Stock - Saudi economy / Riyadh skyline
Image Credit: Bloomberg

From a sleepy village to one of the fastest-growing economies in the world in less than ten years is unquestionably a remarkable period in the history of any nation. And for Saudi Arabia to have achieved that is even more incredible.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Saudi Arabia has made significant progress in the last decade, particularly in terms of economic growth and pro-business reforms.

In 2022, Saudi Arabia was the fastest-growing economy in the G20, with overall growth reaching 8.7%, driven by strong oil production and a 4.8% non-oil GDP growth. The country has also seen major progress in gender equality in the past two years. Additionally, foreign direct investment hit a decade-high in 2021, reaching $19.3 billion.

But a flashback to some years ago would have brought you to a country that hotly debated whether women should be driving or not. This was a country where cinema houses were strictly forbidden and rules were enforced religiously by the feared Commission for the Promotion of Good and the Prevention of Evil or the Hai’a as they were commonly known.

Read more

Protecting everyone's rights

If a couple were spotted out and about, they were soon accosted by members of the Hai’a who demanded proof of their relationship.

Less than ten years ago, a British national and his Saudi wife were approached by Hai’a outside one of the premier malls in Riyadh — an incident that was widely reported in the press.

According to eyewitnesses, the victim was in one of the malls with his wife when several members of the Hai’a started pursuing him till they caught up with him at the cashier’s counter. They asked him why he chose that specific counter, as it was designated for female customers. He replied: “My wife is with me.”

He paid for his purchase and was walking out of the mall when an altercation between him and Hai’a members took place. They were not satisfied that the woman was indeed the fair-haired Briton’s wife, she being more of the Arab complexion and who spoke fluent Arabic.

The Hai’a members then took pictures of the Briton and his car. He did the same and took their pictures and that of their vehicle. They then demanded that he hand over his camera, but he refused. He was pushed. His wife entered the fray and tried to protect him.

Eyewitnesses said that he and his wife ran into their car and locked all the doors. But the commission members surrounded him. He called the police and he claimed that in few minutes some officers arrived at the scene but left without intervention after they saw the intimidating presence of the Hai’a members.

Eventually, a security team from the British Embassy arrived and escorted the couple home. He later recounted, “Alhamdulillah, we were not hurt, just bruised and shocked. We do not believe that the actions of these three men represent Saudi society and culture and we are confident that the highest authorities will take all necessary action to keep us safe, protect our rights and the rights of all citizens and guests in this country.”

Stock - Saudi Neom
Neom - Artist's impression

Leading global economy

Fast forward to now. Under King Salman and his dynamic son Crown Prince Mohammed or MBS, all that became history. In a singular move, the Hai’a was sidelined and MBS put into motion ambitious plans, as outlined in his Vision 2030 plan.

One of the key goals of the plan was to increase the private sector’s contribution to the economy from 40% to 65% by 2030.

The country is also investing heavily in infrastructure, with numerous mega-projects underway, such as the futuristic city of NEOM and the Red Sea Project, along with significant efforts to improve the quality of life for its citizens, with initiatives such as the National Transformation Programme and the Quality-of-Life Programme.

Yes indeed, the recent past is quickly becoming history as Saudi Arabia becomes a leading global economy and a hub for innovation and investment.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena