Few people are capable of evaluating Saudi social change. I am one of them.
Media coverage of the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, is experiencing a crisis of credibility. International media outlets’ coverage of the Kingdom generally takes a reductionist and surface-skimming approach that ignores cultural intricacies, historical facts, and the religious complexities of a diverse and complex nation.
I am a Saudi entrepreneur and investor who has worked in the Kingdom’s industry sector for decades. I’ve experienced our society when at its most rigid times, when the region’s tilt towards political Islamism manifested sharply across Saudi cities. Today, I constantly travel out of my base in Dubai. Every few months, I visit Riyadh or Jeddah and document the sharp changes that society is experiencing as a result of Vision 2030’s social reform component.
Those in the Kingdom might be too close to the change to properly assess its intensity - they experience life in Saudi Arabia every day – while outside observers are unequipped to assess the social changes in Saudi Arabia because they know little about where the Kingdom was ten years ago. They simply have no proper baseline from which to measure progress.
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently broadcast a special program on Saudi Arabia called ‘Kingdom of Secrets’ exploring the history of Saudi-US relations. I object to his report’s premise. There is nothing secret about a country on a path to radical change.
I witnessed this change underway two weeks ago, when I attended a TEDx event in Riyadh, where my son Yossuf was among a dozen young Saudi speakers. The event was held at Riyadh’s King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, under the theme of ‘Doors’ (doors to a pursuit of happiness, change, and self-discovery). What struck me most throughout the proceedings was the natural interaction between young men and women, which previously would have been forbidden at a public event like this under a mandated segregation policy.
I was inspired by two young women who spoke at the event. The first, life coach Mashael AlOqiel, noted that “it is an illusion to wait and expect anything to happen before having the courage to take the first step.” The second, AlButoul AlAnizy, discussed young women who feel compelled by the media to uphold ideal beauty standards. She encouraged them to focus more on substance than appearance, quoting Socrates: “Speak, so that I may see you.” She said, “It isn’t about how one looks. It’s what you bring to the table, all the while embracing tolerance and acceptance towards all others.” A pertinent mantra for the new Saudi Arabia, I thought.
Before King Salman came into power, Saudi Arabia was eager for both soft and hard solutions to the challenges the country was facing. Urgent reforms were required to remodel the economy by addressing rising unemployment and revamping poor education systems. The country was not adapting to these rapid changes (while Dubai had successfully diversified its economy away from oil). As such, young people felt disillusioned by a lack of economic opportunity to earn.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made bold and transformative moves, intent on heralding a new era for Saudi Arabia by doing away with the stale “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” belief that had prevailed for generations. One such move was his iron-fisted crackdown on corrupt businessmen and royals in 2017, when they were arrested and detained at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
I’m struck by how these changes are manifesting socially in Saudi Arabia. And they’re happening fast – from a new, committed focus on public sector efficiency to the enhancement of foreign investment through improved business infrastructure and women reclaiming their independence with new driving laws. While women have had a presence in private businesses, government offices, and customer-facing roles for some time now, their increased prominence nowadays is an encouraging sign and further proof of a redressing of long absent equality.
However, Saudi Arabia has not left all its challenges behind quite yet. While the economic changes already implemented are integral to the Kingdom’s economic sustainability, further systemic change is vital to achieve wide-reaching economic stimulus. In spite of the support the public sector receives, it should not be seen as competition to private enterprises. The latter must lead the way. Saudi Arabia is not alone though, as economic growth is slowing all around the world, with France in particular facing challenges in this regard, while Britain wrestles with Brexit.
I beg to differ Mr. Zakaria and his fellow Saudi-watching pundits. What we are seeing emerge now is a Kingdom of Hope, not a Kingdom of Secrets. The story of Saudi Arabia under King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is one of rapid evolution, the scale of which has never been seen before in the Kingdom’s rich history. The magnitude of this sea-change can only truly be assessed by those who have lived and endured the rigid systems and fractured traditions that crippled the country’s potential for decades.
Waleed AlBanawi is a Saudi Arabian businessman and investor.