In his remarks on Neom, the Red Sea city for “dreamers,” the crown prince, who is the brain behind Vision 2030, expressed political and social gravity when he spoke of 1979 as a turning point in the rise of Islamic extremism and the spread of the “Sahwa” religious awakening project across the region. He said: “Saudi was not like this before 1979. Saudi Arabia and the entire region went through a revival after 1979 … All we are doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world and to all traditions and people … Some clear steps were taken recently and I believe we will obliterate the remnants of extremism very soon.”
Such clarity about confronting extremism carries domestic, regional, and international implications. It comes amid an engagement with Iraq and an estrangement with Qatar, with the conflict in Yemen still raging. It also comes amid a strengthening of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States, but also the opening of new chapters in Saudi policy, for example in Africa. Nothing short of a quiet, pragmatic revolution is taking place in the kingdom, to execute a calculated leap toward radical change. However, obstacles, pitfalls and resistance are to be expected.
Several interesting observations can be made about the Future Investment Initiative, attended by more than 3,500 international figures from the worlds of finance, technology and entrepreneurship. One of the first things visitors noticed was that the Saudi women in attendance were not wearing the traditional black robes, but colorful garments. This is important because the theme it captures is the right to self-expression. Saudi women, who were recently were given the right to drive in the kingdom, have worked quietly and patiently behind the scenes, lobbying for important rights, and the emancipation from the logic of conformism behind black robes that all Saudi women must adhere to captures this, and is no superficial matter.
Everyone expected the crown prince to attend his session, make his speech, then leave, as is the habit especially in Saudi Arabia. Instead, he sat on a panel that brought him together with three others, and responded to spontaneous questions that brought him closer to the audience and Saudis at large, launching himself as one of a new breed of rulers in the kingdom. At the dinner banquet later, Prince Mohammed also surprised those attending, interacting with the guests and taking pictures with them for over an hour. Again, this is unusual in these occasions in the kingdom.
Certainly, the conference worked as an advertisement for the Neom project and more importantly, the new Saudi Arabia as imagined by Vision 2030. There were deliberate stunts such as granting the robot Sofia Saudi nationality, a precedent anywhere.
Expectedly, reservations were expressed about the massive Neom project, to be located in the northwestern corner of the kingdom over an area of 26,500 sq km, with 469km of shoreline on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The sunlight and wind the area receives make it possible for its entire energy needs to be met by renewables. Some voices said the project was in the realm of science fiction, with no specific timetable set to bring it to reality, although the talk behind the scenes was that it would take 15 years to materialize. Some expressed concern over the huge funds that would be poured into the “dreamers’ project,” given that the long-term economic reality is not stable. Some also spoke about the gap between the fantastical aspirations of the project and the very real problems faced by Saudi Arabia, from the differences with Qatar to the conflict in Yemen and the rivalry with Iran.
Thanks to Uber, the taxi-app company, there was a chance to survey the opinions of some Saudi youths. The first surprise came when it turned out that the majority of Uber drivers are young Saudi men, rather than foreigners, usually from the Asian subcontinent. Their views were not homogeneous, which is also unusual when surveying Saudi citizens publicly. One protested at the situation, saying he held an MA in law and had to work as a taxi driver after failing to find work in his field. He said he was opposed to the crisis with Qatar and the intervention in Yemen, and expressed reservations over the structure of absolute power concentrated in one individual, no matter how visionary he may be. In contrast, another driver said he absolutely supported the concentration of leadership and its boldness in tackling extremism and moving the kingdom forward. He said he was a dentist but needed to work as an Uber driver because he needed two jobs, which he said he did not mind, and hated indolence. He was full of enthusiasm for the new Saudi Arabia, which would attract top talent and innovation.
Vision 2030 is only a few months old but it has already proved to be a leap forward to a dynamic and bold future and the precursor to a new regional order.
The change in the Saudi mindset is not absolute. But something is happening, namely the downscaling of that high-handedness that many had the impression was the norm in the kingdom’s leadership. This change has not yet reached Saudi foreign policy, but important steps have been made especially with Western leaders in various fields as evinced by the Future Investment Initiative.
Clearly, the new leadership wants to strike deals with various nations, and no longer deal exclusively with the US and Europe. The three main contractors that signed deals with the Public Investment Fund for the Neom project are Germany’s electronics giant Siemens, America’s financial group Blackstone, and Japan’s SoftBank – the third largest corporation in that country after Toyota and Mitsubishi.
Knocking on the doors of tomorrow with such major partnerships seeks to make Saudi Arabia a global magnet for futuristic investments. It is a leap from an inert past to a dynamic and bold future.
Such a leap to new Saudi liberalism from politics to the economy will no doubt have regional implications. It is the precursor of a new regional order that will be led by the Gulf nations and Egypt, and the private sector across the region, and Iran will not be able to ignore it. The leap forward is taking place in all sectors, in health, education, manufacturing, agriculture and employment. Saudi Arabia has finished reorganizing its ministries and has established mechanisms to monitor their performance. Riyadh has launched a revolution in the relationship between the public and private sectors. The first major test for the leap was when control of the oil sector was shifted from government hands to a corporation, with 5 percent of Aramco’s shares to be offered in an international IPO.
Saudi Arabia’s gradual upturning of traditional notions and policies is part of a collective workshop based on an executive approach, to effect a historical shift from a welfare state in which citizens have automatic privileges, to a dynamic, modern economy unprecedented in the history of the kingdom.
This quiet revolution is far from the populist coups, and seeks to topple the culture of complacency, while also confronting resistance from the traditionalists opposed to liberalization. Vision 2030, which was launched in April, is not even a year old yet. Nevertheless, only six months later, it has proved itself to be a serious and astounding vision that is determined to create a renaissance in the kingdom, by rewarding the dreamers and inventors, and boldly going in a new direction instead of complacent catching-up.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham