2017, the year Saudi Arabia tackled reform head on

Saudi Arabia within the last year has addressed long-standing issues that many people felt would never be seriously tackled.
December 24, 2017
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman attends a cabinet meeting as Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud approves 2018 budget, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. REUTERS

London- 2017 will be remembered as a milestone year for Saudi Arabia, a year the kingdom’s populace saw the beginning of a social revolution set to transform how they live. At the heart of the push for change was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

“If he did not exist, the Saudi system would have had to invent him,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about Crown Prince Mohammed.

What took many pundits by surprise is that, in a region known for its slow pace of change and half-hearted attempts at reform, Saudi Arabia within the last year has addressed long-standing issues that many people felt would never be seriously tackled.

Crown Prince Mohammed is the architect of Saudi Vision 2030, an economic reform plan with social dimensions designed to wean the kingdom’s economy off oil dependency while creating jobs, stimulating the private sector and modernising the country. Pushing that loaded agenda forward required dealing with lingering issues, one of the most prominent of which was the fight against corruption.

Consequently, Riyadh launched a kingdom-wide anti-corruption crackdown, attempting to hold both average citizens and royalty accountable. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a royal decree in November forming an anti-corruption task force to be overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed with a mandate to “investigate, issue arrest warrants, travel bans and freeze accounts and portfolios,” a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency said.

This led to the arrest of promi­nent members of Saudi society, including those of the royal family, former ministers and high-profile businessmen. The public prosecutor said more than $100 billion had been misappropriated in recent decades and that more than 200 individuals had been questioned, as part of a 3-year in­vestigation.

In an interview with the New York Times, Crown Prince Mohammed emphasised the urgency and lack of discrimination of the kingdom’s anti-corruption drive. He said previous attempts to crack down on corruption were ineffective because investigations started from the bottom up but that changed when his father, King Salman, came to power.

“My father saw that there is no way we can stay in the G20 and grow with this level of corruption. In early 2015, one of his first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption — at the top,” the crown prince said.

Also considered a paradigm shift was Crown Prince Mohammed’s vow to move the kingdom away from extremism and return it to “moderate Islam.”

“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. Saudi Arabia and the entire region saw the proliferation of Al-Sahwa [awakening] project after 1979 for many rea­sons,” he said at the Future In­vestment Initiative conference in Riyadh in October.

The Saudi crown prince was ref­erencing major regional events in 1979 — the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the siege of Mecca by ter­rorists that inspired a generation of militants such as al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.

“We are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe,” he said. “Frankly speaking, we cannot spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today and immediately.”

The kingdom inaugurated the King Salman Complex for the Prophet’s Tradition, with head­quarters in Medina. An official statement said the plan would “eliminate fake and extremist texts and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam and justify the committing of crimes, mur­ders and terrorist acts.”

Perhaps the most historic reform initiative of this year was the relaxing of restrictions on Saudi women, capped with a reversal of the female driving ban.

“King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has issued a decree authorising the issuance of driver’s licences for women in the kingdom,” Saudi state TV said Sep­tember 26, sending shock waves across Saudi Arabia.

The new law is to take effect in June 2018 and is significant on many levels, particularly as it pertains to Vision 2030, which looks to increase Saudi women’s roles in society and the labour market.

The lifting of the ban was preceded by easing aspects of the kingdom’s male guardianship system, granting women independent access to government services, jobs, education and healthcare, without the need for prior consent.

For the first time in decades, the kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority is championing public forms of entertainment, with 2017 seeing music concerts and international sports events in Saudi Arabia. Cinemas are to open in the near future and a Six Flags theme park outside Riyadh is to be built by 2021.

“We are a G20 country. One of the biggest world economies. We’re in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world,” Crown Prince Mohammed told the Guardian newspaper.