The eagerly awaited moment of change was unveiled by then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
On April 25, 2016, Mohammed bin Salman, then Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, launched Vision 2030, an ambitious strategic plan designed to transform the nation’s economy, reduce its dependence on oil and nurture a “vibrant society... characterized by strong roots and strong foundations that emphasize moderate Islam, national pride, Saudi heritage and Islamic culture.”
Among the goals outlined in Vision 2030 was a determination to become “a global investment powerhouse ... to stimulate our economy and diversify our revenues” and to exploit Saudi Arabia’s unique geographical location and transform the country into “a global hub connecting three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa.”
Also revealed were plans to build a trade-boosting bridge across the Red Sea, sell shares in Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, develop a national defense industry, encourage inward investment, reduce unemployment and scrap unsustainable electricity and water subsidies.
A seminal event occurred on April 25, 2016. On that date Saudi Arabia’s then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced details and contours of what we have come to know as the path-breaking, paradigm-shifting Saudi Vision 2030. That very day the prince gave Al Arabiya News Channel an exclusive interview which was his first one. At the time, I was based in Dubai editing the channel’s English digital arm; it was obvious to me that if there was an eagerly awaited moment of change that would positively impact the region, this was it.
Here was a man who was charting a new course that was an almost total about-face for Saudi Arabia. It was the kind of thing that nobody had tried before. The young prince was giving hope to a nation, 60 percent of whose population was under the age of 35. He talked about the government having targets, key performance indicators and Project Management Offices, as well as ridding the Kingdom of its dependence on oil — all of which were things unheard of in the past.
Five months later — on Sept. 26, 2016 to be precise — I was in Jeddah after being appointed editor in chief of Arab News. Having lived in Jeddah during my formative years, I felt that I had a genuine feeling for, and understanding of, the city. What I failed to consider, on the other hand, was that in the five months since the announcement of Vision 2030, change had become the new norm. And not a slow glacial change, but a fast and urgent one. I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised, and I wrote about my optimism on my first day at Arab News. In that column I mentioned how I was assisted upon my arrival by a female Saudi receptionist at the Rosewood Jeddah hotel. “While the thought of having a woman do such a job was unheard of 20 years ago, I must confess that I honestly have never dealt with a more professional, meticulous and ‘happy to serve’ receptionist in my travels around the world,” I wrote in the piece that was aptly titled, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”
It was a coincidence that I returned to the Kingdom only five months after Vision 2030 was announced. From the perspective of a journalist, it was an exciting time even though I had no idea what to expect. Nor did I know whether the announced changes, genuine as they and the intentions underlying them were, would materialize into reality.
“Thanks to Vision 2030, there is no more talk of reducing depending on oil, but rather a roadmap with a deadline… Many talented male and female Saudis are being carefully headhunted, properly motivated and encouraged to take part in the exciting transformation of their country.”
From Faisal J. Abbas’ column in Arab News on Sept. 28, 2016
Day after day, it became evident that Saudi Arabia was on a new track and nothing could stand in the way. For example, curbing the powers of the religious police was a giant step away from what had been the norm. In one fell swoop, the fears that had for so long stopped Saudis from thinking outside the box were done away with. Before the curbs, members of the religious police had been a virtual law unto themselves and, in a few tragic cases, they had been responsible for the deaths of young Saudis. It is disappointing that the Saudi leadership gets very little credit for this remarkable achievement which represented a complete reversal of the old status quo in the Kingdom.
That decision followed concerts and musical performances before live audiences, the very sort of events that had been unheard of in the past. Some of the old-timers in the newspaper flinched when we decided to run large photos showing ordinary Saudi men and women sitting next to each other, eating popcorn as they enjoyed themselves humming along to live music at a concert.
The first mixed concert in the Kingdom that I personally attended was by “iLuminate,” the spectacular LED hit show from New York. In the runup to the show, there was a conflict between the security forces who said the mixed event could not take place and the people from the official General Entertainment Authority who insisted the event had to be mixed. Ultimately, the GEA won and it was a fabulously memorable performance, mesmerizing thousands in the massive Al-Jowhara Stadium. Men, women, and children sat together and enjoyed a dazzling show, full of music, dance moves and special effects.
Then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman launches Vision 2030.
Mohammed bin Salman is appointed Crown Prince by King Salman.
At the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledges a return to moderate Islam and launches Neom, a $500-billion megacity.
Ending a 35-year ban on cinemas, the first commercial movie theater opens in Riyadh with a screening of the Marvel film “Black Panther.”
A ban on Saudi women driving is lifted.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launches a mega-tourism project in AlUla, including a resort designed by Jean Nouvel and a nature reserve.
Saudi Arabia creates three new ministries, for sports, tourism and investment, as part of its commitment to Vision 2030.
Next came women driving and the abolition of the guardianship laws. People of my generation never thought we would see women driving, but we were proved wrong and it did happen. I invited our Senior Editor Mo Gannon, a Canadian in our Dubai office with an international driving license, to Jeddah. I asked her to be part of the history that was unfolding in Saudi Arabia. We got her into the driver’s seat; I sat next to her to record the reactions of her and our Saudi female staff who were also in the car. It was an incredible feeling of liberation for the women of Saudi Arabia. The happy faces that appeared on our front pages were of proud and traditionally but fashionably dressed Saudi women of all shades from all regions. What had been the forbidden exception became the accepted norm.
These cultural and social changes resulted in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earning the total support and admiration of the people.
Faisal J. Abbas | Editor in Chief
Then there were the high-decibel concerts at Ad-Diriyah. The setting was straight out of the Arabian Nights, and it was enthralling to see history encounter the modern world in the ancient deserts of Arabia.
These cultural and social changes resulted in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earning the total support and admiration of the people. He earned their love and respect by making longed-for changes and getting rid of suffocating restrictions.
At the same time, the crown prince did not forget about Saudi Arabia’s international image. He set about rehabilitating that image and transforming the country into a center of moderation. In order to do this, he hosted leaders of other religions in Saudi Arabia and focused on the virtues and advantages of interfaith cooperation. He invited Jewish rabbis and Christian preachers to the Kingdom and encouraged them to engage in dialogue with one another and with the Saudi ulema.
The crown prince’s most significant announcement, however, was the one in which stated that he wanted to return Saudi Arabia to a moderate form of Islam or, in his words, return it to the way it was before 1979.
Why 1979? Because as he said during his CBS interview with Norah O’Donnell in September 2018: “We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”
Having said all that, I must now ask a question: Has the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 achieved all that it set out to achieve? No. Will it? Probably not. Has there ever been a vision anywhere at any time that has managed to make real all its wishes and desires? No. Many mistakes and mishandling by several government bodies and global unforeseen events have at least partially derailed and delayed some of the ambitious plans of Vision 2030. Mega-projects and economic plans will surely be affected by the coronavirus, its aftermath and its influence on oil prices which have dropped to a new low.
However, just think of the size of the problem that would have been had Vision 2030 not been in place when the coronavirus struck the world! Imagine, the religious police opposing the suspension of prayers at the two holy shrines and mosques across the Kingdom: Hundreds of thousands if not millions would have been affected.
Leave all of that and look at the key question which is the bottom line. Is Saudi Arabia better off today and happier today than it was four years ago? Just ask the youth who form 60 percent of the Saudi population what they think. And there you will find the answer.
- Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas