DUBAI: Saudi Arabia in 2017 laid the groundwork for momentous change next year, defying its conservative reputation for slow, cautious reforms by announcing plans to let women drive, allow movie theaters to return and to issue tourist visas.
King Salman and his ambitious 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have upended decades of royal family protocol, social norms and traditional ways of doing business. They bet instead on a young generation of Saudis hungry for change and a Saudi public fed up with corruption and government bureaucracy.
Here a look at the major pivots of the past year and the reforms to come in 2018:
WOMEN START DRIVING
In a surprise late-night announcement, Saudi Arabia announced in September that it would finally lift a ban on women driving.
In June, the Kingdom plans to begin issuing licenses to women, even allowing them to drive motorcycles, according to local reports. It will be a huge change for women who have had to rely on costly male drivers or male relatives to get to work or school or to run errands and visit friends.
In 2018, women will also be allowed to attend sporting matches in national stadiums, where they were previously banned. Designated “family sections” will ensure women are separate from male-only quarters of the stadiums.
MOVIE THEATERS RETURN
After more than 35 years, movie theaters are returning to the Kingdom. They were shut down in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism.
The first theaters are expected to open in March. Previously, Saudis could stream movies online or watch them on satellite TV. To attend a cinema, though, they would have to travel to neighboring countries like Bahrain and the UAE.
The opening of cinemas will give families and young Saudis another way to kill time as the crown prince introduces more entertainment options to encourage local spending.
CONCERTS AND COMIC CON
This past year, rapper Nelly and two Games of Thrones stars came to Saudi Arabia for the first time. John Travolta also visited the Kingdom, meeting with fans and talking to them about the US film industry.
The entertainment drive started earlier this year, with an all-male concert by Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu, which was both nostalgic and groundbreaking. He had not performed in Saudi Arabia since the late 1980s.
Saudi Arabia also held two Comic Con events in major cities, where thousands of fans dressed up in their favorite action-hero costumes. Actors Julian Glover and Charles Dance — Grand Maester Pycelle and Tywin Lannister from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — made an appearance at one. Rock music blared in the halls.
A HISTORIC TRUMP VISIT
President Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia as the first stop in his first overseas tour as president. Saudis said the visit marked the return of warm US-Saudi ties that had cooled under President Barack Obama, who helped secure a nuclear deal with Saudi rival, Iran.
The president was treated to numerous state banquets, oversaw the signing of $110 billion in arms deals with the Kingdom and even joined in a traditional Saudi sword dance with the king and the crown prince.
The centerpiece of the visit was an Arab-Islamic-American Summit, which drew heads of state to the Saudi capital for Trump’s speech to Muslim world leaders. Trump also grabbed headlines with an image of him, King Salman and Egypt’s president touching a glowing sphere for the opening of a counterterrorism center.
NEW HEIR TO THE THRONE
Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been appointed as crown prince, replacing Prince Mohammed bin Naif, a royal decree carried by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said in June 21, establishing a new era for the Kingdom.
Several months later, the crown prince launched an unprecedented anti-corruption sweep that saw dozens of senior princes, businessmen and ministers across the capital detained.
The Kingdom will begin issuing its first tourist visas next year.
In a bid to attract even greater foreign investment, the crown prince held a massive investment conference days before the anti-corruption sweep. The prince said the Kingdom needed to return to a “moderate Islam” that is open to all religions.
He also announced plans for a $500 billion “Neom” project envisioned as a hub for technological innovation. The futuristic city will be funded by the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, which the prince oversees, as well as the Saudi government and a range of private and international investors.