Two years ago Mohammed bin Salman, then Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince, became the highest-profile Arabic-speaking millennial since Gazan singer Mohammed Assaf won the Arab Idol competition in 2013. Announcing his "pride in the historical and cultural legacy of our Saudi, Arab, and Islamic heritage," the young royal articulated a new economic plan for his nation, Vision 2030. The plan aims to achieve three of Saudi Arabia's overarching goals — a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation — and it is turning heads in and beyond the kingdom. At home and abroad, the prospect of profit under Vision 2030 is tantalizing capital investors. The promise of a more open society also has captured the imagination of many Saudi citizens, who long for less censorship, more respect for indigenous arts and culture, protection for the peninsula's varied flora and fauna, and a few movie theaters.
As with any great plan, the requirements and repercussions of enacting Vision 2030 are beginning to emerge. While many observers are anticipating the momentous challenges of transitioning the Saudi economy as outlined in Saudi Vision 2030 — including the unprecedented step of privatizing part of the state oil company — a look at one small endeavor hints at some of the obstacles that lie ahead.
The Secret Garden
Some 45 kilometers (28 miles) outside Abha, the capital of Saudi Arabia's southwestern Asir province, past the nearby King Khalid Air Base and off a shabby asphalt road piled on either side with plastic bottles, there awaits a surprising sight (and smell): hectares on end of blooming pink roses. The industrial garden, called Ward At Taif, manufactures rose waters and oils for sought-after aromatic products such as perfumes and incense. The small business takes its name from Taif, a city in Mecca province already famous for its roses. And not coincidentally, Ward At Taif sits at exactly the same elevation as Taif, just over 2,000 meters above sea level. Asir province is on a high plateau that regularly receives more rainfall than the rest of the country. It boasts blissfully sunny temperatures ranging from 15 to 32 degrees Celsius (60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit) — prime conditions for cultivating roses.
Sunday through Thursday workers come and pick. They pull flower head after flower head from thorny bushes and toss them into 5-kilogram (11-pound) plastic baskets. They are paid daily for harvesting 25 kilograms of rose petals and receive bonus pay for each additional kilogram. The workers are foreign, mostly Egyptian. The line manager, Ashraf Barakat, is a professional engineer from Egypt.
Once the baskets are full, workers transport them to a processing plant onsite. There, 25 kilograms of rose petals at a time boil for 10 to 12 hours in copper vats imported from Syria and Egypt. The scented steam is distilled through cooling pipes and eventually condenses into liquid, dripping into clear, sanitized bottles that collect 10 liters (about 2.6 gallons) of rose water each.
Rising to the top of each bottle like cream is rose oil — just a few milliliters. "It's as expensive as gold," Barakat says. "The custodian of the holy mosques washes the inside of the Kaaba walls with [rose oil] once a year." Other rose products are similarly in-demand, if less rarefied. Herbalists claim tinctures made from the petals may be effective for treating depression, anxiety and insomnia, and rosehip — the round part of the flower just below the petals — is rich in vitamin C.
Roses aren't the alternative to oil exports Saudi Arabia is looking for to diversify its economy under Vision 2030. But they highlight an important part of the solution: For the plan to succeed, Saudi citizens must learn and practice professions that international workers currently perform in the kingdom. Those jobs include skilled professions as well as unskilled manual labor, such as rose harvesting. Vision 2030 describes Saudi Arabia's employment predicament over the past decade, and an ambitious proposal to address it:
"The retail sector achieved an annual growth rate in excess of 10 percent. It currently employs 1.5 million workers, of which only 0.3 million are Saudis.
We aim to provide job opportunities for an additional million Saudis by 2020 in a growing retail sector that attracts modern, local, regional, and international brands across all regions of the country."
As for other workers around the world, promotion may come from the entry level, with merit-based rewards. A rose petal picker may go on to manage a factory like Ward At Taif, and somewhere along that road he or she may have a chance to take a school loan for a degree in mechanical engineering.
Every Rose Has Its Thorn
Of course, putting Vision 2030 in action won't be quite as simple as that. What is the road for Saudi nationals to take jobs such as harvesting rose petals or to become qualified operations managers at such a plant? And what will become of the international laborers currently working these jobs? These are people who send much-needed money home to their families in more than 100 other countries. Today 11 million foreigners work in the kingdom, according to Arab News. That's almost one-third of the country's total population. Some of these migrants harvest roses. Some build skyscrapers. Some are chauffeurs, employed full-time by families to drive women where they need to go. What will become of them once women start to drive legally on June 24?
The leaves of dozens of rose bushes at Ward At Taif vibrate as an F-15 from the nearby air base flies over, perhaps on a mission to Yemen. The economic ripples of Vision 2030 will take longer to be felt around the world. Still, it's not too soon for predictions, analysis and preparation for the effects of this bold vision.