Jeddah: 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, cinema is back in the country after a gap of 35 years and the kingdom now is ready to welcome women into its sports stadiums.
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 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 bring Saudi Arabia 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 Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the world’s youngest defence minister, who, at 32, was elevated to the position of crown prince June 2017. Initiatives he has taken form part of the “National Transformation Programme 2020” and the Kingdom’s “Vision 2030”, guidelines of which he outlined in 2017.
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 get 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 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 in 2017) was part of a wide-ranging push 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 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 and will not be subject to the Kingdom’s conservative rules.
Over 18 million foreigners visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, 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 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.
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.
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.