Moving Saudi Arabia’s economy beyond oil

By Gassan Al-Kibsi, Jonathan Woetzel, Tom Isherwood, Jawad Khan, Jan Mischke, and Hassan Noura

Saudi Arabia must realize the potential of its non-oil economy through a productivity-led transformation.

After a surge in prosperity over the past decade fueled by rising oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s economy is at an inflection point. We see a real opportunity for the country to inject new dynamism into its economy through a productivity- and investment-led transformation that could help ensure future growth, employment, and prosperity. In a new McKinsey Global Institute report, Saudi Arabia beyond oil: The investment and productivity transformation, we discuss how the country has significant opportunities to transform its economy to become more sustainable and less dependent on oil. Among our findings:

  • The oil price boom from 2003 to 2013 fueled rising prosperity in Saudi Arabia, which became the world’s 19th-largest economy. GDP doubled, household income rose by 75 percent, and 1.7 million jobs were created, including jobs for a growing number of Saudi women. The government invested heavily in education, health, and infrastructure and built up reserves amounting to almost 100 percent of GDP in 2014.
  • The country can no longer rely on oil revenue and public spending for growth, in the face of a changing global energy market and a demographic transition that will significantly increase the number of working-age Saudis by 2030. The current labor participation rate is 41 percent, and productivity growth of 0.8 percent annually from 2003 to 2013 trailed many emerging economies.
  • Our model integrating Saudi Arabia’s economic, labor-market, and fiscal perspectives shows that even if the country responds to these challenging conditions with policy changes such as a budget freeze or immigration curbs, unemployment will rise rapidly, household income will fall, and the fiscal position of the national government will deteriorate sharply.
  • However, a productivity-led economic transformation could enable Saudi Arabia to double its GDP again and create as many as six million new jobs by 2030 (exhibit). We estimate this would require about $4 trillion in investment. Eight sectors—mining and metals, petrochemicals, manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade, tourism and hospitality, healthcare, finance, and construction—have the potential to generate more than 60 percent of this growth opportunity.

To enable this transformation, Saudi Arabia will need to accelerate the shift from its current government-led economic model to a more market-based approach. In the labor market, greater workforce participation by Saudi men and women is essential to achieve higher household income. Faster productivity growth requires better business regulation and more openness to competition, trade, and investment. Improved efficiency of spending and new revenue sources, possibly including taxes and higher domestic energy prices, can help ensure fiscal sustainability.

All stakeholders, including the private sector, foreign investors, and households, will need to be involved. And the state will need to embrace a new delivery philosophy while businesses adapt to a more competitive environment and the individual Saudi citizen takes more personal accountability. The transition will be challenging, but the new era of economic growth and employment it could usher in would be more sustainable than the oil booms of the past.

About the author(s)

Gassan Al-Kibsi is a director in McKinsey’s Riyadh office; Jonathan Woetzel is a director of the McKinsey Global Institute, where Jan Mischke is senior fellow; and Tom Isherwood is a principal in the Dubai office, where Jawad Khan is an associate principal and Hassan Noura is a consultant.

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