On March 17, Saudi Minister of Environment, Water, and Agriculture Abdulrahman al-Fadhli launched Qatrah (“Droplet”), a new national water conservation program to rationalize water consumption in Saudi Arabia, one of the driest countries in the world and third largest water consumer per capita. The following week, the Vision 2030 Strategic Management Office announced the launch of several grand new projects in the capital to build green spaces, including the King Salman Park and Green Riyadh, which together seek to turn the heart of Riyadh into the largest city park in the world. Green Riyadh alone, a $23 billion endeavor, would include a 14-hectare (35-acre) water park and 3.5-kilometer (2.2-mile) canal. The planned park would consume at least a quarter of a million cubic meters of water per day, depleting any water saved under Qatrah in the Riyadh region.1 Such conflicting projects and programs appear across most government sectors, illustrating the ill-thought nature of policymaking in the kingdom and the urgent need to enhance the process.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 was conceived with the aim of making governance effective and efficient, with a diversified, thriving economy open to long-term investment. However, while the vision is ambitious, questions surround its implementation. The first basic challenge common to such domestic development projects is that the Saudi government is tackling them based on management thinking, not public policy principles. In a business context, leadership first formulates strategy (a high-level plan), and then lays out the plans and policies (rules) for implementation. In a government context, “public policies” are the higher-level principles that guide governance and public management, and strategies are then developed to implement them.
Saudi government leadership has mixed up strategy (the domain of management consultants) for public policy (the domain of government civil servants). In government, strategies are plans of action with preset outputs, outcomes, and indicators. Saudi Vision 2030 is full of these: government restructuring, privatization, national transformation, and the like. Policies, by contrast, are principles of action, a guide to making decisions and achieving outcomes. For example, Saudi oil policy is to keep the global oil markets balanced. This guiding policy dictates how Saudi Arabia should control exports, set prices, and invest in oil projects. Based on this policy, Saudi Arabia formulates and implements strategies such as consolidating upstream and downstream activities through ARAMCO or increasing access to markets in Asia. With the possible exception of the country’s oil policy, most of what is perceived as Saudi government policy actually consists of strategy documents that lack a grounding in sound policy principles. Foreign—largely Western—consultancies write these documents, which the Saudi government then delegates to ministerial bureaucracies for top-down implementation.
The reasons for the lack of clear and coherent public policy plans to put the strategies into action include complex web of bureaucratic challenges, from the hyper-centralized nature of decisionmaking to central and local governments’ overlapping jurisdictions. Lower-level functionaries often have to scramble to achieve goals and outcomes and report on them to project management offices in their relevant ministries, which have to report on strategy implementation to the Vision 2030 team embedded within the Diwan, the unified office of the king and crown prince.
Saudi leadership puts too much pressure on these functionaries to complete projects within short time constraints. Their urgency is spurred by various external economic factors such as fluctuations in the price of oil, as well as political transitions or reorganization within the monarchy. Policy formulation, a naturally lengthy and cumbersome process—from conducting thorough policy analysis, running consultations, developing sound policy instruments, and building frameworks for coordination—has therefore become merely a brainstorming exercise used to present or formulate strategic documents.
The policymaking process has become similar to micromanaging a business—the Vision Strategic Management Office has even formed a “delivery unit” to intervene as needed to ensure implementation when bureaucracies and ministries do not. Rather than being handed policies (clear guidelines on decisionmaking), government functionaries, whether at the central or local level, have to achieve specific outcomes of which they have little knowledge and, more importantly, no say in formulating. For example, in the case of King Salman Park and Green Riyadh, rather than the city’s development authority and municipal government designing and enacting a clear national urban development policy, the delivery unit bypassed these two bureaucracies and established separate, almost independent bodies to oversee the projects under the umbrella of Vision 2030.
Moreover, while consultants and advisors formulate strategy, the government is also contracting them for implementation, under the premise that they know the strategies better than anyone else does. This bypasses Saudi civil servants, technocrats, and elected or appointed government officials—not only limiting their professional development but also undermining the broader capacity building of national public policy expertise. If not addressed quickly, this will hinder the Saudi government from achieving the goals and milestones envisioned in Vision 2030.
Even the process by which the vision was originally conceived sidelined the public policymaking process. Because strategic consultants crammed in four kinds of policy objectives—distributive, constituent, regulatory, and redistributive—the policy agenda was overburdened and uncoordinated. For example, the Saudi privatization program attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to privatize public entities at a time when valuations were collapsing due to an ongoing economic crisis. None of the existing airports slated to be privatized in 2017 under the Public Private Partnerships (PPP) model have begun the shift. The PPP projects remain frozen, primarily because there is no policy process, only a delivery plan.
Because consultants have been overseeing both strategy formulation and implementation, and because of their high turnover due to short project deadlines, ministries lack institutional memory and are further sidelined from engaging in public policy. There are also too few academically qualified, high-quality bureaucrats who can coordinate longer-term policies, and too many high-level advisors who lead government projects but leave the ministry whenever the minister changes. For example, when the king fired Minister of Economy and Planning Adel Fakieh in November 2017, most of the ministry’s advisors left as well, such as former McKinsey partner Hani Khoja. The new team under Minister Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri had to hire more staff and, in some cases, start projects anew.
Enhancing public policymaking in Saudi Arabia requires empowering government entities and other stakeholders in the process, especially the professional civil service. This would entail developing their capacity for policy analysis and formulation, hiring qualified and well-remunerated civil servants, and ensuring their participation and empowerment in the entire public policymaking process—from setting the agenda and formulating policies to making decisions regarding those policies, implementing them, and evaluating the results. This would enhance the natural role of Ministry of Economy and Planning in domestic policymaking.
Saudi Arabia would also benefit from institutionalizing and democratizing public policy lobbying: opening up the policy process for various interest groups to participate in influencing government. Currently, public policy lobbying is limited to management strategy consulting firms and certain powerful individuals, usually members of royal family members or their business proxies, making lobbying in Saudi Arabia highly opaque and exclusionary. The lobbying industry in the United States could serve as an example. The Saudi government has already mastered operating in the U.S. lobbying industry but has not applied the same model of opening up the process of policy analysis, consultation, and coordination within the kingdom.
Institutionalizing public policy lobbying in Saudi Arabia would not only save the government money (by spending less on consultations with strategy firms), it would also generate new jobs, circulate consulting money within the Saudi economy, refine policy options, and improve policy implementation. Democratization of lobbying would further give the public—and other stakeholders such as NGOs, academic institutions, and the private sector—a greater say in the policy process. This would alleviate public perceptions that they are excluded from public policy, thereby lessening political pressure against the government.
Hadi Fathallah is Director for Levant and GCC at NAMEA Group, a fellow of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, and a Global Shaper, an initiative of the World Economic Forum. Follow him on Twitter @Hadi_FAO.
1. Based on the author’s own calculations using water consumption in al-Salam Park in Riyadh as a benchmark.