LONDON: The Saudi ambassador to Britain has praised the wide-ranging modernization efforts carried out by the Kingdom’s leadership.
“In the last five years the pace has been huge — 1,000 laws have been altered or removed,” Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan told The Times.
“There is a misconception about Saudi that we never change, but going back 100 years it’s been dramatic. My grandfather went to work on horseback, my father flew fast fighter jets, and my cousin went into space.”
Prince Khalid said the way the Kingdom legislates for women is also changing. “Just before I was posted here (in the UK), I went back for two days and I called one of my sisters and said, ‘Let’s go for a coffee. Shall I come and pick you up?’ and she said, ‘No, I’ve got my car.’ It brought a real smile to my face,” he said.
“Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable for her to have a job, let alone drive. We are still a very conservative society but we have a very young population. They want a different world.”
The ambassador, who attended the prestigious Eton College before Oxford University and Sandhurst, said: “I feel very Saudi, but I was brought up in the West.”
His links to Britain are strong, not only through being educated in the UK but also through his English wife Lucy Cuthbert, a niece of the duke of Northumberland.
Prince Khalid has seen some of the modernization he witnessed in Britain appearing in his homeland, including mobile phones, which he said have made a huge difference to Saudi society.
“We have one of the highest percentages of phones per capita in the world, nearly three phones per person,” he added.
“The young are all over Instagram. In my generation, there wasn’t much entertainment at home so we had to go abroad. Now the young want to go to shops and cinemas, and there has been an explosion of events,” he said.
“There are women-only sections but no enforced separation. I grew up with religious police telling us what to do, but now it’s about letting people make their own choices.”
He told The Times that his sister said she “discovered there wasn’t a glass ceiling — it was more of a soft tent and she could push it out.”
The ambassador said 34 percent of the Saudi workforce is made up of women, dramatically leaping from 18 percent in 2016.
“We have had our first graduation for women in the army, there are women in government, in the police, we are training female judges, we have an equal opportunities and equal pay law,” he added.
Prince Khalid also detailed the rapid expansion of the Saudi tourism industry, including the giga-projects being planned.
“In 2019 we launched our tourist visa online. We issued 440,000 visas before the pandemic started, 60,000 to the UK,” he said.
“We are developing resorts with a Red Sea project and NEOM, a new futuristic city. Saudi Arabia is the size of Western Europe. We also have 330 heritage sites.” These giga-projects are part of $7 trillion of investment under the Vision 2030 reform plan.
The Kingdom is expected to participate in the UN Climate Change conference, also known as Cop26, in Glasgow later this month.
“We decided to move away from fossil fuels in 2016. We don’t want to be an oil provider but an energy provider,” said Prince Khalid. “We have committed to producing 50 percent of our energy by renewable sources by 2030.”