The crowned prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Bin Salman, is ruling the perch and making far-fetched decisions for the conservative gulf country. During the short period of his reign, Muhammad Bin Salman has made some bold decisions to modernize the country and catch up with the world. Until 2018, Saudi Arabia was the only country that denied women the right to drive. In September 2017, Muhammad Bin Salman acknowledged Saudi women’s right to drive. In June 2018, the government started issuing the licenses, and women were allowed to drive legally. Though it might seem a small change at the moment, it took years of protests and hundreds of arrests to make that happen. Even in the modern world, King Salman was frowned upon when the decision was made.
Another agenda that King Salman brings to the table is his ‘vision 2030’ for the country. Vision 2030 is a wide-spread plan to decrease the country’s dependence on oil trade1. If executed correctly and successfully, ‘Vision 2030’ will change the country’s economic paradigm and make the private sector a hub for jobs and growth. Even though only quite a few people are optimisticabout ‘Vision 2030’ meeting its ambitious target, the plan is pretty prolonged and detailed. The only thing missing in the documentation is a political stance and how the project can change the relationship of KSA with other countries. Bin Salman’s vision for 2030 also contains the plan to privatize some shares of Saudi Amarco, which is the world’s biggest oil company, to install a lacking international sovereign fund.
While it seems like a drastic change or a repulsive decision, diversification has been a priority since the 1970s. The initial plan of the economic policy was to construct six new ‘economic cities’ which fell short of their goal. The oil revenues are still the powerhouse of economic growth. Two times more Saudis are since working in government organizations than private sectors. The shortcomings are mostly in the departments of fiscal and labor-market policies.
King Salman has also been busy with mending the international relationships of the country. Before King Salman, single women and unmarried foreign couples were forbidden to get a hotel room in the country CITATION Ali16 \l 1033(Chatham House Event, 2016). Muhammad Bin Salman changed the rule just after a month into his reign. As for right now, single women (Saudi nationals or not) can rent a room in a hotel without the permission of a male guardian. Unmarried foreign couples can also rent a room, but Saudi national unmarried couples are still prohibited from renting a hotel room. These changes were necessary to welcome international bodies into the country. Steps like these did not only open the tourism gates for KSA but also made the tourists feel welcome.
All in all, Muhammad Bin Salman is working to demolish the medieval image of Saudi Arabia. Even married couples had to produce some kind of document to prove their legal relationship. Without this document, it was impossible for the couples to rent a room in a hotel. The dress code for foreigners was also the main issue when it came to tourism and business trips. Even foreign women had to wear head scarfs and veils to go to a public place. King Salman has made some relaxation to this rule, which exempts foreign women from wearing head scarfs and abayas. Though they are advised to make a good judgment about what is appropriate and what is not.
It is no secret that Saudi Arabia’s economy is hugely oil-based. The oil market makes up for 85 percent of the country’s revenue. Even though oil accounts for only 30 to 40 percent of GDP, the reliance of public revenue on oil indicates that the more substantial portion of the economy is indirectly dependent on oil2. The public sector values for two-third of the real GDP, while the private sector is deeply reliant on government contracts. There is no doubt that the growth of the private sector reached its peak in recent years. But the downside is the continuous fiscal expansion and government expenses rising every year. CITATION DrN19 \l 1033 (Mahmood, 2019)
Even with this growth, the youth’s frustration only grew larger because of unemployment, inequality in public services, mainly education and health. Another central factor playing its part in this crusade is tumbled oil prices after 2014, making the economic climate even tougher for the youth. This issue raised a question of how the government will make jobs for the 4.5 million your Saudis expecting to enter the labor market.
1Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Council of Economic and Development Affairs of Saudi Arabia (2016), ‘Saudi Vision 2030’, April 2016, http://vision2030.gov.sa/en (accessed 16 Nov. 2016)
not, this is a huge change and a step towards the acceptance of international cultures in the country.
Many countries that depend on their oil market tend to make plans to diversify their market. The Saudi government has the policy goal of diversifying the economy to decrease its dependence on oil revenues since the 1970s. The implementation of the policy becomes a priority when oil revenues decrease and become less important when the oil prices rise, and wealth becomes available again. This pattern is most common amongst the oil-producing countries CITATION Nat16 \l 1033(National Transformation Program 2020, 2016).
Vision 2030 of Muhammad Bin Salman sets sharp and precise targets to expand the economy and create competitiveness. The documentation of ‘Vision 2030’ is relatively short and does not provide many details, but a separate document containing all the details is set to be released in 2020. The main goal of this plan is to create alternate sources of revenue for the government.
