The last 12 months has seen an extraordinary pace of change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The announcement in 2016 of Vision 2030, the plan to ween the country off oil, was initially received with scepticism. However, 2017 really showed that the Saudi royal family is intent on change. 2018 has already got off to a good start; the country’s current account has moved back into surplus, there has been a 20% month-on-month increase in POS transactions, and January was the third month in a row of foreign reserve increases.

We’ve put together a list of ten things we bet you didn’t expect to hear coming from Saudi!

1) A young Crown Prince

In a country that has for decades been ruled by the sons of King Abdul Aziz, the appointment of 32-year-old Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) as Crown Prince is a historic step. Although there is no saying when he will succeed his father, the fact that someone so young could soon take the throne is fairly significant. Up until now, all of the seven Kings of the modern Saudi state have been in their fifties at least!

2) Women driving

It was the news that made headlines around the world; in September 2017 a royal decree declared that, from June 2018, women were to be allowed to drive in the Kingdom. At various points in the country’s recent history, for example in 1990, 2008 and 2011, women have protested the ban on driving to little avail. However, attitudes have been changing in recent years. The combination of a young, educated population and high unemployment levels among Saudi citizens (while many thousands of expatriate workers are employed as drivers) has led many to question exactly why the ban remained in place. There is little doubt that Vision 2030 in part brought on the lifting of the ban, which was in contradiction with the Kingdom’s aims to create jobs and opportunities for Saudi citizens, men and women alike. The lifting of the ban will no doubt see the creation of opportunities for foreign businesses in the automotive market!

3) Privatisation across the board

Whether it is the 26 national airports, the 14 football teams in the professional league or the wealthiest company in the world – Saudi Aramco – there are widespread plans for privatisation in the Kingdom. Not only will this create jobs and opportunities for Saudi companies and citizens, but also for companies across the globe to aid the Kingdom in realising their goals.

Vision 2030 is seen by many to be ambitious and even unattainable in such a short time span, however the change that we have already seen in the past two years shows without doubt that MbS is determined to try.

4) Women in positions of power

Perhaps a precursor of things to come, early 2017 saw the appointment of many female Saudis to prominent positions within Saudi society, including Sarah Al Suhaimi, chosen to lead the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul), and Rania Nashar, the first woman to be named CEO of Samba Financial Group. With the right to now drive themselves, 2018 is going to be the year of the Saudi woman!

5) Cinemas

After a 35-year absence, cinemas are finally returning to Saudi Arabia! Although there is still some resistance from more conservative elements of Saudi society, it has widely been hailed as a huge step forward by citizens and filmmakers alike. Within days of the announcement, it was reported that the Saudi Public Investment Fund had signed a deal with US-based cinema chain AMC.

6) Tourist visas

In an unprecedented move that may see the Kingdom slowly open up to the rest of the world, the Saudi Arabia Muslims’ Destination Initiative has been set up to boost tourism off the back of Hajj and Umrah pilgrims visiting the Kingdom. Visitors from 65 as-yet-unspecified countries, split into four categories, will be able to obtain visas allowing them to travel to 13 historic locations and 10 museums across Saudi Arabia.

7) Anti-corruption purge

No doubt many inside and outside the Kingdom would have, until recently, believed that wealthier, more influential Saudis were somewhat immune from corruption charges. However, that all changed in November 2017, when as many as 500 government ministers, businessmen and royal family members were rounded up and ‘jailed’ in the Ritz-Carlton, a 5* hotel set in 52-acre grounds in Riyadh. Whatever the true motivations of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the general reaction among Saudi citizens has been overwhelmingly positive. As the dust settles, hopefully it will lead to renewed business confidence in the Kingdom and reassure foreign businesses that old corrupt practices are no longer to be tolerated in the Saudi Arabia of Vision 2030.

8) Entertainment comes to Saudi

Following on from a hugely successful Comic-Con in Jeddah in February last year, in which 7,000 male and female comic fans mixed without interference from the Religious Police, the Kingdom has since hosted Monster Truck racing in Riyadh, a jazz festival, a Japanese orchestra and much more. Plans were also announced for a 334km2 Six Flags entertainment park to be built in southern Riyadh.

9) Red Sea Holiday resort and NEOM

Towards the end of the summer the Kingdom announced ambitious plans to build a 34,000km2 holiday resort on the Red Sea coast. The project, which has backing from Virgin’s Richard Branson and will reportedly be governed by laws ‘on par with international standards’, will see the development of 50 islands and a stretch of coastline of around 110 miles. Merely two months later came the announcement of Neom, a vast transnational city and economic zone to be built near the border of Jordan and Egypt. The $500bn, 16,400km2 mega-city will operate independently from the “existing governmental framework” with its own tax and labour laws and an autonomous judicial system.

10) Saudisation, particularly females

The ‘Saudisation’ of the workforce is in full swing. In an attempt to improve the employment situation of a large proportion of the Saudi population, many of them well-educated, a number of industries have been closed off to foreign nationals. Jobs that even two years ago would never have been done by Saudis, such as taxi drivers, shop assistants and restaurant staff, are now dominated by Saudi nationals. Don’t be surprised to find a Saudi lady packing your bags at the checkout next time you are shopping in the Kingdom!

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