1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Are Saudi Arabia's plans for a non-oil future too grand?

June 24, 2024

Ski slopes in the desert and a city of mirrored skyscrapers: Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 was always going to be expensive. But is it too expensive? Recent events seem to suggest the oil-rich nation can't afford it all.

An artists version of The Line, a skyscraper city planned in Saudi Arabia.
The skyscraper city, known as The Line, was supposed to accommodate 1.5 million people; now it will only have space for 300,000Image: picture alliance/abaca

When the plans were announced, many onlookers marveled at their scale and grandeur. Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 — the country's plan to diversify away from its dependence on oil revenue — included everything from a ski slope in the desert, to a whole city just for sports and entertainment, to a car-less, carbon-neutral mega-city, Neom, in the middle of the desert. 

Vision 2030 was also about changing perceptions of Saudi Arabia on the international stage. The various projects were cast as a sign of modernization in the religiously conservative country, which is ruled by an authoritarian royal family that brooks little political or social dissent.

However, since the ambitious plan was announced in 2015, things have changed a lot. Over the past few months, ministers in the Saudi government have explained how Vision 2030 is being reduced in scope.

Last December, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said some Vision 2030 projects would be delayed. In April, at a Riyadh meeting of the World Economic Forum, al-Jadaan said Saudi Arabia was adapting to current circumstances.

A visitor is seen at Qiddiya's welcome center in Saudi Arabia, on July 24, 2019. Saudi Arabia's Qiddiya Investment Company .
Saudi Arabia's finance minister: 'There are challenges. We'll change course, we'll adjust, we'll extend some of the projects, we'll downscale some projects'Image: Tu Yifan/Xinhua/picture alliance

For example, a gigantic, shiny line of mirrored skyscrapers in the desert called The Line — one of Neom's most important sub-projects — is being reduced from the original 170 kilometer-long arc to just over 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles).

This isn't the first adjustment to Neom, either. The project was supposed to be finished by 2030, but now looks likely to take a further 20 years. It was supposed to cost around $500 billion (€468 billion), but Neom's budget may go as high as $2 trillion, observers have said. 

Delays and budget overruns

Other aspects of Vision 2030 haven't gone as planned either. Some of the more ambitious projects were meant to attract foreign investors to Saudi Arabia, but the desert kingdom is having a hard time doing that and levels of foreign direct investment have remained lower than forecast.  Analysts have said that regional instability — such as the conflict in Gaza — and a lack of Saudi regulatory transparency is keeping investors hesitant.

Although Saudi Arabia always expected to foot much of the bill for Vision 2030, it is now being forced to pay for almost all of it.

Businessmen stroll in front of the Saudi invest pavilion presenting the Neom project at Mipim in Cannes, France .
For 2023, the Saudi government forecast foreign direct investment at $22 billion (around €21 billion) but it only reached $19 billionImage: Coust Laurent/ABACA/picture alliance

Much of that funding comes via the Public Investment Fund, or PIF, one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, fueled by Saudi oil revenues.

In March, the Saudi government transferred 8% of shares in state-owned oil company, Aramco, to the PIF. This means the PIF now holds 16% of Aramco, valued at $2 trillion, making it the fourth-most valuable company in the world. Critics have also pointed to the fact that, even though the PIF manages a portfolio of assets worth $940 billion, it only has about $15 billion in funds. 

Analysts have said this reliance on oil prices is what makes the Vision 2030 projects vulnerable. The International Monetary Fund said the Saudis need oil prices around $96 a barrel in order to achieve Vision 2030. So far this year, the price of a barrel of crude, often used as an indicator for the oil market, has gone from around $70 in January to around $81 this month.

This week, business media outlet Bloomberg also reported that Saudi Arabia had become the biggest issuer of bonds among emerging markets, beating out China for the first time in over a decade.

Government bonds are issued to finance public spending; they're a form of loan on which the issuing government pays interest to bond holders. The Saudis are taking out more of these kinds of loans than ever in order to cover the lack of foreign direct investment, Bloomberg reported. Bankers also told the outlet that Saudi Arabia won't be able to continue issuing bonds at the current pace for too long because the cost of financing them — that is, paying the interest — will become too great.

The Haramain High-Speed Railway is a key transportation project in Saudi Arabia, part of Vision 2030.
In mid-June, there were reports that Saudi-state funded companies were being asked to make budget cutsImage: Asmaa ElTouny/TheMiddleFrame/picture alliance

Is Vision 2030 in real trouble?

"With the combination of factors, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that there is a certain degree of economic policy juggling going on [in Saudi Arabia] right now," said Robert Mogielnicki, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Some of the recent statements from Saudi officials, stating that timelines may need to be reassessed on certain projects, could even be considered comparatively unusual, he said. "It's something we haven't really heard since the launch of Vision 2030."

However, Mogielnicki argued, "the status of Vision 2030 is not as spectacular, nor as disastrous as a lot of people make out. The reality is that it's somewhere in the middle."

Some aspects of Vision 2030 are working out well. A February "half-time" report by US investment bank Citigroup found that things like female participation in the workforce, locals' home ownership levels and revenues from non-oil related sectors had all seen "significant progress." 

New modern residential construction projects and real estate, as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 along the Red Sea.
Vision 2030 is under construction: Thanks to the plan, Saudi women made up 34% of the labor market in 2023Image: Taidgh Barron/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

In a June statement, after a mission to Saudi Arabia, researchers at the International Monetary Fund concluded that the country's "unprecedented economic transformation is progressing well." They also welcomed "spending reprioritization" around Vision 2030.

Ever since Saudi Arabia launched Vision 2030, the various projects within it have evolved, Mogielnicki explained.

The program was hugely varied and predicated on speedy development. Add the costs of some of the more expensive Vision 2030 projects to the everyday funding required to keep Saudi Arabia running, and you can see why there's a need for reassessment happening now, he noted. Some projects, such as the development of green hydrogen, are now seen as more worthwhile. Others will be given a longer timeline.

None of this is likely to dent the Saudi ruling family's hold on power either, he noted.

"The Saudis definitely still have a lot of cards to play with, but it's also true that right now they're not operating with the strongest possible hand," said Mogielnicki. "It [Vision 2030] has initiated a major and fundamental shift in Saudi Arabia's economic and social trajectories. But there is still a great deal of work ahead."

Edited by: Michaela Cavanagh

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.