Sunday, February 01, 2004

Our New History

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

Paul Simpson of the BBC asked me in a TV interview last week where the path of reforms in Saudi should go. I told him in one word: Business.

The interview wasn’t long, so allow me here to elaborate: If we mean business, we would start — as Malaysia did — with brain reforms. Our schools should be producing candidates to take the most challenging jobs, who can be worthy competitors in the breakneck global markets and pioneers on the high-tech frontiers. Our regulations should welcome, encourage and assist investments — local and global. If that were to happen, the job-market pie would increase to accommodate not only our jobless, but anyone else who could bring something valuable to the table — skills, experience and investments.

Saudization would change its orientation — from replacing foreigners with poor-skilled, experience-empty, clueless Saudis to producing candidates for a market that is not only global and sophisticated, but also demanding, aggressive and intolerant of incompetence and mediocrity.

Our court system would be well regulated, well-documented and transparent, which everything that takes place made public. No investors would worry about opaque laws, confusing rules and ever-changing regulations. Corruption would be fought with laws on transparency and accountability and rigorous watchdog mechanisms. Our press would be a supermarket of ideas and reports; they have more freedom and a better focus on issues that matter, such as reforms and development, red tape and women rights, elections and market reforms.

If we decided — as Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Dubai have done — to really do business, we would reorient our society, culture and resources toward that end. We would open up to the world, make our country accessible to all who care to discover it. Tourism, as Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, governor of Asir, keeps assuring us, can bring more revenue than oil.

A billion and half Muslims look forward to visiting Saudi Arabia, host to Islam’s holy sites. Many would love to explore our virgin, sealed and unique social, cultural and topographic resources. International and local investors would jump at the opportunity to work in the hospitable environment of a high-spending consumer market as large as ours. There are over six and half billion dollars of Saudi cash stashed abroad. Just imagine if 10 percent of that returned home to roost.

In short, let us decide that our goal is to thrive and prosper. Then we should decide that the road to take us there is good business. Third, let us sit to discuss the journey at a round table with all of us there: Women and men, rich and poor, Sunni and Shiites, conservatives and liberals, young and old. The rest, I assure you, will be a good, happy, prosperous ... New History.

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