These sources include fees, taxes, and income from the sovereign wealth fund, and an increased role of the private sector in the economy, both in producing jobs and increasing the GDP growth. Though these goals are already hard to reach, people are skeptical because of the plan’s unoriginal approach. Even the name is plagiarized by Qatar’s Vision 2020, Kuwait’s and Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030, and Oman’s Vision 2040.
But it will be false to say that there are not any original ideas and approaches in the plan. The Vision 2030 has a lot of policy-related announcements, which are intended to break conventional policy taboos. The most prominent announcement is the proposal to privatize the minority stakes of Aramco, which is the national and the biggest oil company in Saudi Arabia. The other noted announcement is to invest in political reforms. Muhammad Bin Salman is criticizing the country on its addiction to oil. He has also claimed that the country will be able to live without oil by 2020, which seems to fall short at the moment CITATION Wor17 \l 1033(World Investment Report 2015).
With that being said, the record of diversification plans getting diluted or their partial implementation is imminent. The causes of this can range from political repercussions to oil prices rising again to hard to implement reforms due to the lack of joined-up government. To gain the confidence of the investors and government bodies, Vision 2030 has directed on how decision-making processes will be streamlined and controlled, and how the execution will be regulated.
The NTP – which is the detailed documentation of Vision 2030 – has many more details about the targets for improving public services. These targets are not only based on economic services but as well as areas such as the provision of justice.
Vision 2030 key targets:
· Enter the list of top 15 largest economies in the world
· Increase the GDP of the private sector from 40 percent to 65 percent
· Increase the share of non-oil exports from 16 percent to 50 percent
· Increment in non-oil government revenues from SAR 163 Billion to SAR 1 Trillion
· Increment in public investment funds assets from SAR 600 billion to 7 trillion
· Increase foreign and international investment of the country
This long term goal is not to be taken literally, there is a long history of optimism bias in Arab diversification plans. There is no doubt that the media has given a large amount of attention to this plan and interviews and articles have developed confidence in the vision. Even with all the attention from the media, the investors, both national and international are questioning the credibility of the vision, and how much it will be implemented given the record and history or the previous plans. Policymakers and advisors are trying to manage the expectations by saying that even if the 50 to 70 percent of the plan is implemented, it will be a huge success.
Vision 2030 is not presented just as a program of economic development but also a national project to modernize Saudi Arabia. The only problem is that there is no specific reference to political reforms, security or foreign policy. Muhammad Bin Salman got interviewed by the ‘The Economist’ regarding the impact of Vision 2030 on the social contract. According to him, both matters are different and the Saudi government has already declared it for its people.
Women of Saudi Arabia
Even in today’s modern world, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and seriously restricted as compared to the Arabic countries nearby Saudi Arabia. Gender roles in Saudi Arabia originated from local culture and Sharia (Islamic) law. In Saudi Arabia, the sharia law is interpreted according to the Sunni Islam known to Salaf or Wahhabism. During the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the freedom of women was nonexistentCITATION Jes16 \l 1033 (Staufenberg, 2016). Their rights were mostly dependent on their male guardians, and women did not have a say in that. Women and girls needed their guardians’ (father, brother, husband) permission to travel, conduct a business, tour, and even to undergo surgery of any kindCITATION BBC11 \l 1033 (BBC News, 11).
However, in 2019, King Salman has made amendments in these laws and allowed the women to travel abroad, file a divorce, and conduct official businesses without the permission of male guardians. The protests for women’s rights has been going on for more than two decades. Even though the decision seemed sudden to the world because of the rooted medieval image, the struggle was going on for quite a long time. In 2012, the Saudi government tried to implement a new policy to enforce the traveling restrictions on women. According to this policy whenever a woman tries to leave the country, her legal guardian receives a text message to ensure that he knows about the travel. Bin Salman’s relaxation to these policies is why the modernization of KSA seems legit and doable CITATION Glo16 \l 1033(Global Gender Gap Index 2016, 2016).
It seems like the crowned prince is trying to demolish the feudal vision of Saudi Arabia. The rules that applied to national women also applied to foreign women as well. These rules made their travel and tourism difficult. According to these policies, any women, national or foreign was prohibited to rent a room without the male guardian’s permission. It was also prohibited for an unmarried couple to rent a room as well. These rules made it difficult for women to travel in Saudi Arabia.
Muhammad Bin Salman realized the problem and relaxed these policiesCITATION The12 \l 1033 (The Guardian , 2012). Women are now allowed to rent a room, and unmarried foreign couples can now also rent a room in a hotel. These steps will also help the country with tourism. Another big change that took KSA one step closer to modernization is lifting the ban from women driving.
