September 12, 2017

Having experienced Saudi-Venezuela’s Plan, I know Saudi Arabia’s “National Transformation Program” will fail

Sir, Jason Bordoff writes about Saudi Arabia’s “National Transformation Program, a bundle of targets and initiatives designed to deliver the “Vision 2030” plan to diversify the country’s economy and reduce its reliance on oil revenue… head-spinning 543 initiatives and 346 targets… laudable focus on concrete targets, measurable outcomes, transparency and accountability, along with a strong focus on boosting the education and skill levels of Saudis.” “Saudi Arabia’s reform slowdown reveals its painful dilemma” September 12.

That sounds so much like Venezuela’s ambitious plan of how to deploy the booming oil revenues, plus all that indebtedness that oil riches stimulated, during Carlos Andres Perez first presidency, 1974-79, a time that even became known as that of Saudi-Venezuela.

That plan provided clearly insufficient results, something that later helped clear the road to power for populist Chavez. Chavez and Maduro, in about 15 years, then managed to turn an even greater oil boom into the current pure minuses.

What amazes me is that Bordoff seems to imply that there is a possibility that the NTP could work. It does not! Centralized oil revenues, topped up with “$100bn for a public investment fund”, all managed by “a complex government bureaucracy” is a recipe for disaster. And if by any chance they got something right, that could be so easily wiped out by new generation of besserwisser government technocrats.

Before my two years as an Executive Director of the World Bank, 2002 2004, my only experience with the government sector was as the first Diversification Manager at the Venezuelan Investment Fund set up in 1974. That gig lasted me only two weeks because, when pressured by politicians for a fast approval (one week) of a US$ 2 billion pet project (Plan IV Sidor), I knew the system would not work and, as I told the Fund’s board members when I resigned, I was too young to risk being hanged if that or other projects failed.