In a time of momentous change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is now King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who are leaving their footprints on the ‘sands of time’. Those unfamiliar with Saudi will no doubt be unaware of the pace of change – the rather negative perspective portrayed by western media can make it difficult to think that anything good ever happens. But Saudi is also the Land of Misconceptions; the view that many outsiders have of Saudi society belies the reality within.
The societal and economic transformation currently underway is a result of Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s plan to diversify the economy away from oil and foster private sector growth. The plan, announced in April 2016, includes selling a 5% stake in state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco, the development of a domestic military industry, the creation of entertainment opportunities through the General Entertainment Authority (GEA) and an increase in female workforce participation.
The role of women
Saudi Arabia has long been criticised abroad for its treatment of women in society but, while there is still a long way to go, it is abundantly clear that the government is intent on change. This period of transformation in fact began with the late King Abdullah, who stipulated that 25% of the Shura Council, the formal advisory body to the Saudi government, must be female. Although from the outside the pace of change can seem slow, it is important to understand the reasons behind this pace; it happens because of consensus, and it happens peacefully.
2017 began with the appointment of Sarah Al Suhaimi as the head of the Tadawul, Saudi Arabia’s Stock Exchange, followed shortly after by Rania Nashar, the first woman to be named CEO of a Saudi bank – Samba Financial Group. But it is not only at the top where it matters; Saudi women can now be seen working as cashiers, and in September it was estimated that 200,000 women worked in the retail sector.
Educational attainment is also increasing significantly; since 2015 there have consistently been more female graduates than male, including nearly 1,800 studying for a PhD and thousands more studying abroad in the US, Europe, Africa and Asia.
Though we had been predicting it for a while, perhaps the most shocking announcement made so far in 2017 is the royal decree allowing women to drive. The decree issued by King Salman on 26th September permits female Saudis and expatriates to obtain driving licences by June 2018, ending the Kingdom’s reputation as the only country in the world to effectively ban women from driving. Of all the resultant benefits, improved social mobility and employment opportunities that come with increased access to transport, especially in rural areas where alternative transportation is lacking, will perhaps be the most palpable.
The 687,500 Saudi women actively seeking work will certainly look to capitalise on this increase in personal freedom. With an unemployment rate of 12.7%, three-quarters of whom are women, little thought will be spared for the 1.3 million expat drivers who will not be celebrating the change. In its push towards comprehensive ‘Saudisation’ of the workforce, the Kingdom is unlikely to be too upset about the billions of Saudi Riyals consequently retained within the economy.
Entertainment for all
The General Entertainment Authority (GEA) was created in line with Vision 2030 to retain citizens who, up until now, have travelled abroad to Bahrain, Dubai or Europe for entertainment. But in 2017 alone the Kingdom has already hosted more ‘western’ entertainment than in the past few decades combined; DJs and dancing in Tahlia Street on National Day; Comic-Con in Jeddah, where boys and girls could mix and the Religious Police were kept away; Monster Truck racing in Riyadh; a Jazz Festival and a performance from the Blue Man Group.
The GEA has also announced plans to develop a Six Flags entertainment park south of Riyadh and a Red Sea holiday resort in the north-west of the country. The resort, which will be the size of Belgium, will reportedly be governed by laws ‘on par with international standards’. How similar it will be to the resorts of Dubai and Europe remains to be seen but with plans to attract over one million tourists every year by 2035, nothing about the project suggests a satisfaction with half measures.
This year has also seen the announcement of 5% Value Added Tax (VAT) to be introduced in 2018, an Expat Tax on each dependant living in the Kingdom and a ‘sin tax’ on sugar, tobacco and energy drinks. This ‘economic maturing’ – the increase in tax receipts and the reduction in remittances to foreign countries – is part of a rebalancing of the books in a country determined to reduce its reliance on petrodollars in exchange for increased reliance on its own people.
Of course, it is not all plain sailing. When for the first time in the Kingdom’s history women were permitted to attend the National Day celebrations, many users took to social media to express their fears at the mixing of the sexes, and the reactions of some Saudi men to the lifting of the driving ban have been far from positive. The pace of change may be too slow for some, but for others it is indicative of a westernisation and liberalisation of which many are still fearful.
But one thing is for certain; today’s Saudi Arabia is markedly different to that of only a few years ago. In the words of the country’s 55-year-old foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir; “This is not your grandfather’s Saudi Arabia… it is not even my generation’s Saudi Arabia anymore”. The Saudi Arabia of today arguably belongs to the 70% of the population under 30 who are literally applauding change in the streets. It is they who are closely following those footsteps on the sand, and it is they who will help to forge the path for years to come.