A kingdom of change
Success in introducing social and economic reforms can't hide the longer-term challenges that Saudi Arabia faces
Something looked out of the ordinary as I approached the reception desk to check in at my hotel. It took a second or two to think what it was. Then it clicked. The receptionist awaiting me was a lady. This was a new experience for me in Saudi Arabia. But what was particularly surprising was the fact that the lady behind the desk was a Saudi, wearing the traditional black abaya dress and hijab headscarf. She wasn't long in the job, she said, and from her manner it seemed she was still a little uncomfortable with this new and very public role.
But her presence at reception was a small indicator of a vast change that's taking place in Saudi Arabia—one of the many social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Today, women can be seen serving in shops, working on supermarket check-outs and in many other public positions away from the confines of offices or hospitals where their presence has been long established.
For many Saudis, the changes are as breath-taking here as they are broad. "We've done in three years what we thought would take 30," said an executive in the kingdom's central bank, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency. The powers of the once-feared religious police have been stringently curbed, the ban on cinemas has been lifted (the aim is to open 350 movie theatres by 2030) and plans have been announced for a huge entertainment city close to Riyadh. Furthermore, as of June, women will be permitted to drive cars for the first time, thus removing an issue that has long drawn foreign criticism.
For Abdelrahman al-Rashed, veteran columnist on the Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat, the decision on women driving belies criticism that the announcements of reforms are nothing more than a public relations exercise to appease those foreign critics. "Many doubted the seriousness of the royal decree allowing women to drive," he wrote. "But there is real activity, a race against the clock, to ensure full readiness for the big day in June."
The social changes need to be seen in the context of the economic transformation of Saudi Arabia under Vision 2030. To push this through, the crown prince has thrown out the traditionally slow system of governance and decision-making and replaced it by one in which he holds most of the reins of power. That has enabled him to introduce reforms that would never have achieved support from the various branches of the ruling family.
Perhaps the most dramatic example was the arrest late last year of more than 300 prominent Saudis—including princes and top business tycoons—accused of corruption, and the setting up of a Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee (headed by the crown prince). "This was designed to be a shock to the system," said a member of the consultative Shura Council, who asked not to be named. "Everyone knew that these people were linked to corruption, so the measure was very popular. But a shock nevertheless." Since then, King Salman has announced measures to protect those bringing cases of corruption to the attention of the authorities.
"Unemployment is now the main challenge, sharing the same importance as the need for economic diversification"—al-Rashid, deputy economic affairs minister
As well as tackling the theft of public money, the authorities are also reducing the size of the foreign workforce, in a move that will both create job opportunities for Saudi nationals and reduce the amount of money sent out of the country. So far, nearly a million people have left, reducing the foreign presence to 9m (out of a total population of close to 30m). The eventual target is to reduce that number to 5m. As of January, firms where the number of expatriates equals or exceeds that of Saudis are required to pay a special levy.
Abdulaziz al-Rashid, deputy minister of economic affairs, told a Euromoney conference in Riyadh in April that despite these measures foreigners still had a role to play. "In the past," he said, "we had a limitless source of low-skilled, low-wage labour. That translated into very low productivity in our economy. Now we're not looking for more or less foreign labour, but for more productive foreign labour."
Aside from the issue of expatriates, the biggest headache for the government in a country where 70% of the population is under 30 is job creation. "Unemployment is now the main challenge," said Rashid. "I would say it shares the same importance as the need for economic diversification." Ironically, one of the planks of social reform—female emancipation—is adding to the problem. "We expect with some of the coming reforms that female participation in the workforce will grow even faster. So the challenge to create jobs will be considerable because the number of people seeking jobs will be greater."
Openness in government
While acknowledging the difficulties ahead, Rashid believes that the new, streamlined decision-making process, combined with what he calls "a new ethos of openness" in government, will help to overcome them. "We used to work for the government, but we had no contact with other ministries and stakeholders. We operated separately from each other. Now we're meeting regularly and sharing information." This change of style "happened from the top. The Supreme Economic Council, chaired by the crown prince, conducts its business this way and their style of operating cascades down to the whole government."
70%—Proportion of Saudi population under 30
The entire reform process, as much as one can judge from talking to Saudis, enjoys widespread support, especially among the young. There are critics, too. Their views are expressed anonymously on social media. To speak out publicly is to risk arrest, for economic and social reform have been accompanied by a complete intolerance of dissent.
Speaking privately, a Saudi academic says one of the major obstacles to change is the high birth rate and antiquated public education system. Many of the teachers are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and oppose the crown prince's aim of encouraging moderate interpretations of Islam. "Removing them and replacing them isn't an overnight task. But that's the real challenge. Opening cinemas and allowing women to drive affects only a relatively small section of the liberal middle class—it doesn't change the fundamentals. The crown prince will be judged ultimately on how effectively he reforms education and creates jobs."
The prevailing view among Saudis I spoke to is that foreign media speculation about the imminent abdication of King Salman in favour of his son is wide of the mark. The belief is that the crown prince is working hard to push through controversial reforms under the cover of his father—given that criticism of a king or actions taken in his name is a strictly observed red line in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed will be hoping that his hold on power is secure enough and that economic and social transformations have achieved sufficient momentum to guarantee a smooth succession when the moment comes. At least until that moment has passed, any idea of introducing political reform and giving citizens a public voice will remain out of the question.