Transforming the face of a Kingdom
Under the firm leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam, Saudi Arabia is denouncing its radical outlook to diversify its economy
There is a huge buzz throughout Saudi Arabia as the hitherto conservative Kingdom – seen as the religious font of Islam and home to its holiest shrines – gets ready to welcome women into its sports stadiums beginning this holy Friday. The women of Saudi Arabia have entered 2018 with hope unlike ever before, for now, they will be allowed greater freedom and perhaps play select sports – and welcomingly, drive. These efforts to bring gender parity are among a series of sweeping social and economic changes being orchestrated by the young Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to propel Saudi Arabia's position into a global leadership role in the 21st century.
The year 2017 was transformational for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a series of initiatives designed to improve gender equality, promote economic diversification, root out corruption and make it more open and attractive to visitors. Behind a vast majority of these path-breaking initiatives was the motivation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the world's youngest defence minister, who, at 32, was elevated to the position of Crown Prince last June. The initiatives he has taken form a part of the "National Transformation Programme 2020" and the Kingdom's "Vision 2030", guidelines of which he had outlined last year.
The most momentous of these have been on gender equality. For the first time, girls in public schools will be allowed to play sports and receive physical education. The women of Saudi Arabia will be allowed to enter some of the country's sports stadiums, earlier an all-male preserve, while a royal decree issued last September will allow women the right to drive in the country, beginning June. In further social transformations, the municipality of the holy city of Madinah will be run by women. The women-only branch of the municipality will provide all the regular services offered by municipalities, including the issuance of licences for commercial activities and construction permits, inspection campaigns and investment opportunities, among others. These measures gained international recognition and Saudi Arabia was elected in 2017 to the UN Women's Rights Commission for a four-year term.
Other than the major social impact, shrewd economic thoughts are behind these measures, as increasing women's participation in the workplace will boost the economy and combat corruption. The "National Transformation Programme 2020" aims to capitalise on the Kingdom's youth dividend by opening up the country to more employment opportunities through sports and entertainment and to empower women.
Opening the country to more entertainment, allowing musical concerts and even a Comic-Con event (a three-day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events last year) was part of a wide-ranging boost to reform the economy and society and restore what Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the "moderate" face of Islam. The plan involves changing the education curriculum, increasing women's participation in the workforce and investing in the entertainment and tourism sectors to create jobs for young people.
Equally far-reaching are the efforts to open up the Kingdom to outsiders, by offering tourist visas for foreigners, from this year, and creating facilities to promote the country as a tourist destination. The Red Sea project, which aims to offer an unparalleled tourist destination, will be developed along with leading global hospitality firms that will not be subject to the Kingdom's conservative rules. Over 18 million foreigners visited Saudi Arabia last year, almost all on pilgrimage to Mecca. As tourism is the country's second-most important sector, the Red Sea project will spearhead the diversification of the Saudi leisure industry.
Meanwhile, an ongoing nationwide anti-corruption drive culminated last November with the detention of four ministers, high-profile entrepreneurs and 11 princes, including a son of former King Abdullah and multi-billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal. This not only consolidated the Crown Prince's authority but clearly sent out a message that the royal family was not immune from facing the brunt of law, hitherto unthinkable in the Kingdom where the descendants of Ibn Saud were seen as a law unto themselves. That members of the royal family could no longer take their privileges for granted became more apparent when princes, protesting a cut in their water and electricity consumption payments, were taken into custody in the first week of 2018.
"Vision 2030" outlines the Crown Prince's intent to make the country the centre of the Islamic and Arab world, a hub connecting three continents and an economic and investment powerhouse. That Prince Mohammed bin Salman is King Salman's chosen successor and heads the Council for Economic Affairs and Development, which oversees the Kingdom's economic affairs and also shapes its political and security policies, indicates that the manifold measures which he has initiated will be ultimately carried through. After taking over as Crown Prince in June 2017, Mohammed signalled his intent to fight radicalisation and combat terrorism, spearheading a boycott of Qatar over its alleged support to terrorism. In October, the prince said the return of "moderate Islam" was central to his plans to modernise the Kingdom.
After a horrific terrorist attack that killed over 300 people in Egypt, Mohammed declared a "war against terrorism" at the inaugural meeting of the 41-member Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) in Riyadh in November saying, "We will not allow such elements to tarnish the image of Islam."
With global Climate Change measures intensifying moves towards less dependence on fossil fuels, the Crown Prince's Vision 2030 aims to drastically reduce the Kingdom's reliance on oil while reforming, diversifying and privatising the economy. The Crown Prince plans, this year, to sell about five per cent government stake in Aramco, the national oil company. He intends to create the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, worth up to $3 trillion, with money generated by partially privatising Saudi Aramco. He also plans to create a $500 billion business and industrial zone extending to Jordan and Egypt. The 26,500 sq km city, known as NEOM, will focus on industries including advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, energy, entertainment, food and water. It will be powered entirely by wind power and solar energy.
The country has also announced plans to build a massive entertainment city in Riyadh. The 334 sq km city, almost the size of Las Vegas, when ready, will offer cultural, entertainment and sporting activities. The Al-Qiddiya project will be a part of Saudi Arabia's diversification drive and subsequently boost economic development by creating major job opportunities for local men and women. The project perhaps best captures Prince Mohammed bin Salman's intent to radically transform the face of the Kingdom.
(Nilova Roy Chaudhury is a senior journalist. The views expressed are strictly personal)