Today — Sep. 23 — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is celebrating the 91st iteration of its National Day.
If you were a Rip Van Winkle, a fictional character by the American author Washington Irving in 1819 which tells of a man in colonial America who falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains and awakes 20 years later to a very changed world, you would have similarly missed out on what transpired in Saudi Arabia — not in 20 years — but in just the last five years.
It was, simply put, a massive turn of the page in Saudi history, one that has literally catapulted the country from the dregs of the past into a world-class tier among nations.
The anticipated reforms that had dragged on for years suddenly took root when King Salman took over in 2015. Together with his son, the newly crowned Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the team took the country to heights that were previously only imagined and wished for but never attained.
A positive global standing
A key to the transformation began with the retention of global experts by the new leadership to study and report on the ills that had held back the largest oil-producing country in the world for decades from maintaining a positive global standing.
For decades many calls to reform were stifled by a powerful clergy. Women often found themselves as the primary victims as they were severely marginalised in just about every phase of their lives. From the denial of physical education in girls schools to the pressures for a few women who dared get behind the wheel of a car. Women indeed had very few options to look forward to.
It wasn’t long though before the Commission for the Promotion of Good and the Prevention of Evil, or the Saudi religious police had their wings clipped by the new government.
They were no longer free to pressure the general populace who for the most part had always lived within the rules of any society. That singular act opened a realm of possibilities that were no longer restrained under the cloak of conservative edicts.
Saudi Vision 2030
Another key vehicle was the formulation of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan by the young and energetic Crown Prince. The vision is built around three primary themes: ‘a vibrant society, a thriving economy, and an ambitious nation’.
Keen to move the country from over-reliance on the income produced from the oil in the ground, Mohammed Bin Salman set futuristic goals that aim to wean away the country from just that. The plan, announced five years ago, specified a number of goals and reform strategies for the Kingdom’s long-term economic success.
These included reductions in government subsidies, the creation of a sovereign wealth fund, opening Saudi Aramco to private investment through a partial IPO, and reforms to several industries including tourism and defence. Saudi Arabia opened its doors to the world, and they came.
In the stated aim of zero corruption, there was also the much-publicised detention of high-profile people in 2017. Part of an anticorruption drive by the Crown Prince, the move sent a strong message that the government would not tolerate any graft and unscrupulousness in the society.
The prince realised that in order to be an ambitious nation, Saudi Arabia would have to focus on accountability, transparency and effectiveness along with the curtailing of public corruption in its governing strategy.
A slew of changes
Along with key social changes that literally opened the doors for women to gain rights such as driving and determining their own ambitions, and the boosting of female employment across all sectors, it was indeed a change to marvel in such a short time.
The appointment of female ambassadors and other government figures further cemented the government’s resolve to divest itself from the stranglehold of fundamentalism and move forward.
Suddenly, Saudi Arabia transformed into a place to be in and the world began to take notice. Even when the economic impact of the Covid-19 virus hit across the globe, Saudi Arabia through prudent and austere management kept the impact to a minimum.
While the virus created a hiccup in the ongoing progress of the country, economic studies suggest that the country is doing remarkably well in the face of the pandemic.
The outpouring of celebrations by the residents throughout the country during the Saudi National day speaks of a tremendous change for the better. There is hope across all sections that there will continue to be even more buoyant celebrations in the future.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a noted Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena