Saudi Arabia’s McKinsey reshuffle

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Saudi Arabians woke up over the weekend to a once-in-a-decade cabinet reshuffle. Octogenarian oil minister Ali al-Naimi, who has been in charge of the Kingdom’s energy policy since 1995, was replaced by Khaled al-Falih, who is to head the newly created Energy, Industry, and Natural Resources Ministry. Majed al-Qusaibi was named head of the newly created Commerce and Investment Ministry. Finally, Ahmed al-Kholifey was made governor of the Saudi Arabia’s Central Bank (SAMA). It may come as a surprise to many Saudis that the origin of this reshuffle—and indeed the Kingdom’s new economic direction—finds its impetus in a report by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

A man with a plan

Saudi Arabia has been struggling to deal with the impact of lower oil prices. After years of recording budget surpluses, the government has seen its budgetary deficit grow to 15 percent of GDP. Lower oil prices—coupled with tensions with regional rival Iran over Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon—have put the Kingdom’s finances under pressure. Since oil prices began to plummet, Saudi Arabia’s ever-ambitious Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been spearheading an ambitious reform initiative that seeks to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil. 

Dubbed “Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030,” the prince says that the new economic blueprint will increase the role of the private sector from 40 percent to 60 percent, reduce unemployment from 11 percent to 7.6 percent, and grow non-oil income exponentially. This is to be financed by the partial privatization of the Kingdom’s oil behemoth, Aramco. 

The 2030 document outlines a number of significant reforms that seek to change not only the Saudi economy, but state-society relations more broadly, in a way that has been done since the Kingdom’s founding.

The 2030 document outlines a number of significant reforms that seek to change not only the Saudi economy, but state-society relations more broadly, in a way that hasn’t been done since the Kingdom’s founding. The prince’s vision seems to have been inspired by a report issued by the McKinsey Global Institute in December 2015 titled “Moving Saudi Arabia’s Economy Beyond Oil.” The vision and the report have similar policy prescriptions for diversifying the Kingdom’s economy away from oil. 

Such similarities highlight the influence of consultancies on policymaking in the Kingdom. Indeed, Bloomberg news reported that consultancies are set to earn 12 percent more in commissions in Saudi Arabia this year, the fastest growth amongst the world’s advisory markets. In a wide-ranging interview with The Economist in January, Prince Mohammed himself said that “McKinsey participates with us in many studies.” According to the Financial Times, Saudi businessmen have sarcastically dubbed the Ministry of Planning as the “McKinsey Ministry.”

McKinsey’s key report, full with glossy illustrations, contains consultant buzzwords (“transformation,” “efficiency,” and “synergies”) that would make Marty Kaan in Showtimes’s House of Lies proud. It’s by no means novel for consultants to advise governments in the region and across the world, and indeed the report does outline an ambitious blueprint for the Kingdom’s economic transformation and diversification away from oil. 

Will the public buy it?

But in a glaring omission, the report does not adequately explain how the Saudi government will be able to change the mindset of everyday Saudi Arabia citizens, who have long been accustomed to state largesse that included fuel subsidies, loans, free land, and public sector jobs. 

This is the key issue. The reform plans sound promising, and will indeed make headway in weaning the Kingdom off its oil “addiction” (as the prince himself put it). But how will everyday citizens react to the reforms? The Saudi government will be asking more of its citizens—will the citizens in turn ask for more accountability and representation? Since January, the prices of gasoline, electricity, and water have gone up. There was a public outcry against higher utility prices, which lead King Salman to fire the water minister to absorb the public’s anger. 

Such discontent is the harbinger of things to come. The coming months and years will show how Saudi leadership implements much needed economic reforms without alienating its population. While the outcome is uncertain, one thing is: consultants will continue to flock to Saudi Arabia to work on the “mother of all transformation projects.”

Editors’ Note: This post was corrected on May 12, 2016 to clarify that the report “Moving Saudi Arabia’s Economy Beyond Oil” was issued by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of McKinsey & Company. MGI’s work is independent and wholly funded by McKinsey Partners. The MGI report was not commissioned by the government of Saudi Arabia and has no formal role in government decision-making.