Friday, 12 February 2016

The McKinsey blueprint for Saudi Arabia

McKinsey makes sensible high-level recommendations but falls short on the implementation details.

A few weeks ago, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, gave an interview to The Economist. The interview created headlines because it outlined the young prince’s ambition to transform the Saudi economy. Bin Salman’s vision was clearly influenced by a recently-published report from McKinsey, a management consulting firm. In fact, the prince, who is an avid reader of consultants’ reports, mentioned the McKinsey report during the interview. Understanding this report therefore sheds light on the advice Saudi policymakers are getting.

What is McKinsey saying? It says that Saudi Arabia can increase the income of its citizens by developing its non-oil sectors. Some of the discussion on the potential of certain sectors to grow is insightful, as in the case of the automotive industry. McKinsey argues that Saudi Arabia has the ingredients to develop this industry given the size of its domestic market, the growth in neighbouring countries and the lack of manufacturing hubs in the region. But in other cases, the imagined potential is unrealistic. For example, McKinsey claims that Saudi Arabia can increase the number of religious tourists five-fold to 50m by 2030 by sustaining all year round the number of pilgrims seen during the Hajj season. And I want to have Christmas every day, please.

That said, the overall case for the potential of the economy to grow is convincing. The question then is how to do it. Economies grow by either increasing the number of people working, or by making working people more productive. McKinsey suggests that the former can be achieved by encouraging more Saudis to participate in the labour market. The participation of women, in particular, is very low. Only 18% of working-age Saudi women participate in the workforce compared with 51% in Indonesia, 44% in Malaysia and 29% in Turkey. McKinsey also suggests that productivity can be boosted by allowing more competition (which would push firms to perform better in order to survive), reducing restrictions on foreign labour to move between jobs, and increasing the productivity of workers through education and training.

But this is where the report falls short. It is all good recommending increased competition in the product market or more flexibility for foreign workers, but the current state of affairs is in place because there are vested interests benefiting from it. Likewise, it is easy to recommend boosting productivity through education and training but Saudi Arabia already spends a quarter of its budget on education with meagre results. Saudi students underperform their international peers in standardised tests, and the university dropout rate is close to 50%.

I would have expected more practical recommendations from a firm like McKinsey given its global reach, its work across different sectors and its “micro-to-macro” approach to economics. I would have expected them to provide insights and lessons from success and failure stories where countries tried to overcome vested interests, increase competition or boost productivity through education and training. The insights on how to achieve these objective are unfortunately lacking in the report.

So overall, the report makes all the sensible high-level recommendations but falls short when it comes to practical implementation.

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