(Bloomberg) -- Plans for a future after oil in Saudi Arabia are increasingly at the mercy of the present.
A strategy to transform the Saudi economy, championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is likely to face deep budget cuts as the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting crude prices batter the economy, according to people familiar with the matter.
Dubbed Vision 2030, the wide-ranging initiative unveiled with fanfare in 2016 aims to diversify the oil-dependent economy and attract foreign investment. Economists say the government has fallen behind on some targets, however, and insiders working on the plan have complained of overlapping remits and conflicting priorities.
Officials began a broad reassessment of the blueprint before the latest crises, but the Finance Ministry is now specifically looking to pare back its budgets, according to two people familiar with the matter. They said officials hadn’t yet decided how the added pressure of the oil price collapse would affect the review, but they’re expecting significant cuts.
Vision 2030 reductions would come on top of 20% in savings that the government had already asked ministries to find, one of the people said.
Repeated revisions to Prince Mohammed’s keynote initiative underline how his ambitious plans have often faltered in the face of reality. When he first launched his vision, Prince Mohammed said Saudi Arabia would be able to survive without oil by 2020. Since then, he’s transformed the kingdom on many fronts -- loosening social restrictions and opening up to tourists -- but he’s made it only slightly less dependent on crude.
His assertive foreign policies have also proved costly, embroiling Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war and long-running diplomatic spats and, more recently, in an oil price battle with Russia that’s squeezing spending on the very programs designed to promote other industries.
“The decision on where to cut is not an easy one at this level because you have to basically kill big programs if you really want to save money,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group. “The new wave of coronavirus and low oil prices will dictate new terms on the revisions that the leadership might want to avert but will not be able to.”
A spokesman for Vision 2030 said in a statement to Bloomberg that a review was underway but “any anticipated changes are technical in nature and do not impact Vision 2030 targets or the direction of the reform program, which the government is steadfast in its commitment to delivering.”
The Finance Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said in a televised news conference in March that the government had “extensive fiscal and economic capabilities” and planned to borrow more this year to safeguard reserves and investment.
While the pandemic threatens to capsize economies globally, the price war with Russia means oil is trading near its lowest levels since 2003. With income from hydrocarbons projected to account for 60% of budget revenue this year, the market rout is translating into difficult choices.
In a further blow to Saudi Arabia’s economy, the government is asking Muslims to delay plans to travel to the kingdom for this year’s hajj pilgrimage -- in addition to an existing suspension for the non-obligatory Umrah pilgrimage. Vision 2030 aims to expand Umrah, which brings millions of people from around the world to Saudi Arabia each year, as a key source of non-oil revenue.
So far, Saudi Arabia’s announced a 5% budget cut for 2020, along with a 120 billion-riyal ($32 billion) package aimed at helping businesses survive a near-lockdown.
Prince Mohammed’s original vision laid out 96 overall targets for 2030, and there’s little indication those will change, though some individual implementation programs are likely to be amended, scrapped or replaced.
Even before the latest crises, officials overseeing Vision 2030 were planning to slash spending on one of its key elements, the National Industrial Development and Logistics Program, or NIDLP, by around 70%, according to three people familiar with the matter. The NIDLP was announced in January 2019 and was once expected to create 1.6 million jobs by developing non-oil industries such as aquaculture, mining and manufacturing.
Officials had also decided to create two new initiatives under the plan dedicated to health and private-sector development, while canceling two others focused on international partnerships and helping Saudi companies go global, the people said.
The government didn’t comment on revisions to the NIDLP budget, but said that it’s “undertaking a standard review process that assesses the progress of the kingdom’s Vision Realization Programs.” It also pointed to progress in areas like housing, healthcare, sports and tourism and said non-oil revenue had grown rapidly since the strategy was launched.
There’s also a potential silver lining to the crisis if it raises the urgency of diversifying the economy and makes officials put a priority on spending that gets clear results, Kamel said.
“Perhaps lower oil prices force more of a long-term view or a more sustainable view on programs that need to stay,” he said. That could “therefore cut some of the wasteful spending that really wouldn’t be necessary for the kingdom over the long term.”
(Updates with analyst quotes starting in eight paragraphs, adds context about hajj and Umrah in 12th)
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