madinah for the Haj and Umrah pilgrimages by 2030, representing a rainbow-like kaleidoscope of the faith, with forthcoming initiatives for green cards to live, reside, work and invest in the country.


Since 1706, the English-speaking world has known of the captivating storytelling in the Arabian Nights. As such, the Kingdom aims to invest $64 billion in entertainment in the country over the next decade, which, with the Saudi Film Council, can witness the first $100 million Hollywood blockbuster shot in Saudi Arabia going global, as content becomes king in the Kingdom.


A thriving economy


What then can help the Kingdom, a G20 member, have an even more thriving economy? Hard infrastructure, particularly, in transport, is most welcome in the Kingdom. But whilst the Hyperloop may be an equivalent of yesteryear’s Arabian stallion, there is still a need for transport which is as convenient as the Arabian camel, such as future-proofing a public transport network to be in walking distance of most households. For soft infrastructure, initiatives can focus on facilitating the “Ease of Doing Business” where the time to start and operate a business as an entrepreneur is near instantaneous. Dubai’s Islamic Economy Initiative can also come home to the Kingdom and be scaled.


Arabian philanthropy can be institutionalized for SWFs like Public Investment Fund and individualized for people, so development funds such as zakat (compulsory alms) are allocated at a granular-level and at scale. Mineral resources representing tangible wealth such as gold and silver are in abundance in the Kingdom, with some of the largest sovereign purchases forecast. The Kingdom’s energy pillar of oil and gas can be diversified to build industries for solar, wind and nuclear power, which can be harnessed, stored and exported.


Home ownership is an aspiration in the Kingdom, be it for Saudis as citizens, for Muslims in the Holy Cities or across the Red Sea for everyone, a thriving economy can be facilitated with induced maturity of the real estate sector. With technology deemed “The Great Disrupter”, significant opportunities for leap-frogging growth stages exist, embedding and harnessing digitization, artificial intelligencerobotics and nanotechology. In fact, the new $500 billion mega-city, NEOM, is the Technopolisembodiment of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


An ambitious nation


What can help to make the Kingdom an even more ambitious nation? Arabian ambition and Arabian governance are also world-famous. A faith born in Arabia, Islam had only around a 100 followers in its first five years, but today stands at 1.8 billion adherents


The United Nations remains the main international body and can act as a strategic partner to determine which causes the Kingdom should champion to achieve their global ambitions. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s second largest inter-governmental organization after the UN, can also be potentially allocated greater resources in line with a wider vision, enhancing its base in the Kingdom.


Whereas the 20th century witnessed an eastward focus on the Arabian Peninsula towards the Arabian Gulf, there have been concerted efforts, led by the Kingdom, to turn westwards towards the Red Sea area, which accounts for 13 percent of global trade. This has been supported by the United Arab Emirates, through knowledge transfer initiatives like “Khalwat Al-Azm” and through the stake of Dubai’s Emaar in KAEC, whilst partnering with Egypt and Jordan on NEOM. Further socio-economic cooperation and integration could envisage the Gulf Co-operation Council start to resemble a nascent Arabian Union.


Building and achieving King Salman’s vision of a global model of excellence, as delivered by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, across the three themes of Vision 2030 is not only possible, but critical. In terms of measuring the perception of success and actualized influence to genuinely realize this envisaged Arabian future, will, therefore, necessitate quick wins in the short term, big wins in the medium term and legacy wins in the long term.


Talal Malik is the Chairman and CEO of global conglomerate Alpha1Corp, an adviser on governance, strategic intelligence and influence, and a dedicated humanitarian.


This article was first published Saudi Gazette

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