It wasn’t just the world’s top corporate executives and bankers that boycotted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s glitzy Future Investment Initiative business conference this week. Reality itself was glaringly absent.
The disconnect was manifest in MbS’ answer to the moderator's pre-arranged “hardball” question about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. It seems quite certain that MbS ordered the murder, yet he kept a straight face and condemned it has a “heinous” crime and vowed “to bring to justice those who are responsible.”
The out-of-body experience MbS was undergoing as he promised in the third person to bring himself to justice garnered the most attention. But the lack of reality was no less manifest in the crown prince’s much more extensive comments that followed on economic reform and the future of the Middle East.
Not quite Europe on the Euphrates
Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the region knows that large parts of it are wracked by war (Syria, Yemen and Libya). Other parts are oppressed by corrupt, dictatorial regimes (Egypt and Algeria) or weak and ineffectual ones (Lebanon and Iraq). Egypt has undertaken reform measures out of desperation, but Lebanon and Iraq haven’t been able to get their act together
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The International Monetary Fund’s latest estimate for global economic growth shows the Middle East and North Africa is among the world’s slow-growth regions. While the world’s emerging markets and developing countries are expected to expand by 4.7% this year and next, on average, the MENA region is projected to grow by just 2.0% in 2018 and 2.5% in 2019. Saudi Arabia’s rate will be even slower.
But MbS (if we tap Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway) has alternative facts. In his Middle East, countries are advancing rapidly led by visionary leaders and plucky officials.
In his own words: “Kuwait today has 2035 Vision, they have great people, they have great financial resources – quite easily they will meet their great goals. Today in Egypt – last year growth of GDP was 5% or a little more, the unemployment rate is declining quite rapidly, the building of housing projects …I couldn’t believe it myself. I visited some areas in Egypt and I found all the officials on the ground working to create a great Egypt, a powerful Egypt," MbS said, and went on:
"They believe that no matter what they’ve achieved over the past two years is nothing – they haven’t started yet. We can see there is tremendous work led by the prime minister in Lebanon to restore the great role of Lebanon, and I guarantee that the efforts of our brothers in Lebanon will succeed under the leadership of the prime minister and the rest of the Lebanese leaders .… Amman they have mega-projects and they are trying to bring Amman into a new era.”
If that wasn’t enough, he concluded his assessment of the region with the stunning statement that “the new Europe is the Middle East …. The coming renaissance in the next 30 years will be in the Middle East.”
Funny, that. There aren’t many leaders these days that aspire to be the new Europe. If anything some seem to aspire to the old Europe. But in MbS’ alterative reality, the Europe is the future.
MbS didn’t offer any insights into how he thinks this renaissance is coming about. In an era when economic development is all about human capital, the Middle East is desperately short of the skilled and motivated entrepreneurs and workers.
Instead, MbS seems to think that mega-projects and lavish spending will do the trick. As he told the Future Investment Initiative conference, his role model is the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, who transformed a poor and backward Gulf city-state into a global city in the space of a few decades.
Vis-à-vis Dubai, the crown prince does have some grip on reality, but it's tenuous. Dubai prospered by becoming an international air hub, a real-estate wonderland of palm-tree-shaped islands and the world’s tallest skyscrapers, plus a regional business center.
But the emirate isn’t a very good model for the rest of the region. It is a tiny country where 85% of the population is expatriates who keep the place running. To attract them, it exempts these foreign residents from taxes and its enforcement of Islamic social strictures is light. Even with these advantages, Dubai's economy is prone to economic gyrations. There are even signs that the model is tapped out.
However, clearly it is this Dubai model that explain MbS's reforms allowing women to drive and cinemas to open, and his plans for the mega-high-tech city Neom, whichis supposed to be populated by expats. He wants to make Saudi Arabia a Dubai writ large. Not only that: he thinks the same formula will work in Egypt and even Jordan.
To MbS’ credit, he understands that Saudi Arabia can’t quite pull off a Dubai. His country is too big and too socially conservative to become a magnet for foreigners (indeed he is trying to reduce the expat population that is there). He understands that the kingdom won’t be able to end its oil dependency unless it builds a competitive economy based on the country’s own labor force.
But he can’t seem to wean himself off the idea that somehow he can accomplish this throwing money at marquis projects and that somehow Saudis will be inspired by all it all to become like Koreans and Chinese.
As it is, the reality of MbS’ complicity in the Khashoggi killing may put an end to his seemingly unchallenged rule and his reform dreams. But even if he survives, the vision itself is faulty.