Women in Saudi Arabia were not allowed to drive up until June 2018. In September 2017, Muhammad Bin Salman recognized the women’s right to drive while staying in sharia. On the 24th of June 2018, women were finally able to get driving licenses. This achievement was the fruit of decades of struggles and protests. The first protest from the women of Saudi Arabia was held in the 1990s. 47 women drove their cars to protest against the women driving ban. This protest was held in Riyadh on 6 November 1990, which resulted badly. All of the women were arrested and kept in jail for a day, their passports were seized, and most of them lost their jobs.
In September 2017, an organization named Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia founded by two women, submitted a petition with more than 1000 signatures to King Abdullah, asking for women’s right to drive. One of the women who co- founded this organization, named Al-Huwaider filmed herself driving in her private compound and uploaded the video on YouTube. Her video got huge attention from the media and she expressed her wish for women to drive on the international women day 2009.
A social media campaign created by Manal al-Sharif named “Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself” was a huge deal as well. A lot of the women said engaged with the campaign and said that it was inspired by Arab Springs. The campaign asked for women to come out and drive on 17th June 2011. More than 12000 people, both genders, expressed their support to the cause.
At first, even Muhammad Bin Salman was against the idea of women driving. He once stated in an interview that “Saudi Arabia is not ready for women drivers”. He also said that women driving is not a religious issue but an issue that relates to the community. Even though he is now the face behind the lift of driving ban for the women in September 2017. Initially, women were only allowed to drive with a male guardian and only if they are over 30 years old. Which defeated the whole purpose of the anti-guardianship movement.
Tourism and Foreign Policies
Saudi Arabia was the second most toured place in the middle east in 2017. One of the main reasons why Saudi Arabia has such a big tourist attraction is its history and religious landmark. Muslims from all over the world travel to Mecca and Madinah to perform religious prayers.
Muhammad Bin Salman has made the visa process easier and quicker for the tourists. One of the main improvements in the process is the eVisaCITATION Hal19 \l 1033 (Takandi, 2019). People having business passports can easily get eVisa online or as well as on arrival.
When Muhammad Bin Salman took charge of political matters, one of the few things he started with was the change in foreign policies. There is no denying that Saudi Arabia suffers from a poor International image. Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative and least democratic countries in the world. This image is directly linked to the almost nonexistent tourism in Saudi Arabia from western countries. The policies like allowing foreign women to choose the clothing of their own choice and allowing them to rent the hotel rooms without the need of a male guardian are proving to change the bad image of the country. CITATION Moh16 \l 1033(Salman, 2016)
Qatar blockade is one of the most talked-about topics when it comes to foreign policies. In June 2017, many middle eastern countries cut ties with Qatar from land, air, and sea. Saudi Arabia was also one of these countries. The main reason behind cutting the diplomatic ties from Qatar was its alleged ties with terrorist groups. After the ban, Qatar filed the racism case in the United Nations and failed to get a positive response. The central reason for this blockade was the fake news about the Emir of Qatar’s support for Iran. According to Al Jazeera’s and American FBI’s statements, it has been proved that the media outlets and TV channels were hacked and hence the fake news was published, which then caught the international attention resulting in Qatar Blockade. According to the crowned prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, this ban can be for the long term and there might not be a solution any time soon.
Other than that, Saudi Arabia is trying to attract tourists by opening new attractions like Al Ula, which does not only look good but also has a history. These attractions will help international tourists recognize the true potential of the country and might give it a chance CITATION Yea17 \l 1033(Yearly Statistic 2016). With new policies and acceptance of new cultures, tourism might take off in the country.
Acceptance of Foreign Cultures
Muhammad Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 for the country needs international attraction to succeed. The international market is one of the main targets of the plan in order to grow the private sectors and make them contribute to GDP more. This means making the international bodies feel welcome in the country. This is the very reason why policies are being shifted and becoming more relaxed.
Over the years, Bin Salman has made a lot of big changes in the country and allowed things which once considered taboo CITATION Wro14 \l 1033(World Report 2013, 2014). From 1983 to 2018, Saudi Arabia never had a cinema. When crowned king allowed the cinema, it became a huge attraction and became a successful business within a few months of the launch. Now Saudi Arabia has cinemas in almost every big city.
Just like cinemas, theme parks and modern cities are also becoming popular in the country as well. Even though there are some restrictions, even for foreigners still, which makes it hard for them to completely adopt the Saudi lifestyle. For example, alcohol is still banned for both natives and nonnatives, which makes tourism a bit bland for the tourists.