Historic change in Saudi Arabia

Sunday 29/10/2017

Saudi Arabia seems poised for far-reaching change, at more than one level.

At the top of its priorities is the promotion of a value system of openness and moderation. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has pledged that Saudi Arabia would return to being “a country of moderate Islam that is tolerant of all religions and to the world.”

MBS, as he is widely known, shows keen awareness that time is of the essence in any reform process. “Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under 30 and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today and at once,” he said at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has been dealing with social and religious reform. There was a decree from King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ordering the establishment of an authority to scrutinise the hadith, traditions of the Prophet, with a view to preventing some of them from being used by extremists to justify terrorism or other violence. In September, there was another royal decree lifting the kingdom’s decades-old ban on women driving. There are plans to end the nationwide ban on cinemas.

Each of these changes is radical enough in itself for a conservative country but the fact that they are coming so fast — faster than anyone could have imagined — illustrates the breadth and scale of the Saudi leadership’s ambition for its country.

At the core of the change in Saudi Arabia is its new economic strategy.

Crown Prince Mohammed spelt it out with Vision 2030: Floating a stake in Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company; the creation of the world’s largest sovereign-wealth fund to invest in diverse assets; and vibrant non-oil industries.

He has a vision for his country of a future beyond oil. Once, this might have been unthinkable for a country that generates nine-tenths of government revenues from oil, but now it is increasingly discussed.

During the recent investment conference, which drew approximately 3,000 people from 88 countries, Crown Prince Mohammed announced the launch of an ambitious $500 billion independent economic zone straddling Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. He also painted a picture for potential investors of a Saudi Arabia open for business, “open to the world and (to) all religions.”

International experts see real potential. “The crown prince is a change agent on a very big scale and this conference is a very big signal about how rapid is the pace of change and that it is really happening,” Daniel Yergin, a prominent energy strategist who attended the conference, told the New York Times.

“It’s head-spinning in its ambition,” he added. “This is taking on a very big challenge that will be measured not in decades, but over a generation.”

For now, these are all stated intentions but their significance can hardly be overstated. Under its bold young leader, Saudi Arabia is readying for change on a scale unprecedented in the country’s modern history.

The announcements have infused optimism in the whole Gulf region.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, lauded Saudi Arabia for “leading the region in its endeavour for stability and development.” He expressed confidence in Saudi Arabia’s ability to be a catalyst on “the global economic and invest­ment scene.”

There are many challenges ahead. A more dynamic business environment requires greater technological efficiency and overcom­ing the shortcomings of the Saudi regulatory environment. The reformist vision for Saudi Arabia would also mean cutting entitlements and subsidies and reducing the reliance on foreign labour. It would mean bringing more women into the job market.

Such reforms will not happen without resistance from traditionalists. As Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation think-tank has said, “There will always be laggards and reactionaries but his (Crown Prince Mohammed’s) drive and strength combined with a substantial constitu­ency among the young for change has created the space for him to move down this road.”

For the first time, the momentum for change in Saudi Arabia seems greater than the admo­nitions of ultraconservatives. Never has the determination to go forward been greater.