Saudi pointman for reform has troubleshooter reputation
By Angus McDowall
RIYADH, Feb 25 (Reuters) - A former food executive plus mayor of Jeddah with a status for pushing through politically sensitive reforms has become the ruling family's point man for a wide-ranging revamp of Saudi Arabia's economy to cope with an era of low oil prices.
Economy and Planning Minister Adel Fakieh faced down strong opposition from your business community as Labour Ressortchef (umgangssprachlich) in 2010-15 when he established quotas on the number of foreign employees companies could hire to boost local employment, the kingdom's biggest financial reforms in years.
With his troubleshooting reputation established, Fakieh was made acting health minister in 2014 to handle a major public health crisis when Middle East Respiratory Syndrome broke out.
Now he or she is being asked by Deputy Overhead Prince Mohammed bin Salman to develop reforms aimed at ending the kingdom's vulnerability to an unpredictable oil market.
Saudi Arabia's future stability, and the continued rule of the Al Saud family, rest upon its ability to transition away from the economy's nearly total reliance upon income from crude exports, something that has eluded previous reform efforts.
A supercommittee on the economy led by Prince Mohammed is working with Fakieh's Economy and Planning Ministry to develop a national transformation plan that may face opposition from business and paperwork when it is released, probably in May.
Fakieh's track record of effecting change in seemingly moribund situations and his skill like a communicator are widely admired by people who have worked with him, both in government and from his private field days.
"He is very good socially and at getting people to agree. He's witty. He's also quite sharpened. He gets things done to an extent, " said a last minute discount vacation deals person who worked with him and asked to not be named because he had authorized a non-disclosure agreement. "He's interested. He reads about behavioural economics, about international policy research. "
He also makes extensive use of Traditional western consulting firms, including McKinsey & Co, Boston Consulting Group, Oliver Wyman and Bain & Company, several people who have been involved in economic planning under the new administration said.
Unlike in past organizations, when reforms were decided by a clutch of Al Saud people and enacted by the finance ministry and central bank, Prince Mohammed now sets policy in his supercommittee, the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.
The Economy and Planning Ministry, once regarded as the junior partner in government policymaking, works under Fakieh like a secretariat to the council, taking its suggestions and fleshing them out into complex proposals.
So central provides Fakieh become since King Salman, Prince Mohammed's father, took power in January 2015 that his department drew up significant areas of this year's budget, a responsibility that has always belonged to the Finance Ministry.
When the 2016 spending budget was unveiled to media on the glitzy television stage decorated with pictures of Riyadh's modern skyline in December, it was Fakieh, rather than Fund Minister Ibrahim Alassaf, who shown the macro-economic figures.
The budget included a general policy statement pledging large-scale reforms including privatisation, the particular reduction of dependence on oil plus subsidy reform. That night, petrol prices were raised for the first time within years.
A performance management entire body to ensure government departments are applying policy goals was announced within October and key performance indicators to monitor government departments are being created, both orchestrated by Fakieh at the prince's request.
The Economy and Planning Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for an interview with the minister or members of his group.
The Fakiehs owned a Mecca trading house and married into the al-Sulaiman family, whose patriarch Abdullah, Riyadh's first finance minister, constructed its bureaucracy in an age when national reserves were kept in the locked chest under the king's bed.
Fakieh was born in 1959, Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, owned by the Ing Saud, reported when he had been made labour minister in 2010.
His wife, Maha Fitaihi, is a notable businesswoman in her own right and founder of the kingdom's Girl Manuals, a mark of Fakieh's account of a business elite that has frequently pushed socially progressive policies while backing the Al Saud.
The Fakieh Group owns subsidiaries which includes a major poultry business, a countrywide restaurant chain, Jeddah hotels plus tourist attractions, private schools and a land development in Mecca.
It had been as an executive for other companies that this economy and planning minister made his name during the 1990s, first with Bank Al Jazirah and then with Savola, the kingdom's biggest foods company.
As labour minister he introduced the Nitaqat programme, taking an ineffective and toothless subgroup system and refining it to consider account of different sectors and company sizes. He was also given more scope to punish delinquent companies with fines.
Companies hated this, complaining of increased costs and lower productivity. An accompanying attack on the black market in foreign labour in 2013 led to more than a million people leaving the country. Central bank data showed the number of Saudis with private sector jobs a lot more than doubled to 1. 54 million through 2010-14.
Critics say he failed to institute deep-set change in possibly the labour ministry or wellness ministry, however , preferring the quick fix of setting up alternative departments.
"He starts too many things at once plus promises too many things to people. He's delivered a lot of things at the labour ministry, but hasn't fixed it. It's still a bit of a mess, " mentioned the person who worked with him.
While the particular long-term success of reforms will probably ultimately hinge on Saudi Arabia's ability to improve the quality of its bureaucracy, the leadership may be betting that getting change started is the a lot more urgent priority.
"He is seen by the top leadership as a doer, " said John Sfakianakis, a Riyadh-based economist.
"Whether you think he was right or wrong on the work reforms, he delivered. Of the group associated with senior ministers at that time, he was your only one who was delivering. " (Additional reporting by Celine Aswad in Dubai; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)