Change in Saudi Arabia

On a historic night in Saudi Arabia, while a Houthi missile was being intercepted over the capital, Riyadh, an anti-corruption crackdown was being launched. In an unprecedented scenario, on 4 Novermber 2017, eleven Saudi princes, along with a number of former and sitting ministers and high-ranking businessmen, were detained on the orders of the anti-corruption committee, headed by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

For years, Saudis have been complaining about the corruption that has been wearing out the country’s business and developmental infrastructures. In previous anti-corruption attempts, only ministers and some lower-ranking businessmen have been held accountable. This move is unprecedented in sweeping up members of the royal family and prominent ministers and businessmen, putting them under ‘hotel’ arrest, freezing their assets, and preparing them for trial. The shape of the trial is a subject for another discussion, but this is certainly a bold move that shakes-up the entire country (particularly, the hit on the predominant concept in Saudi that certain individuals are untouchable).

Looking back two years from today, Saudi Arabia has been taking considerable steps towards reforming and developing the nation. Ever since the announcement of Vision 2030 in April 2016, a young, dynamic Saudi leadership has caught the world’s attention, and the entire country has been geared up toward the success of this vision. Despite the fact that the path toward reform is long and fraught with difficulties, the Kingdom we know today is different than the one we knew last year; or even, last week.

The plan is to modernise the Kingdom. Many issues that the country has been criticised for, for decades, are being addressed and acted upon, today. Economic diversification and women’s empowerment takes the lead among these issues.

To an extent, the aim of the Vision is to shift the country’s economy away from being oil-dependent and to boost investment in the private sector. The initial public offering for Saudi Aramco – the world’s largest oil company – is vital to the success of that aim, yet other sectors are also as vital. Tourism and entertainment industries retain a large portion of the economic segment of the plan. Magnificent tourist projects have attracted the global business community, such as Al Qidya Entertainment city, the Red Sea Islands, and Neom. Hence the recent anti-corruption movement boosts foreign investors’ confidence in the Saudi market.

Along with other social and cultural developments, many decisions which contribute toward preserving women’s rights in the kingdom have been taken: King Salman has ordered the issuance of women’s driving licenses; male guardian laws have been amended; female participation in sports has been acknowledged; and women are already encouraged to work.

Many are criticising the Crown Prince for making major changes in a rushed manner. It is true that he has set himself and the nation highly ambitious goals. But it is analytically false to say that the Saudi Arabia we know today, led by Mohammed Bin Salman, is reckless. In fact, this weekend’s events, both the immediate reaction to the Houthi missile and the unprecedented action against corruption, were representative of the Saudi cautious character. On one hand, Saudi Arabia did not respond recklessly to the attack on its capital and start shooting everywhere. On the other hand, the anti-corruption move was pre-planned.

It is important to understand the Crown Prince’s Vision strategy from a macro perspective. The plan is to redraw the Kingdom’s future with economic and social reforms, and eventually political reforms. Although many are understandably sceptical about the latter, the ultimate success of the vision depends on both social and political reforms.

Economic, social, and political levels do not operate separately, they simultaneously compliment each other. A sudden change in one of them will create a vacuum and disrupt the structures that comprise the other levels. Although analysing these levels separately is beneficial for short-term planning and constructive criticism, it runs the risk of overlooking long-term goals. We all know this and the Crown Prince certainly knows it too.

For instance, the ban on women driving has always been particularly pushed-for by the religious establishment and the conservative segment of Saudi society. But there has not been any backlash from those two crucial constituencies since the ban has been lifted. This is a point that has puzzled many analysts, inside and outside the country. A large part of the answer relates to the cautious steps that are being taken to maintain a balance between and within the economic, social and political spheres, while taking significant strides towards overall reform.

The strategy of the Vision is that the greater the ambition for economic reform, the lower the obstacles for social and political reform. The Crown Prince stated in his first TV interview that privatization will grant the people the ability to directly “monitor” the economy. That is only possible if done correctly. Nevertheless, realising the need for transparency is a step toward political reform.

Lastly, for starters, there is nothing particularly new about the goals of the Vision. Saudis have always been criticised and have blamed themselves for the oil addiction and poor gender equality. And there have been many attempts to overcome these conundrums. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al Jubeir, tellingly pointed out that if there is a historical trend that is observed from Saudi Arabia, it is that of a “constant change” and progress.

It is the perennial nature of the Vision’s goals which makes it bold and gives hope to the Saudi youth, who constitute 70 percent of the country’s population. Despite the challenges, the train of reform in Saudi Arabia is running and on track.

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