Saudi Arabia is on a remarkable journey — I’ve seen it with my own eyes

Saudi Arabia is on a remarkable journey — I’ve seen it with my own eyes

Saudi Arabia is on a remarkable journey — I’ve seen it with my own eyes
People watch fireworks, as Saudi Arabia celebrates winning its bid to host World Expo 2030. (Reuters/File)
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In the past 18 months, Saudi Arabia has won the bid to host the World Expo 2030 (in a landslide vote); secured the 2029 Asian Winter Games and 2034 World Cup; attracted some of the world’s best football talent; shaken up the golf world with LIV Golf; continued to significantly advance its massive giga-projects; played a significant role on the diplomatic stage with many of the world’s current, complex challenges and dangers; and has been named the ninth-most powerful country in the world by US News and World Report. The Kingdom is on a roll like few nations have been in the recent past.
I first heard about the Kingdom’s giga-projects directly from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in many meetings that took place during my time as the White House envoy to the Middle East from 2017-2019. Admittedly, I was mildly skeptical that the crown prince could succeed in creating these projects, massive in scale, and designed to stimulate the Kingdom’s economy and diversify it away from oil. I wondered if the crown prince could actually change Saudi Arabia’s societal norms in terms of women’s role in society, recreation, culture and openness. I also wondered if he could reshape the country in a way that would attract people from within and outside the Kingdom to view it as one of the most exciting places to be — to do business, to tour and, yes, to live.
I think at this point I can say my skepticism was wrong. I have been back to Saudi Arabia numerous times since those three years, for work and for family vacations, and, indeed, the Kingdom is quickly proceeding with all of these dramatic changes. The number of cranes dotting the skyline is eye-popping. The women I interact with are front facing, energized, and proud of all that is going on in the Kingdom and their critical role in it. Each woman I interact with, from those working in government, to business women, to workers at hotels, restaurants and other businesses, shows me that the opinion piece written by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in The Washington Post was filled with inaccurate, outdated information about women in today’s Saudi society.
There are numerous snapshots one can view to understand today’s Saudi Arabia. I will mention a few that distinctly depict the Kingdom today.
First, to get a real sense of societal change and women’s participation in the workforce, stop by the area known as Digital City, where the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom, has its headquarters. In between Buildings 3 and 4 is a plaza area. Throughout the day, you will see men and women going in and out of those large buildings. They take breaks in the plaza, laughing, chatting, sipping coffee, looking no different than areas around Wall Street in Manhattan or any other important business center around the globe. In the evening that plaza (known to locals as “the valley”) becomes a popular hangout for Saudis looking for a pleasant area to hang out and pass the time.
Another example is the area known as Diriyah, northwest of Riyadh. Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage site, takes you back to the ancient history of Saudi Arabia. But what is being developed there will take your breath away — the neighborhoods, parks, hotels, retail and other commercial areas, restaurants, world class museums, and universities are all a short drive, but worlds away, from bustling Riyadh. 

Rarely do you get to watch a country reshaping itself.

Jason Greenblatt

I was with one of my daughters and son-in-law visiting Layali Diriyah, a highlight of Diriyah during Riyadh Season during which events and family, food-oriented and other exciting activities energize Riyadh’s winter. As we sat at one of the restaurants sipping mint tea and soaking it all in, I remarked to them that only a few years ago they never would have seen this. What we were watching — men and women laughing, dining together and enjoying one another’s company in public — was not possible when I first visited the Kingdom. I told them a story from my first trip in 2017, on my first morning in Riyadh when I went to a Starbucks. There was a separate entrance for men, women and families; I sat in the segregated men’s area taking it all in. Those separate entrances and segregated areas are long gone, replaced with busy cafes, restaurants and other eateries, where men and women freely mix, mingle and have fun.
I also made the point to my children to observe the well-behaved, polite crowds. Lively to be sure, but there was no one around who was threatening, too boisterous, smoking marijuana, or in your face, as one might see on the streets of some major cities these days. It was all about good, clean, respectful fun.
As observant Jews, we have certain dietary restrictions and we observe the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), where for a period of about 25 hours from Friday evening until Saturday evening each week we avoid using electronics. The hotel staff, including those from Saudi Arabia, did all it could to help us with our kosher meals and the Shabbat-related challenges at the hotel. The help with our Shabbat needs was always given with a warm smile. Their approach is to try to make everyone feel welcome.
The last snapshot is how the Kingdom has grown its tourism sector. According to Ahmed Al-Khateeb, the minister of tourism, the tourism sector hosted 100 million visitors in 2023, including 77 million domestic and 27 million international tourists. Considering how so many Saudis used to leave the Kingdom for vacations because there was so little to do at home, these numbers are quite impressive. Moreover, this growth is with only some of the projects starting to open, with massive ones yet to come, including NEOM, an ambitious giga-project whose ambition is to “redefine livability, business and conservation.” I spent two days in NEOM this trip, meeting many of its sector heads and others who live and work there. There is a level of seriousness and commitment exuded by each of them that is hard to match.
Those who throw shade on Saudi Arabia and accuse it of “sportswashing,” subjugating women, and other ills are not paying attention. The Kingdom is not perfect; no country is. And there remains lots more work to do. But the Kingdom is on a remarkable journey. Rarely does one have the opportunity to watch a country building and rebuilding itself for the future, in terms of projects, infrastructure, a new economy and, indeed, society itself. Rarely do you get to watch history unfold in front of your eyes, a country reshaping itself, striving to become one of the world’s leading destinations for business, tourism, and living. Even rarer is to watch a population, especially the young adults and youth, embrace and eagerly support the changes and want to proudly help advance them. That is today’s Saudi Arabia.

Jason Greenblatt was the White House Middle East envoy in the Trump administration. He is the author of the widely acclaimed book “In the Path of Abraham” and director of Arab-Israel diplomacy for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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