Special to Saudi Gazette
JEDDAH — The reality that Saudi Arabia is no longer the biggest holder of proven oil reserves has become much clearer that there is a timeline here that needs to be addressed regarding change. The BP "Statistical Review of World Energy 2012" report said recently that Venezuela surpassed Saudi Arabia in terms of proven oil reserves.
Don Pressley, Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH)’s General Manager for the MENA Region in Jeddah, said in a recent interview for the Saudi Gazette that central to change to accommodate the lessening reliance of the world on fossil fuel is diversification, a change in attitude toward work and the use of foreign skilled labor and a realignment of the output of the education system.
"Rebalancing the education system is a very sensitive question that Americans and Westerners are not well equipped to address," he said. "You have to respect people’s sincere beliefs and carry them out in today’s world of cynicism and skepticism — yet there is something there that could be turned into a very productive force."
Rebalancing the education system output to match the needs of future industry is central to the diversification and development plans.
"I think that is a mind-set that needs to be changed on both sides. If you bring in foreigners to do a job, you never create a capacity for your own people to do that job. If you bring in foreigners to help you create that capacity, and everyone is thinking along those lines, that will be how you are measured and the results showed. Then it’s a different way of looking at the problem." He added that "what we need to do is bring in people who view their role as training others."
In essence, the imported labor should assume training others as part of the job and eventual self-redundancy. Labor "should know it and plan for it and work toward it. It’s a different role and a different way of looking at it."
The Kingdom has several plans already under review. "If we can help improve the efficiency of ... water for example. The water carbon food chain is so wasteful that just improving that would help a lot and create an industry of itself," Pressley noted, adding "we need to learn much more and be quite sure we are taking all the factors into account."
A lot of that knowledge has applicability in the Kingdom as it assesses what it is trying to do in order to protect its people and national interests. "We think that cyber security is a major threat here."
As with every other developing economy, the Kingdom faces some daunting challenges.
Some 80 percent of Saudis are under 39, 60 percent under 21; diabetes afflicts a substantial proportion of the population; a population growth of around four percent; a publicly perceived mismatch between education system output and the technical needs of a modern developing technological economy; a high unemployment rate in a young population.
Pressley felt it is vital to concentrate on the gap between the needs of the country and the educational system. "You begin to focus on that area to build in the capabilities and incentivize the people who want to go in that direction."
There had to be a sea change in the social attitude to work and essentially creation of jobs in all areas of society from the humblest to the most prestigious. Did this involve a change in perception to work itself?
"Yes, exactly. The idea that works itself is good, that there is a reward that is godly, is something that we want to develop. Getting that mind-set developed is not the task of Westerners, but if you can help people understand that approach and then follow through, then just imagine the potential for economic development here."
Pressley believes that a major area that needed attention was to help Saudi young people who want to engage in those activities that would diversify the Saudi economy. "The issue worldwide is generational — young population wants it now and easy," he said.
Development of the Kingdom as an energy resource and the subsequent energy-hungry downstream industries has tremendous potential. There are huge natural resources here and the Saudis are building an infrastructure base, but it’s taking time to come along.
"What fascinates us as a firm is how do we bring it all together? Those are the kind of problems we want to tackle. I think that the greatest resource countries have is in their people. To my mind, this is an untapped resource, but it can be realized if we can help them to move in the direction that engages in those kinds of productive activities."
Pressley, whose record includes 25 years working for the US Agency for International Development, has served in nine different countries primarily looking at economic development for governments.
"We decided that we wanted to focus on the Middle East as for our business — Europe was having trouble, East Asia wasn’t looking so good for us," he said in an interview.
He noted that the well-financed Middle East is accustomed to using consultants, "and we have the skills they seem to want." A trusted player, with over decades-long cooperation with GCC states and the Kingdom in particular, he said companies and institutions knew the name and the brand well. "So we decided we would set up an office in Abu Dhabi as a regional hub and are opening offices in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait."
BAH still covers the military and security aspects that it built its main business on through long association with the US Department of the Navy, has 25,000 employees worldwide and close to $6 billion per annum turnover. "Military and security areas are our biggest sectors, but we also cover civil and commercial issues."
"We bring a very strong technology focus to what we think about. We look at security primarily from a technology standpoint, the benefits and the vulnerabilities that it brings."
The global use of technology and social media as a way to inform people has become both a benefit and an issue in this part of the world.
"While there are obvious national security issues that the Kingdom faces, one of the most important areas now is cyber security," Pressley said.
"We have learned that area in many ways — gathering info that can threaten a country — that is especially so in the US. BAH has developed a reputation and an area of focus is cyber security — we work for the US government, the NSA, Department of Defense and agencies that are charged with protecting the US."