The Twittersphere is afire with a controversy over the appointment of a foreign executive to a senior post in the communications department of Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia). “Employment of foreigners is rampant in some Saudi companies, while the national cadres are marginalized,” wrote one outraged tweeter over the appointment of an experienced Lebanese public relations professional to the position. “There are hundreds of jobs occupied by foreigners,” raged another. This could all be a storm in a teacup, of course. When the wacky world of PR meets the ego-fueled aviation sector, heat seems to get generated out of all proportion to the gravitas of the issues involved. For us humble members of the press, it is a gift that keeps on giving. In my time as a business journalist, I have been involved in many an aviation spat in which the PR element seemed to take center-stage. From the ding-dong battle between Virgin Atlantic and British Airways over “dirty tricks” in the 1990s, right down to the ongoing trans-Atlantic mudslinging between American and Gulf airlines over “Open Skies,” you are guaranteed good copy. Somebody once suggested, only half jokingly, that it was all down to the intoxicating effects of aviation fuel. Maybe, but these high-altitude confrontations also have a serious side. In the case of “dirty tricks,” it was about abuse of monopoly position; in Open Skies, it is about freedom to trade and customer satisfaction, all of which are key factors in running any successful business. Saudisation drive: And likewise, beneath the Twitter hyperbole, there are some profound issues at stake in the Saudia case. It actually goes to the heart of the economic and social transformation taking place in the Kingdom, and its place in a rapidly-changing world. Saudization is of course a top priority for the Kingdom’s policymakers. It is a government’s responsibility to ensure that its citizens have the means to earn their livelihood in the national economy. The large number of school-leavers and graduates who join the employment market each year have a right to work. Providing employment to citizens is an economic imperative, in that it is the most effective way of utilizing the country’s most precious resources – its people. It is also a moral imperative, because the government has a duty to ensure its citizens’ well-being, including the right to earn a living. One of the angry tweeters in the Saudia case was a Saudi who has degrees in engineering and management from top-notch international universities, but who was working as a Careem driver. You can see his point. “We will reach 2030 and the Saudis are working as servants and drivers in their own country,” another tweeter pointed out ironically. Mention of 2030 gets us to the heart of the matter. The Kingdom has embarked on a transformational strategy that will bring profound changes – for the better – to Saudi life by that date. While ostensibly it is an economic policy, it will necessitate changes at all levels of society and politics. The move away from oil dependency will change traditional Saudi life beyond recognition. It is a modernizing strategy aimed at bringing Saudi Arabia into the mainstream of global life. The Kingdom will need friends, and teachers, as it learns to interact with the outside world in a new way. Foreign advisers: The keystone of the transformation strategy is the proposed initial public offering (IPO) of Saudi Aramco. No final details have yet been made public, but the apparent plan is to sell about 5 percent of the company to the global investing public. Although this is only a very small part of the total Aramco share register, it would be by far the biggest IPO the world has ever seen. The shares will almost certainly be listed on Tadawul, but the sheer size of the sale means that it will also probably have to be listed on at least one other major stock market, with either New York or London the likeliest candidates. To achieve this without outside help is unthinkable. Saudi Arabia is a fast-growing financial market, but simply does not have the expertise or experience to organize a multi-center IPO. This has already been recognized, and a small army of international advisers is in the process of being retained to help the Kingdom pull it off. The main job of these foreigners is to get the IPO away, but they should also be seen as educators and exemplars, passing on their skills to the next generation of Saudi financiers. Aviation, by its nature, is as much an outward facing industry as international finance. It seems logical and practical for Saudia to hire an expert expat to conduct at least its external PR relations – with the proviso that the job also entails training and mentoring for a Saudi successor. There has been speculation that there could at some stage be an IPO of Saudia itself. If that happens, it would be good to think the job could be done by a team of Saudi bankers newly expert in the ways of international finance.