The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, covering most of the Arabian Peninsula, is indeed the heart of the Muslim world. The Kingdom is the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques at Makkah and Madina. It is the epicenter of the Muslim pilgrimage. Along with that, Saudi Arabia is blessed with many rich natural resources such as around 17 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves. Its oil and gas sector accounts for about 50 percent of its GDP and 70 percent of export earnings.
The kingdom is also blessed with natural gas, iron ore, gold and copper. The Kingdom follows distinctive socio-cultural norms and practices. Social stratification is quite noticeable in Saudi Arabia. There is a general societal acceptance that power and wealth are distributed unequally, with many seeing it as an inevitable fact of Saudi Arabian society. Most of the population is ethnically Arab, mostly descending from nomadic tribes that have traditionally lived throughout the region.
Saudi culture is fundamentally traditional and conservative
Islam has an extensive influence on Saudi society, guiding people’s social, familial, political and legal lives. The Saudi people generally share a strong moral code and cultural values, such as hospitality, loyalty and a sense of duty to support their community. They are often highly aware of their honor and integrity. They are protective of their women which is a part of their traditional norms called Gheera (or ghayrah). Gheera is an Arabic word that describes an intense emotion of honorable protectiveness. It is a pervasive feeling in Saudi culture and extends especially to family and personal honor.
In this cultural context, it most commonly refers to a man’s protectiveness and jealousy over his female family members. This kind of jealousy is seen as necessary, as it is the uneasiness in a man’s heart that motivates him to protect women from indecency. Most Saudis interpret gheera as love and willingness to do anything for one’s female family members.
The Kingdom shares deep and unique socio-cultural practices along with an immense potential to be an economic hub in the region which can lead the Kingdom to a more powerful position in the world.
These days the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s modernization, innovation and transformation are all over the media and are the point of concern for the Muslim World. The Saudi women are questioned for breaking the cultural and traditional norms regarding their traditional attire (hijab) to wearing modern clothes. Festivals and musical performances are becoming major controversial aspects for many people across the world. Here the question arises: Does Saudi Arabia have the right and potential to transform its society on modern lines or have to follow the same strict and rigid patriarchal norms forever and ever? To answer this question, we have to look at Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salam’s vision of 2030 in greater detail. We have to investigate what are the major factors behind the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s transformation and innovation on modern lines.
Vision 2030 is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman
His vision includes several goals but the most important ones are to build: a vibrant society; a thriving economy; and an ambitious nation. The vision looks like a detailed/strategic plan to transform the existing Saudi society on modern lines that is the need of the hour. Here is the question: how? The Crown Prince not only provided a vision but a detailed strategic plan to execute. Let’s discuss it in a larger context.
Vision 2030 recognizes the importance of a vibrant society where everyone enjoys a rich, happy and fulfilling life as a strong foundation for economic prosperity. Now the question arises of how a society can develop vibrantly. We have to look at the basic definition of a vibrant society: it means fair and vibrant societies are dynamic environments in which social meanings and values are subject to constant change and adjustment. So based on this definition the Kingdom has worked on a give-and-take formula as the first step towards achieving such a marvelous task.
It has to give up on its traditional social norms and get adjusted to the new requirements of the age. The Kingdom has sharply focussed on the requirements of its people and planned accordingly to improve their lifestyle to international standards rather than sticking to the old patterns of civilization and development.
Indeed, building a vibrant society becomes crucial if a state prepares to compete with all other regional players based on its education and economic levels. But why does the Kingdom suddenly think about transforming its society on a vibrant line? The simple answer to that question is that the Kingdom has 75% of the youth population out of 35.08 million. Hence the Kingdom has to redesign its existing strategies to align them with the youth requirements.
In terms of digitalization, the Kingdom has the third highest smartphone penetration rate by 2022 and is still growing at a high rate. Youngsters use Vlog, Youtube, Instagram, FaceBook and WhatsApp. These are some of the most prominent social media platforms. They follow the digital trends on equal footing with the developed world.
