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Saudi Arabia's Plan To Reduce Oil Dependency


Saudi Arabia is on the brink of change. The kingdom recently presented its ambitious plan for the future called Saudi Vision 2030, which would, most notably, reduce the country's dependence on their most lucrative export, oil. This comes at a time when Saudi Arabia's oil prices are at their lowest in over a decade. The architect of this grand vision is Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and 30-year-old son of King Salman. For more on how he plans to shake up Saudi Arabia, we're joined by Thomas Lippman. He is an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Welcome.

THOMAS LIPPMAN: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: First, could you tell us a little about the deputy crown prince? He seems to have amassed a significant amount of power in a relatively short time.

LIPPMAN: A little over a year ago, this young man came out of nowhere, as far as anybody outside Saudi Arabia knew. The position he's in essentially was created for him, and a lot of people assumed that it was some kind of political or dynastic mistake by his father. Now, he has established himself as a young man who's quite creative. People who have met him and had long conversations with him, including President Obama, have come away impressed with his energy and his ability.

WERTHEIMER: So assuming this vision for 2030 is mostly his work, how does Saudi Arabia plan to reduce its dependence on oil?

LIPPMAN: Linda, I - my initial reaction to this was one of complete skepticism. But I have heard from people who say that two things have happened. One is that the king has made clear that this young man has the power and the mandate, and he can cross traditional lines of authority between cabinet ministries to make things happen. The other is that the very drop in oil prices that you mentioned seems to have finally galvanized their leadership to do some of the things that everyone has known for some time are necessary.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now what about this business of trying to change the lives of Saudi Arabians? Do we think that there is something going on there, or something that we can expect?

LIPPMAN: Well, the most important dynamic and visible change that is taking place and will accelerate in Saudi Arabia is the status of women and the expansion of women in the workforce. The Saudi government has recognized for several years now that even when oil price is high, the government can't afford to go on, year after year, educating all the women of Saudi Arabia from kindergarten through university and not recoup any productive output.

And it's partly driven not because some prince had a vision in the middle of the night. It's being driven by economic reality. But habits of thought and social practice are deeply ingrained in this society and the Al Saud, the monarch and the princes, are not interested in rocking their own boat. They need to go in some different directions, but they need to do it, at least in their view, in a way that will remain politically manageable.

WERTHEIMER: Thomas Lippman is an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Middle East Institute. Thank you very much for coming in.

LIPPMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.