Why isn't the Kingdom a full of international companies, a crucible for MENA innovation just as the UAE is, just a few kilometres to the east?
Why do so many leading international companies actively avoid entering into the KSA..?
The answer..? Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has always been the impediment its growth - outside hydrocarbons. The Kingdom has, until very recently, either been actively repelled by, or just had no interest in, global trends and market forces that have driven more liberal economies elsewhere. How else do you explain the sclerotic burn of an economy that, without trying, is the world's eighteenth-largest by nominal GDP and the seventeenth-largest by PPP; a country with a very high Human Development Index, the world's third-largest immigrant population, and one with one of the world's youngest populations - 50 per cent of its population of 34.2 million being under 25 years old.
In part it has been the "curse of oil" that has made it slow to seek 'modernity'. Necessity is the mother of invention, struggle and change and until the 1980s this was a country whose population really needed for nothing. However the pressures of serving a population of a simpler (in terms of needs and demands) 4 million (as it was in 1960) is not the same as (a more demanding) 35 million (as it is today). Balancing the books has become ever tougher, even for a country with the world's second-largest proven petroleum reserves and that is the largest exporter of petroleum. In fact, according to the IMF, the Saudi economy stacks up up only when the price of oil tops 79 plus dollars a barrel - and that requires either a war, or a global economy that's over heating.
As important as its oil cushion however, has been the religion and culture that is so interwoven into the country's fabric. As the custodian of the most holy Islamic sites in the world Saudi Arabia - certainly modern Saudi Arabia, has felt the need to 'protect' itself from the counterweight of ideas coming from the more liberal West, and to a far lesser extent, East. Until very recently recently Saudi was a closed shop as far as tourism was concerned. Business men could get in, business women with a whole lot more difficulty, but only after going through an onerous visa process to explain their intent.
And once inside, then what for the weary business traveller or new expat resident? Saudi has not been a country that felt the need to adapt to the norms of the West to make itself a nicer, more comfortable place for expatriates. Far from it, it has been a country tied to strict interpretations of how humans should exist together under Islamic principles. Segregation in restaurants, a complete ban on alcohol, no cinemas... Comfort could be found, but in compounds, for those who made the effort to be in the know. As a consequence expats (from the West and East) voted with their feet, and chose to service Saudi from the more comfortable, and accommodating, emirates that surround it - Bahrain in the 70s and 80s, more often the UAE in the 90s and beyond.
Let's be clear: Expats do not move to Saudi for the lifestyle, but for financial reasons. While some (many even) learn to love the country, the majority remain housed in their Western-style compounds, far removed from real Saudi life, putting away each month a large percentage of their tax-free salaries.
The net result of all this meant that while Saudi has slumbered, surrounding countries, and none more so than the UAE, and Dubai specifically, boomed as the regional HQs of major global enterprises. Which was 'fine' while the KSA and its its older, simpler generation felt rich from oil, but not as booming millennial expectations began to overtake what the state could realistically deliver.
With its dependency on oil, the wealth of the nation has, to a large degree, always been decided outside of it. Per capita income fell from a high of $11,700 at the height of the oil boom in 1981 to just $6,300 in 1998. The difference? Market forces - the global economy simply did not need so much oil. Today, Russia's special military project in the Ukraine has filled the country's coffers again... but how long oil hovers around $100 a barrel is decided, not by OPEC (despite its best efforts), but by larger tectonic shifts elsewhere.
In order to get more control, diversify the economy, better balance the budgets, and to begin to deliver more for its people, Saudi has increasingly needed more of its young contributing and benefitting from and within a much larger private sector - not either directly or indirectly working for the state - which of course includes the country's biggest employer Saudi Aramco, the national oil company.
Until Mohammed bin Sayed al Saud (MBS), the country's Crown Prince and Prime Minister, the primary vehicle Saudi used to drive more of its young population into private firms was Saudiisation of the work force. An elaborate scheme, Nitaqat, was set up to ensure private companies favoured the local work force. This has been successful in ensuring better representation within private companies that NEED a physical location in Saudi Arabia. But those same increased restrictions have made the country less attractive, less profitable, and therefore less able to attract those multinational companies already well versed in working out how to service Saudi Arabia without actually being in it.
A new 'stick' to beat companies is the requirement, due to come into force by 2025, for companies to have a physical HQ in Saudi if they wish to tender for its business. If enforced, and business opportunities are lucrative enough, this will undoubtedly benefit the Kingdom. However, already there are complaints as to how this is meant to happen when, because of Nitaqat requirements, anywhere from 56% to 91% of employees for the HQ will need to be Saudis (to achieve Platinum status, depending on the industry/tier). Compare the approach with the UAE, in particular Dubai, where a less onerous Emiratisation approach has created opportunities for everyone - expats and 'locals' alike.
In tandem with the stick is the carrot. Rather than beating companies into submission, new policies seem to be focusing on trying to make Saudi a place businesses, and individuals, will want to be, with relaxed social rules, the lifting of the driving ban for women, the ending of segregation in restaurants, music licenses, clubs, cinemas... Doing this may sound so simple, but has required a radical and profound restructuring of Saudi society and an iron rule to move, and keep, all pieces in their place. If successful however, the vision is that the KSA is the new UAE/Dubai, only multiples of the size.
Our Vision is a strong, thriving, and stable Saudi Arabia that provides opportunity for all. Our Vision is a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method. We will welcome qualified individuals from all over the world and will respect those who have come to join our journey and our success.
We intend to provide better opportunities for partnerships with the private sector through the three pillars: our position as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, our leading investment capabilities, and our strategic geographical position. We will improve the business environment, so that our economy grows and flourishes, driving healthier employment opportunities for citizens and long-term prosperity for all. This promise is built on cooperation and on mutual responsibility.
Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, Crown Prince and Prime Minister, KSA
To further the goal, in addition to changing social rules, Saudi has implemented a wide range of business reforms making it easier to start a business and easier for foreign companies to invest in the economy.
Business infrastructure and facilities are getting large-scale public and private investment boosting tourism and hospitality, transport and logistics, energy and derivatives, industrial production and manufacturing, and a range of consumer and business services.
Saudi Arabia’s economic outlook is looking increasingly promising... It just needs the reform process to remain on track.
Saudi Arabia is a vast country, and most of its terrain consists of largely uninhabited desert, steppe, or mountains. Some 85% of Saudis, (and a higher percentage of expats), will live in one of the main urban areas: Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, Hofuf, Ta'if, Buraydah, Khobar, Yanbu, Dhahran, and Dammam. Most expats will be found in Jeddah or Riyadh, but the Eastern Province (pretty much the Dhahran-Dammam-Al-Khobar spread) pulls in those lured by lucrative job offers in the hydrocarbon sector.
Jeddah is usually the city that is chosen by expats that have any choice as to where they live in the Kingdom. Saudis say "Jeddah ghayr" - "Jeddah is different". It is markedly more relaxed and laid-back than other cities in the Kingdom, its people are more open and fun-loving. Like Dubai in the UAE, it has a trading past and a population with more expats than locals. Jeddah's coastline is remarkable as well, with great beaches and diving that is, largely unspoiled...
Riyadh is the capital, where most of the multinationals are now based, and the life it offers expats is simpler and perhaps less colourful. In the past religious conservatism was distinctly more overt, and even today that conservatism holds considerably more sway than in Jeddah. That does not mean Riyadh can't be a great place to live. It can, but for more Western oriented expats, it does mean more life is likely to take place in closed, often expat-only compounds. Riyadh itself lies in the middle of the Al-Nafud desert, which means it is surrounded by some incredible landscapes for those that want to explore outside the city...
And finally, there is the Eastern Region with the the cities of Dammam, Dahran and Al-Khobar (are so close they're essentially one large conurbation). Al-Khobar is said to be the main residential district of the region, and is said to be a resort town with a number of beaches and beach resorts. The city has genuine life and comes in its own at night time. It is also home to some of the largest malls of Saudi Arabia (the Mall of Dhahran and the al-Rashid Mall popular among locals and expats alike). The Eastern region also neighbours Bahrain, and the incredible King Fahd Causeway which links the two is always incredibly busy on a weekend for those looking to let their hair down.
This overview guide to Saudi would also not be complete without a nod to Neom. Those who have yet to visit the Kingdom may think Neom is the city expats should aim to live in. It will be governed by different laws to the rest of Saudi and be far more expat friendly: alcohol is expected to be allowed, and residents will not be called Saudis, but Neomians.
At the moment however the city is little more than marketing. The KSA has taken a leaf out if Dubai's book when it comes to creating imagination-capturing, futuristic, and hugely attractive developments - that will be ready "in a few years time".
When it is built Neom will be located in the northern part of the Red Sea, south of Jordan and Israel, and east of Egypt across the Strait of Tiran. It will cover an estimated area of 26,500 km2 extending 460 km on the coast of the Red Sea. The first phase of the Neom City Project is expected to be completed by 2025 - but we are not sure how realistic this is. Estimations for completion initially aligned with the 2030 plan, but many think 2050 is more realistic.
The Line is the development that is most well known, a proposed smart linear city that will have no cars, streets or carbon emissions and run for 170-kilometres and anticipate a population of five million.
According to the designs, it will consist of two 1,600 feet tall buildings that will extend horizontally, in parallel, from the Gulf of Aqaba in the country’s west, through a mountain range, into the desert. The two Mirror Line buildings will be connected via walkways, and a high-speed train will run underneath them. This will enable the five million people to travel end-to-end within a 20-minute stretch. The development will also have a sports stadium, "300m above the ground".
Buildings will be coated in a silver shine and be reflective and be powered by renewable energy.
The Trojena Mega Tourism Project is the second highly marketed Neom project, offering a ski village, and an ultra-luxury family resort, all spread across six districts - Discover, Valley, Relax, Gateway, Explore, and Fun. The project which is scheduled to be completed by 2026, which again sounds just a little ambitious. It will offer water sports, a ('real') ski slope, mountain biking, an interactive nature reserve, music, art, sports, and cultural festivals.
Saudi is A LOT easier to live in today than it has been in the past, but it is not like living in neighbouring UAE, or the future that could be Neomian. While women can now work, this is not always a simple matter. Like the UAE, a husband’s visa won't automatically grant you the the right to work, but unlike the UAE ways around it, for example with a 'freelance visa', are not readily available.
Saudi Arabia is also still a deeply conservative country and moving to it can be a culture shock if you are not prepared. Freedoms enjoyed elsewhere are strictly regulated, and if you are not well down the road of internalising these, you may well find your new situation difficult. That said, the chances are you will be living within a compound, and behind its walls a Western way if life is often the norm. It's liberating, but by definition, enclosed. You also need to like your neighbours, you will be working, socialising and partying with them often.
Women are more likely than men to immediately feel the differences outside a compound. The Abaya, a long black robe that covers your clothes, is still the best policy if you do not want to attract attention. Decency laws specify knees and shoulders should always be covered.
If you have children, you'll need to find an international school. Regardless of admissions hurdles, the cultural, social, religious and language differences of local schools are likely to represent hurdles that are simply insurmountable. Getting a place in one the best international schools will not be easy to secure either given the demand. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com is here to help you navigate the significant challenge in terms of choice, but you still need to apply as early as possible. Expats need to also factor private education costs into contract negotiations - school places do not come cheap.