MNA Editorial Desk: Saudi Arabia holds the two holiest cities of the Muslims — Makkah and Madinah. Despite its wealth and religious riches, throughout the last century, Saudi Arabia has been criticized for its religiously conservative mindset which many believe had pushed the country to refrain from social and political development while becoming incompetent in today’s competitive world. It was also said that, the country was suffering hugely in terms of humanitarian context. Though these might not all be very true, but serious concern was there until several humanitarian and policy reform were declared by the current honorable King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The recent reform in Saudi Arabia is planned to occur in two contexts — economic and social. The economic reform is a step toward achieving economic balance irrespective of the vulnerable price of oil in the global market. That is, Saudi economy is intended not to depend on their business of oil anymore. With that target, the Saudi government will build a 5bn USD independent economic zone which will create an opportunity for not only Saudi Arabia but also for Jordan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia will create an environment to lure the investors requiring improvements in technology, investment environment, investor friendly culture and society etc.
Analysts gave mixed reviews of plans to transform the economy, but agree it will be tough for Riyadh to reduce dependency on oil. Reforms led by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince may be insufficient to wean the economy from its addiction to oil and create a thriving private sector able to generate sufficient jobs, economists and analysts predict. Prince Mohammed’s ‘Vision 2030’ master plan aims to transform Saudi’s economy as sluggish oil prices squeeze its finances.
Since Mohammed bin Salman cracked down on corruption, some observers have voiced concerns about the impact of political risk on his plans, amid fears of a backlash. Nobody actually expects Vision 2030 to be fully implemented, but it is an attempt to show the world that there is a remarkable direction. The kingdom has long tried to diversify away from its dependence on oil, but this effort has gathered pace with the collapse in prices since 2014. Unveiled last year, Vision 2030 is a radical strategy by Mohammed Bin Salman to set in motion expansion of the non-oil private sector.
To create a foreign investment friendly scenario, however unrelated it may seem, require a lot of social reform and a culture of accountability. Consolidation of power in Mohammed bin Salman’s hands has toppled all aspects of society, including previously untouchable ultra-elite. For the first time ever, the elites were held for graft cases, which was unthinkable before. A transformation started by the new Saudi leadership of King Salman and his son and heir, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has already shaken most corners of the country when 30 senior royals were arrested on graft charges.
With this incident, a new character of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad was portrayed to the world and almost everyone who criticized Saudi Arabia for practicing dominion and a conservative culture praised that step. A strong message was sent to the foreign investors also and a modern approach is anticipated to wave in the Saudi Arabian culture. Moreover, different social reforms are also gaining new popularity among their citizens.
Women in Saudi Arabia were the most neglected and oppressed and they were kept away from modernization. They almost had no identity as human. They were not allowed to move with open hair in public. They were not allowed to drive or enter into the stadium to enjoy a game or a concert. There was no representation of women in the government. They were not allowed to participate in different types of jobs.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return the country to ‘moderate Islam’ and asked for global support to transform the uncompromising kingdom into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors, which is bringing the fortune mostly for the oppressed women. The crown prince said a hard-line interpretation of Islam had taken root in Saudi Arabia after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and he expressed his commitment to get rid of this problem.
Central to the reforms has been the breaking of an alliance between rigid clerics who have long defined the national character and the House of Saud, which has run affairs of state. The changes have tackled direct public taboos. But it is evident from the teachings of Islam that, the religion does not actually oppose empowerment of women. Rather, the prophet Muhammad (SM) had always tried to empower women by establishing their rights.
During the recent months, many things changed for women in Saudi Arabia. They will be able to drive on the streets from June this year. They will be able to enter the stadiums to enjoy sports or concerts. They will be able to serve in the army. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has appointed first female to serve as deputy minister of labour and social development.
So many changes occurred in a very short time. Under the leadership of King Salman, crown prince — only in his early thirties — has led to these changes. His efforts will take the country to new heights.
Vision 2030 declared by the Saudi government is based on three broad ideas: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation. To achieve those, they have mentioned few targets to achieve by 2030. Plans for a vibrant society includes increasing capacity to host a larger number of Umrah visitors every year, raising household spending on cultural and entertainment activities in the Kingdom from the current level of 2.9 per cent to 6 per cent, improving on social capital index from 26 to 10 etc.
Saudi Arabia’s plans for a thriving economy in Vision 2030 includes: to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30per cent, to increase SME contribution to GDP from 20 per cent to 35 per cent, to move from current position as the 19th largest economy in the world into the top 15, to rise from current position of 25 to the top 10 countries on the Global Competitiveness Index, to increase foreign direct investment from 3.8 per cent to the international level of 5.7 per cent of GDP, to increase the private sector’s contribution from 40per cent to 65per cent of GDP, to raise the share of non-oil exports in non-oil GDP from 16 per cent to 50 per cent etc.
To become an ambitious nation, their plans include increasing non-oil government revenue from SAR 163 billion to SAR 1 Trillion, raising Government Effectiveness Index ranking from 80 to 20, raising the non-profit sector’s contribution to GDP from less than 1per cent to 5per cent etc.
All the above mentioned plans are the reflection of Saudi King and crown prince’s commitment towards building an open society and market. It will be very hard to achieve those targets in a short term, rather it will occur through a longer period of time if the King and crown prince stick to their plan. It will be a hard task for the crown prince – a young leader – to opt for such a large reform in the society and economy.
No reform in the history of the world has succeeded without the positive participation of the stakeholders and in this case, the stakeholders are the Saudi citizens, the Muslim world and the foreign investors. They must be aware of the benefits that will come from these reforms.
Moreover, the reforms will be faced with criticisms and protests. Hence, follow up of the reform process as well as constructive modification will be required to bring out the maximum benefit.
Saudi Arabia being one of the leading Muslim countries of the world has significant influence over many Muslim countries of the world and such reforms may impact the society and economy of those countries also in the long run. Hence, positive impacts to strengthen the position of the Muslim world can be anticipated from such reforms.
Cooperation from different countries, especially the other Middle Eastern countries will be required for successfully implementing the promised reforms of the Saudi Arabia. We, from Bangladesh, wish and hope for positive changes in the lives of the Saudi Arabian people and admire King Salman and crown prince Mohammad bin Salman for taking such a drastic step to bring in new rays of light for the Muslim world.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA) and Vice Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC).