Among a network of alleyways and cobbled streets in Jeddah’s old town more than 20 stores are firmly shuttered, “for rent” signs plastered on large wooden doors. Traders in adjacent shops, selling everything from abayas to mattresses, Chinese watches, perfumes and spices, lament plummeting sales, the exodus of more than 1.7m foreigners and rising costs driven by government policies. Across town, a Saudi lawyer echoes the pessimistic tones – their office has been involved in the closure of more than 50 businesses over the past 18 months. “It’s mainly cash, it’s not the viability of the business, it’s [ashortage of revenue],” says the lawyer, who like many people interviewed asks not to be named for fear of falling foul of the regime. “[Closures have] gone up over the past year.”
Yet in a sand-blown industrial park on the other side of the Saudi Arabian city – where camel and sheep markets meet modern manufacturing – Sarni al-Safran, chief executive of Mepco, one of the region’s biggest paper producers, is unwaveringly upbeat.
Like many Saudi companies, it has endured five years of lackluster growth and government austerity measures. Mepco and its recycling subsidiary have laid off scores of staff to “mitigate the effect of the expatriate levies” and adjust to the shifting environment. But Mr. Safran is looking at expanding its capacity as he weighs the impact of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms that include the goal of increasing waste recycling, which should benefit the company. “I see no direction but upwards,” he says. “There will be issues along the way, but this is the new reality. Change is coming and you have to be a part of it, it’s notan option any more.”