Is Saudi Arabia ready to take the giant leap as Crown Prince seeks its return to ‘moderate Islam’?

With his meteoric rise to power, the Crown Prince, also widely known as MBS, has unleashed a massive economic thrust towards building a radically different Saudi Arabia from the oil-dependent, fundamental Islamist nation of the day. (Saudi Press Agency via AP) Related News

In the latest landmark move, women in Saudi Arabia will now be permitted in the country’s sports stadiums, which were earlier strictly male-only venues under the mores of the ultra-conservative kingdom. Just a month after the announcement that women of Saudi would be allowed to drive starting June 2018, three major stadiums in the country are now being prepared to receive full families starting early 2018. Saudi Arabia has become a frequent newsmaker for its various reforms ever since its King Salman appointed his 32-year old son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the next-in-line heir in June this year.

Prince Mohammed, who is also the First Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister, is plotting a new, uncharted course for his country’s future that aims to overhaul major aspects of life as Saudis know it. Seen as the force behind the King’s decision to rescind ban on women driving, the Crown Prince recently grabbed international headlines for vowing his country’s return to “moderate Islam” that is “open to all religions”.

Fast track modernisation and post-oil economic future

As the era of fossil fuel recedes and Saudi’s own petroleum resources dwindle, the nation has been forced to confront a future without easy petrodollars and consider an alternative footing for its economy. With his meteoric rise to power, the Crown Prince, also widely known as MBS, has unleashed a massive economic thrust towards building a radically different Saudi Arabia from the oil-dependent, fundamental Islamist nation of the day. His reform directives ambitiously aim to modernise the Saudi economy by reducing its dependency on oil, giving a larger role to the private sector, increasing private sector jobs for young Saudis and attracting foreign investment.

“Seventy per cent of the Saudis are younger than 30 … We won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately,” MBS emphatically stated at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) Conference in Riyadh on October 24, reported Bloomberg. He has broken the royal alliance with the hardliner clerics, who have long defined Saudi’s national character. Among other societal taboos tackled head-on due to his directives is a scale back of the country’s guardianship law that restrict women’s roles and the establishment of an Islamic centre tasked with certifying the sayings of the prophet Muhammed.

Tourism is high up in the rulers’ list of priorities to diversify the economy and ‘open it up’ to the world. It is a brand new area and near start from scratch, as while many tourist would be happy to tour Egypt’s Pyramids and Dubai’s beaches and high rises, few can be found in Saudi.

Mecca shrine (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

Holidaying in Saudi Arabia

To be sure, Saudi received over 18 million foreign visitors last year, almost all of which came for Hajj pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Outside this, however, there is hardly any regular leisure tourism. While Saudi does have ample to offer in the form of an unspoilt Red Sea coastline, captivating deserts, ancient historical sites and a shimmering capital, obstacles and red flags for tourism have been far too many, starting with the fact that reclusive kingdom does not issue tourist category visas at all. To aggravate that, there is a ban on alcohol, severe restrictions on mingling of genders and on dress especially for women and the presence of a code-enforcing religious police.

Changes are now afoot to alter this scenario. According to Arab News, the Saudi paper Al Watan recently reported the state approval of a plan to begin tourist visas, where within the first roll out visas will be issued to groups of tourists through authorised tour operators. Moreover, according to several sources, the power of the religious police has been largely curtailed from main cities.

It is clear that without freedom of alcohol and dress, the market for international beach tourism is non-existent. MBS has recently unveiled plans for Red Sea holiday resorts to be built along hundreds of kilometers of coast that would allow women to forego the mandatory dress code of Abaya — the floor length, loose fitted, outer garment — at the beach. The idea of compartmentalised morality is not new to Saudi as most foreign expatriates living in the country reside in sprawling compounds where the rules are considerably loosened and women are able to drive and dress freely. These were first introduced in the early 1980s to allow foreigners to experience the kind of freedom they were used to amid Saudi’s ultra conservative Islamic law.

The Futuristic City

The most ambitious of the projects, announced by the prince last week, is a new city-project on the Red Sea coast called NEOM — an English-Arabic acronym (Neo Mustaqbal) meaning new future. The project will be backed by more than $500 billion from the Saudi government, its sovereign wealth fund and local and international investors, according to a statement released at the FII conference, reported Bloomberg. With an initial groundbreaking in 2019 and planned completion by 2025, this economic zone, according to its founders, is to be powered by renewable energy, reported The Guardian.

During last week’s conference to promote the project, MBS told the bankrs and economic policy makers in attendance that the kingdom is moving to a “new generation of cities.” NEOM, he said, will have no room “for anything traditional.” The slick promotional video for the futuristic city with robots shows women jogging in liberal workout apparel and working alongside men in state of art labs, which appears drastically different from the existing mores and codes of Saudi society.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. The staggering scale and bold timelines of Saudi’s reform plans have left several commentators wary, and understandably so. ‘Reform’ is a mild word for what many see as an expectation for nothing short of a revolution. The risk of a backlash from the conservative establishment is one concern, and the lack of ability to execute at the required speed and scale is another. One example cited by research firm Capital Economics in a report is King Abdullah Economic City near Jeddah, which was supposed to rival Dubai as a trading hub, but has been plagued by multiple delays. The new plans may see a better fate however with the powerful, reform-minded Prince leading them from the front.

While the initial seed funding would come from Saudi’s Public Investment Fund [PIF] and many investors of pledged support, most are yet to make concrete commitments to come aboard. With billions of dollars worth of investment riding on future ROI of tourism, the perpetuating turmoil in the middle-east region as a tourist-deterrent factor also induces a cause for uncertainty.

Yet, doubtlessly, there is reason to be hopeful at this economic “coming out” of Saudi Arabia. “For the first time Saudi Arabia is looking not at what’s in the ground but outside,” Brian Ackerman, an American landscape architect and designer who attended the Prince’s conference, told AFP, referring to the kingdom’s oil wealth. “It’s not the mountains, oceans, driverless cars and robots that’s inspiring, it’s the vision. The leadership is saying: ‘Come on, jump on this train.’ That’s step one.”

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