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Saudi Arabia ramps up expectations

Saudi Arabia’s new economy minister, the former central bank governor Mohammed Al Jasser, says rapid change is under way in his country. But is the reformist energy sparked by the Arab Spring already flagging?

It has barely passed 4pm, and except for an immigrant security guard there is no sign of life in the labyrinthine corridors of the Saudi Ministry of Economy and Planning. It is an unpropitious environment for Euromoney’s first interview since the Arab Spring with a senior government minister in the Arab world’s biggest economy.

When Mohammed Al Jasser’s office is eventually reached – in a top-floor corner of the ministry – it is a mini-cluster of activity in an otherwise deserted building. Al Jasser set up his office at the ministry in December, after leaving his former position as governor of the central bank (holder of Saudi Arabia’s $570 billion-odd in foreign reserves). It is one of his first one-on-one interviews in his new economic coordinating role.

Saudi fiscal balances are robust again
Source: Development Prospects Group

So has the Arab Spring prodded Saudi economic policy-making into action? Can a $384 billion infrastructure programme create more jobs for Saudi Arabia’s legions of frustrated youth – and not just in government departments and petro-industries? Or is last year’s announcement of $130 billion in additional spending – including cash bonuses for government workers – just entrenching an economic model built around cushy government jobs? Al Jasser is quick to rebut the suggestion that Saudi Arabia lacks the political stability to enact real change, or that proposed reforms are getting derailed by opposition from within the shaky coalition of interests that prop up the Saudi state.

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