But what makes them unique? It is their high literacy rate that is the first and basic requirement of every citizen. The Kingdom meets the international literacy rate with an overall 95.33% literacy rate which is quite impressive. In the Middle East and North Africa 2020 ranking, the Kingdom acquired the eighth position in terms of female literacy rate with Jordan as number one with 97.85%, Israel second with 96.8%, UAE third with 95.8%, Kuwait fourth with 94.9%, Bahrain fifth with 94.9%, Qatar sixth with 94.7%, Lebanon seventh with 93.3% and Saudi Arabia eighth with 92.7%. The difference between the Kingdom and Jordan (being ranked number one with 97.8%) is not that big. (Please note according to some reports the Kingdom has already reached around 95% female literacy).
Society needs education irrespective of gender discrimination to take it to the heights of economic prosperity and social glory. The overall literacy rate and particularly the female literacy rate pushes the Kingdom to reform its existing policies and align them with the changing nature of social dynamics. While transforming its society, the Kingdom paid special attention to women’s empowerment while designing its strategies to reform society on vibrant lines. It is understood that women with a high literacy rate and having access to social media platforms will broaden their horizons towards not only their lives but also the way they look at state affairs. They will demand and of course, deserve equal rights/standings and opportunities that are easily available to any woman of her stature across the globe.
Saudi Arabia’s steps towards women empowerment
It looks like the Crown Prince has taken all these measures into serious consideration and taken some bold policy steps to empower women, overcome their grievances and provide them with a conducive environment to improve their economic well-being. I believe any country with such a universal literacy rate, particularly the female literacy rate, cannot confine women to the four walls of their houses and force them to follow the same patriarchal norms forever. With such an education, women look at the world differently and need to be treated differently.
Breaking patriarchal norms, bias and stereotypes was one of the courageous steps the Crown Prince has taken to modernize Saudi women and give them what they deserve. It was one of the basic human rights requirements because with this female literacy rate, you cannot keep women at home and under restriction. Instead, you can empower them and utilize them in achieving certain economic goals.
Today, we can see that some unprecedented reforms took place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regarding women’s personal and workforce lives. On personal levels, women are allowed to dress the way they want to on modest lines. Under the leadership of the Crown Prince, women have had the right to get their passports, as well as travel abroad and live independently without the permission of a male guardian, or “wali”. Taking off guardian permission from a woman’s life was one of the greatest obstacles to achieving her dreams. It was not only affecting her professional life but her day-to-day affairs.
Initially, Saudi women had no right to choose their life partner and get into marriage or say no to child marriages as were dependent on wali. They had no right to take any decision regarding her health in the hospitals they required wali’s approval. She had no say in terms of domestic violence as she was required to have wali to prove her point. Saudi women were not allowed to travel alone but with wali. Let’s discuss the above points in detail:
Before the Crown Prince’s recent reforms, Saudi law had no minimum marriage age, and Saudi media outlets continue to carry occasional reports of child marriages, including rare reports of girls as young as 8. On January 9, 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, an advisory body, overwhelmingly passed a proposal setting the minimum age of marriage at 18 but leaving exceptions for girls ages 15 to 18 to marry with court approval. The proposal will become law only if promulgated by Saudi Arabia’s council of ministers. The recent reforms seem to be in the best interest of Saudi women.
Domestic violence against women is a serious universal offense
Saudi women are not different from any other women across the globe. Over one year ending October 13, 2015, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development reported that it encountered 8,016 cases of physical and psychological abuse, most involving violence between spouses. Saudi Arabia criminalized domestic violence in 2013, but activists have criticized the lack of implementation of the law.
Saudi Arabia’s National Family Protection Program estimates that 35 percent of Saudi women have experienced violence, yet the head of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission said that of the 1,059 cases referred to Saudi courts in 2017 involving violence against women, only 59 were for domestic violence. The latest reforms tried to minimize violence against women at all costs. Which is an excellent endeavor to help support Saudi women.
Indeed, in old traditions, guardianship makes it incredibly difficult for victims to seek protection or obtain legal redress in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch research found that women occasionally struggle to report an incident to the police or access social services or the courts without a male relative. Women who attempt to flee an abusive spouse or family can be arrested and returned to their families. If they flee or are referred to shelters, they are not allowed to leave unless they reconcile with family members or accept an arranged marriage. The shelters and the authorities do not facilitate women’s ability to live independently.
