Brand KSA is in overdrive. But is it really ready for it?

By Rami Hmadeh, CEO, Serviceplan Group Middle East

The fact that women can now drive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, symbolizes the progressive transformation of the nation as it starts to embrace a new dawn of social justice, cultural revolution and economic diversity. It’s as if this complete turnaround, this all-around progressiveness has been achieved overnight. Most think it’s an exciting new era, but the naysayers say it is diversion through publicity.

 

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But what do we find when we read between the lines?

Winds of Change & A New Outlook

In order to ensure prosperity for future generations, the nation’s traditional reliance on oil must be decreased. This realization lies at the heart of the audacious, bold, and youthful outlook of Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, whose ulterior motive is an economic silver lining in his heavily publicised “Vision 2030”.

One of the key agendas behind Vision 2030 is putting forward the mandate of “Opportunity for all” to make KSA “a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and modernity as its method”. What is fascinating is that it’s not restrictive in any way; it allows the best of both worlds in a perfect balance.

 

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The larger aim is to have more openness in the form of a social awakening. This shift in value will make the country more tolerant for the outsider and hence get more attention from the outside world. But all these are leading to one consequent goal: which is, how to absorb the growing youth bulge in a nation where more than 70% of the population is under 30?

Realizing this, massive changes have been undertaken, like sending thousands of young Saudis to study overseas to equip them for the private sector job market.

According to Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, “we don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now”, he claims to not allow the 30% to hold back the 70%.

Putting The Economy first

If the country wishes to maintain its GDP for the next 12 years, it requires some fast and heavy intervention from the top-down. However, most economists and observers would say that it is no longer a vertical approach, but more a horizontal one, something called from the “inside-out”. Is Brand KSA ready? There are a number of considerations:

 

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Changing Roles & Perceptions:

The self-dependency illustrated by the introduction of ID cards for women and the permission given for women to drive is seen by progressive thinkers as a move to increase economic productivity and create areas for women to participate in male-dominated workforces. That the number of Saudi women entrepreneurs has grown significantly from 2007 to 2017, from 4% to 39%, illustrates the positive impact of this new thinking; how individualism and identity are a catalyst for increasing motivation and subsequent prosperity.

A Growing Entertainment Element:

With the current wave of changes in the country, entertainment is now coming to the people freely rather than through the nefarious, often heavily censored channels of the past 30 years. Infact, within the new agenda, there are plans to spend $64 billion, turning the kingdom into an entertainment hub.

One of the newly created government departments, the General Entertainment Authority have claimed to host 5,000 concerts and festivals in the coming year. Quite close to Riyadh is the proposed site for Qiddiya Entertainment city – a 334-square kilometre entertainment park developed in collaboration with Six Flags.

An art and film scene is on the rise as well, with festivals like Saudi Art Days and Saudi Film Festival happening across the world to promote local talent globally.

 

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There has been new money pumped into the entertainment business ecosystem also. Startups like UTURN, c3 films, Ayah Studios and creative spaces like Hayy have popped up and made media production grow as an industry.

This has created a new image of a much more tolerant and inclusive culture that is way more modern, free-thinking and Innovative than it was perceived to be before.

New Industries and Flourishing Entrepreneurs:

To cut down the over-dependence on oil there has been some strong emphasis laid on developing a skill-based “Knowledge economy”.

There has been a re-focus on having more private sectors and private sector jobs in the country – that has led to more support for new and small businesses. Freezones and licenses are being implemented. Special benefits are being granted.

International partnerships are being fostered. For instance NEOM – with Jordan and Egypt – a 26,500-square kilometre zone focusing on industries including energy and water, biotechnology, food, advanced manufacturing and entertainment.

There are big growth plans for the next 5-10 years which will turn KSA into one of the best places for capital investment and growth.

The size of the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority fund is enormous. It covers a $19.2bn stimulus package for the private sector which includes $426.6m for indirect lending to SMEs, $746.5m for an SME investment fund and $1.86bn to refund government fees paid by new SMEs.

 

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Apart from that there are special visas being granted, free work space, free education for children, etc. benefits being given.

While it may take KSA years to move from being an oil economy to a knowledge and strategic business hub, what’s fascinating is the way the changes are being made.

There’s already a vibrant start-up scene as more Saudi youth is interested in making its own mark than following others. And the government is helping them out with everything necessary.

This new ecosystem is both accepting and pioneering.

Challenges for a Brave New World

Challenges are of course part and parcel of this brave new world and will be experienced in a myriad of areas:

Too fast, too soon – There’s a wind of skepticism from both internal naysayers, as well as the global media. Change has not been accepted very well before. Some are fearing a backlash, some think it’s a shame. From a branding point of view it seems like a head start. Still, some believe KSA as a nation is trying to break out of the brand they have accidentally created for years. It’s a smear campaign.

Tolerance and acceptance

As the changes have happened too fast and been implemented overnight, certain toes have been stepped on. There is a fear that some of the policies are getting revoked because of political pressures. As a society, brand KSA has yet to move forward with a unified consciousness towards all Vision 2030 resolutions.

Vision vs. completion

Many people think that the changes in the Kingdom will take years to happen and that the Vision 2030 is unrealistic. There is an undercurrent of disbelief in some circles as people are thinking this strategy is just an emulation of the UAE’s vision and implementation.

 

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The Saudi mindset has been known to be one that is resistant to changes. Over 35 years things have been the same way. There’s a risk of running a “change” propaganda within a short duration. Not everyone can be equally receptive.

To summarize, KSA is in a “paradigm shift” – a state in which it is changing its old ways and adapting to new ones; a shift from “reform” to “change”. Reform is about twisting arms, but change is more natural. Change is internalised.

If you build a brand on the singular traits of openness, or freedom, or modernity or acceptance, you can only achieve a limited extent of progression from them.

However, if your brand is based on the platform of “change” – then there’s no limitation on how much can actually change.

Without doubt, “Brand KSA” has all the makings of a progressive nation, but it can only happen with a revolutionary shift in its formula from top down to inside out.

 

The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Gulf Marketing Review.

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