I still have whiplash from witnessing the stunning soft power of Vision 2030.
Last month I was in a remarkably transformed Riyadh to meet the secretary-general of the Muslim World League, Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa. Nearly 25 years earlier, living in the Kingdom, the religious police controlled the public space, ordered me to cover, enforced the driving ban on me, policed gender segregation, and enacted countless humiliations suffocating Saudis and non-Saudis alike.
Today a staggering 70 percent of Saudis are under 30 — most of whom never lived in the environment I knew. The religious police’s absence today belies astonishing changes in Saudi Arabia — women driving, gender desegregation, freedom of travel, full employment for women and girls, and unfettered access (including for girls and women) to sports, music, arts, philosophy and other previously forbidden activities. True interfaith engagement through serious dialogue on common values is front and center.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also prime minister of Saudi Arabia, spearheads Vision (Ru’ya in Arabic) 2030 which seeks to expand the Kingdom’s post-petrochemical economy, international engagement, and mature G20 nationhood. Vision 2030 places a huge emphasis on opening the Saudi Arabian mind and empowering the nation’s youth.
The World Bank has identified Saudi Arabia as achieving the greatest number of advances in human rights in 2020 — a year in which the world’s leading democracies suspended the rights of their citizens through government by decree and some nations continue such restrictions for years.
The Kingdom remains unflinching in addressing ongoing challenges, working to bring the Yemen war to a close this year, abiding by the April 2022 truce, and even after its expiration in October 2022 continuing to release Yemeni prisoners. Saudi Arabia has also held five rounds of talks with Iran in Baghdad, telegraphing a clear desire to de-escalate mounting tensions in the region.
In the climate action era and with the energy crisis gripping the world, the Kingdom’s massive petrochemical industry engenders criticism for its environmental impact, though few are aware Saudi Arabia remains committed to the Paris Agreement. Even less known is Vision 2030’s focus on sustainability, waste management, and renewables, installing up to 50 gigawatts of renewable and nuclear energy, seeking to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint and diversify its energy supply and exports.
Yet deeper examination reveals the key to Saudi Arabia’s soft power is neither oil nor security guarantees. Instead, it rests in jettisoning Islamist extremists and, in their wake, engendering a remarkably fresh and empowering inclusive nationalism. As I traveled around the Kingdom, everywhere I went I noticed the absence of ultraconservative extremism, and in the wake of the stifling reactionary clerics of old flourishes the rise of genuine national optimism, pluralism and a truly powerful patriotism.
The Kingdom has been sharply focused on Islamic affairs both within and without, removing the mothership of Islamism — the Muslim Brotherhood — by eliminating the group’s curricula, libraries and their sympathetic instructors, and thus liberating the Saudi mind.
The Carnegie Endowment's report on these changes delineates the truly massive revision of the clergy and the formulation of modern legal codes means there can be no return to the neo-fundamentalism of the past. The training of lawyers expanded in 2017. Today Saudi women serve as criminal investigators in domestic violence and child abuse cases, and as prosecutors.
My host Al-Issa (known for his pluralist scholarship, his clemency and as a reformer of the Ministry of Justice), was selected by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Al-Issa was appointed to accelerate judicial reform and reorientation of the Kingdom’s jurisprudence, religious scholars, and other personnel toward moderation and express rejection of all extremism, particularly Islamism. This was all achieved bloodlessly as Ali Shihabi lucidly and elegantly detailed for the Hoover Institute.
These reforms are not only legal but economic as Saudi Arabia’s soft power attracts international investments, which mandates legal evolution. A reformed Saudi judiciary — the legal chassis for Vision 2030 — is the sound foundation for deeper international engagement.
As secretary-general of the MWL, Al-Issa has accelerated these reforms internationally and drives centrist Islamic values and anti-extremism throughout the Muslim world with the Charter of Makkah — an invitation to commit to values of human dignity and humanity. In its commitment to deliver Islam from extremist Islamism, the Kingdom’s impact will reverberate through almost one-quarter of humanity and offers true hope for so many urgently in need of relief from fundamentalism.
Saudi Arabia’s soft power has emphatically dismantled the severe political threat of Islamism, which expansionist superpowers have been categorically unable to defeat despite decades of military, diplomatic and political approaches, while squandering trillions of dollars from Libya to Iraq to Afghanistan.
Buckle up, muchachos. Hang tight. Vision 2030 is no vanity project as some would dismissively contend. This is just the on-ramp. The terrain may be rough, the blind corners unforgiving, but Vision 2030 hugs low and tight — all torque, power and panache. Hear that roar, feel that turbulence. By the time the desert sands settle, new vistas will be forged, for this is true Ru’ya.
- Qanta A. Ahmed, M.D., is a senior fellow of the Independent Women’s Forum, life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in Saudi Arabia.” @MissDiagnosis.