In terms of employment, women were often discriminated against based on patriarchal norms and social structure. But with recent developments, Saudi Arabia has increased employment opportunities for women in those sectors previously closed to them. The Saudi government does not enforce formal guardianship restrictions on women wishing to work, but the authorities do not penalize private or public employers who require a guardian’s consent for women to work or restrict jobs to men. In addition, some professions, like judges and drivers, remain off-limits to women, and strict sex segregation policies act as a disincentive to employers considering hiring women. Time will be required to get adjusted to the new arrangements as transformation follows its patterns of change.
Healthwise, women were bound to follow the word of their wali. But under the Crown Prince strategy, the 2014 medical code of ethics prepared by a state institution declares that a woman’s consent should be sufficient to receive health care. However, the requirement for guardian permission is dependent on a particular hospital’s internal regulations, and the government does not penalize institutions that require consent. Human Rights Watch documented that requiring guardian approval for medical procedures has exposed women to prolonged pain or, in extreme cases, to life-threatening danger. It looks like reforming this law will help women to decide on their health problems immediately without risking their lives by delaying receiving medical services.
Along with all the above, Saudi women are allowed to appear in the media even without covering their heads. They can work in different media working shifts such as following day or night shifts. They can opt for both private and government sectors. They can drive on their own. But these measures/reforms faced severe criticism across the Muslim world. I believe women of the Kingdom have all rights to live their lives the way they want to, like any other woman in the world. It is not in the best interest of depriving them of their basic rights as it is against humanity and Islam that give equal rights to women. Indeed, by empowering women the economy can be strengthened as they are half of the world population.
How the Kingdom is planning to improve the economy?
The Crown Prince ambitiously designed strategies to build and sustain the Kingdom’s economy on strong grounds. Its current GDP per capita is $20,000. To improve or strengthen its GDP further the Kingdom plans to design NEOM City. The concept of building Neom city seems to be a passionate goal to achieve all that any nation deserves. It simply shows what a new future would look like for the people of Saudi Arabia. It is an attempt to do something extraordinary that’s never been tested before.
But, due to the digital trends and transformation, fresh thinking and new solutions to the problems are required. NEOM City promises to provide big dreams come true phenomena based on an innovative model for sustaining a living, working and prospering. It will not only improve the quality of life of Saudi people but change the outlook of Saudi Arabia in the world system.
But who is going to benefit from it? Is it limited to the Saudis alone or open to everyone?
No, it is not limited to Saudis alone but is open to everyone across the globe. It comes along with several projects and sectoral development plans such as NEOM Design and Construction which is bringing together experts from around the world to create the blueprint for planning, designing, installing and operating the construction industry of tomorrow sustainably.
Improving the future of education is at the heart of the NEOM Project. Bringing education on modern lines is all set according to the project. It aims to learn by doing, combining knowledge, creativity and a critical thinking process with the use of the latest means of technology and resources, digital use along with digital mindset to solve the problems of not only today but tomorrow as well. It will be a learning ecosystem for everyone. Many international top-ranked universities are set to open campuses in Saudi Arabia. That will bring home foreign education facilities not only for the Saudi population but also for foreign students.
In terms of the energy sector, NEOM City will bring together experts from around the world to develop the first region powered, at scale, by 100% clean energy. The NEOM Entertainment and Culture sector will bring together creative minds from around the world to redefine how audiences interact with new experiences that spark the senses and transform the community. The NEOM project will be drawing knowledge from across the world to stimulate financial innovation and drive positive economic change. This will ultimately bring innovation to the existing Financial Services sector.
Keeping into consideration climate change and its impacts, the NEOM aims to lead the world in a climate-friendly food environment by introducing climate positive food growing culture, focussing on green energy and circular design, sustainable sourcing, adopting next-generation aquaculture, breakthrough technology and innovation, introduce novel food and plant-based alternatives, legacy-free regulatory framework and pay attention to personalized nutrition. To achieve all the above, the NEOM City brings together international experts and leaders to develop world-class infrastructure, service facilities and a sustainable workforce for a flourishing food sector.
Along with all these sectors, NEOM aims to cover the health sector
NEOM Health and Well-Being will pioneer healthcare by implementing groundbreaking systems, regulations and infrastructure. NEOM’s experts will be at the forefront of the shift toward human-first medical treatment. The other important sectors covered will be manufacturing, media, mobility, sport, technology and digital, tourism, water etc. It is like a complete package that covers every sector.
Many foreign companies are opening their headquarters in NEOM City. That will help generate a lot of financial capacity for the Kingdom. But there are some controversies around such measures such as Saudi Arabia moving towards a unique transformation because its oil reserves are diminishing or its economy may not be able to sustain itself. Well, let’s investigate facts and figures and assess if these controversies are legit or not.
Saudi Arabia has witnessed tangible economic prosperity and progress brought forth by the increase in non-oil revenues and non-oil GDP. This is sufficient to free Saudi Arabia from the clutches of endless fluctuation in oil prices. Currently, without net exports, there are 221 years of oil left with Saudi Arabia where its oil reserves are second in the world with $266.6 billion barrels reserves with a total production of $12.4 million barrels per day. While the consumption is 3.3 million barrels per day and exports are $7.33 million per day. On top of these figures, the Kingdom decided to move away from fossil fuels in 2016 to preserve them further and by 2030 emerge as not an oil provider but an energy provider with a firm commitment to producing 50 percent of energy from renewable sources.
The Kingdom believes that Saudi Arabia has advantages rather than disadvantages such as it has ample land resources to cheap energy means. Along with that Red Sea Port enables cargo to avoid the Strait of Hormuz checkpoint in the Gulf and a huge petrochemicals industry that can provide inputs for manufacturers.
With the recent transformation and policy measures, the Kingdom aims to increase the share of non-oil GDP and reduce dependence on oil revenue whose prices are no longer under the control of Saudi Arabia. Looks like the Kingdom is trying to securitize itself from uncertain threats or becoming a target of uncertain/unreliable sources of income towards reliable/predictable ones. In this light, the Kingdom aims to invest in its NEOM City for a better and predictable future that looks after the energy sector along with all other important sectors.
When foreign companies will operate their headquarters in NEOM City they will not only bring along expertise in their work but socio-cultural changes. It will help promote tourism and infrastructure development. Instead of relying on other countries, there will be a steady transition of businesses toward Saudi Arabia. That will help both international and local people to improve their economic well-being. Life quality will be further improved and businesses will multiply. People from various cultures will share their experiences and learn from the local ones.
Diversification of the Saudi economy towards non-oil requires technical manpower. If they do not empower women, how can they participate in those activities? Knowing the future requirement of manpower, the modernization of women is crucial to achieving the larger goal of the project. Hence, instead of relying on foreign manpower, it is in the best interest of the Kingdom to prepare its population and then utilize them in the future to improve its economy. Looks like the Crown Prince is preparing Saudi women along with men towards achieving his future goals. His directions toward economic prosperity seem to be crystal clear and on track.
In this context, the diversification of the Saudi economy will be inconsistent with the old policies. Therefore, new measures or drastic reforms/changes are essential to meet the future requirements of the labor market. Indeed, whatever Crown Prince has aimed for is in the best interest of the Saudi population and any controversies surrounding his vision of 2030 are baseless.
With changes in the legal rights of women, slowly society will get adapted to future trends. It is a fact that drastic reforms have been implemented already but taking them slowly will have long-lasting impacts. It will help not only the local population get used to it, but the Muslim Ummah will also accept those reforms with time. The creation of NEON City will have a direct impact on the existing Saudi culture. It will boost the tourism industry and with the help of various museums, several attractions will be created to attract foreigners to visit Saudi Arabia. That will be a win-win situation for the locals and the Kingdom in general. It is an open secret that tourism helps the economy flourish (Tourism has become the world’s third-largest export industry after fuels and chemicals, and ahead of food and automotive products).
The Crown Prince’s strategy seems to be a smart move to resolve not only the problems of today but to secure the future as well. He has closely aligned all three themes such as a vibrant society that should remain open to changes and transformation based on the needs of the hour. They should be following modern and recent developmental ideas, and their projects and workforce should be in line with the world’s requirements and standards, ultimately which will help in building a resilient and ambitious nation that will be thriving to adapt itself to the changing requirements of the time. It looks like, with the Crown Prince Vision 2030, nothing can stop the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from becoming an economic hub in the region and beyond!
Dr. Farah Naz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government and Public Policy at the National University of Sciences and Technology. An Arabic version of this article was published by the KSA Command and Staff College
The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy.