It is not unusual for Saudi Arabia to be criticized in the international media. Favorite recurring topics in the past have been lack of women’s rights, religious intolerance, old and indecisive leadership, and corruption. Fair enough, all those criticisms were justified and based on fact. But the Saudi leadership has taken steps to change this in the form of Saudi Vision 2030.
We now have a young and forceful man in charge. He is taking on the established order by improving women’s rights, advocating religious tolerance, and, most recently, starting a war on corruption. Surprisingly, Prince Muhammad Bin Salman is still criticized in the international press, for example, that he is overreaching.
People outside Saudi Arabia don’t appear to understand how powerful the established order is that the Prince is taking on. Going after some minor players, as in the past, would have sent exactly the wrong message. That nothing would change.
The most balanced view I have found this week was in The Economist, which read: “The old, sclerotic system of governance would have made it difficult to implement such reforms; allowing corrupt and privileged princes to continue milking the kingdom would have undermined them. You cannot reform the country without a rupture with the past,” says Bernard Haykel of Princeton University.
Shots have been fired
The arrests this week have sent a clear message to all in Saudi Arabia that the old order is gone. In order to understand the significance of the changes happening in Saudi Arabia, observers need to put themselves in a Saudi’s shoe. Otherwise, there will be misunderstandings and wrong conclusions.
At the time of its announcement, it appeared as utopian and unrelistic. As had so many other ambitious projects announced by the government in the past. Saudis wondered whether this was just another PR campaign, with banners hanging on the walls of malls and schools around Saudi Arabia.
Then the government began to implement the reforms. This was unfamiliar to Saudis. They were used to receiving orders without understanding the underlying reasons, but, slowly, the feeling of participation started to evolve.
The big question is how Saudi Vision 2030 can be achieved with the existing human resources. The obstacles are deeply ingrained in our society, ranging from conservatism to apathy. A bulldozer is needed to move these obstacles out of the way.
In October, MBS announced Saudi Arabia’s socioeconomic directions. Most important was his declaration to bring back Saudi Arabia to the real, tolerant Islam. His speech openly addressed past mistakes and the coming challenges. He followed up his words by actually confronting the religious reactionaries.
When I first saw the announcement on the television that women will be allowed to drive, I first thought that I couldn’t read Arabic anymore. Saudi women driving? Just like that? After all these years of discussion, a decision was suddenly made, without any advance warning. This was a clear signal that change is possible and that it is coming to Saudi Arabia.
The change is inevitable, along with Saudi Vision 2030
The latest move has been directed at the country’s elite. A commission to combat corruption was announced shortly after the first Saudi arrests were made. No one in Saudi Arabia could at first believe who was arrested – they had until then been perceived as untouchable.
All of this means a lot to Saudi citizens. Regardless of background and social class. It really is seen as a new dawn. People are beginning to trust the system. That effort and honesty will be rewarded. This was badly needed because until then many people had thought that only connections could bring advancement.
Now that the Saudi Arabian government is tackling the problems, I am surprised how much criticism and mistrust is expressed in the international media. Not everything will be perfect, of course, but one must start somewhere, decisively. Give us a chance.