ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman said Tuesday that after years of his government "throwing funding" into sectors that failed to boost the economy, the kingdom has now focused its efforts on one main target: job creation.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Prince Sultan said, "the biggest target today in Saudi Arabia is the economy and jobs."
The kingdom faces steep economic challenges to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs for its burgeoning young population amid a plunge in global oil prices. The lower prices of its main export forced the kingdom to post a nearly $100 billion budget deficit last year and reign back some of its handouts to the public, including lifting some subsidies.
The prince, who is head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage and the oldest living son of King Salman, said the dip in oil prices from $115 a barrel in mid-2014 to around $30 a barrel has prompted Saudi Arabia to rethink its economic policies and how it is managing its spending.
"We knew always that oil cannot be sustained at $100 dollars," he said. "I think it's good to go into a mode in Saudi where we begin to re-eye the economy. It's something that I've been talking about as a government minister for the last 15 years."
The prince said that when oil prices were higher, the government was "throwing funding and throwing energy and throwing infrastructure" into sectors that did not do enough to help diversify the Saudi economy away from its reliance on oil for revenue.
"I have been in fact criticizing, if you like, the government's funding of so many sectors that have not yet produced the jobs, so many sectors that have not really added value to the economy," he said.
He said the kingdom's tourism industry, which relies heavily on Muslim pilgrims from around the world, can be tapped to create jobs for Saudis. He says his role as minister and head of the kingdom's tourism authority is an economic and job creation mission, rather than a leisure and entertainment mission.
He was speaking on the sidelines of the Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, which recently launched its own space agency with a mission to go to Mars. In 1985, Prince Sultan became the first Muslim and Arab to travel to space aboard NASA's Discovery shuttle.
On space exploration, he said he wants to see more Arab astronauts take flight, but that the most pressing issue now for the Middle East is restoring peace and stability to countries wracked by war.
"The big loser is not the Arab world. The big loser is really the world and humanity at large for losing the Arab world and the Islamic world (as) a participant in building the future," he said.