I’m not a social scientist, nor do I claim to be one. But in the course of my writings I have been fortunate to meet many people in the country, people from the various strata of Saudi society, be they a prince, a teacher or a plumber. And in the course of my conversations with them, one topic that often pops up is the tremendous changes that have taken over this country.
Now to someone unaware of these internal developments, a brief summary is in order. Saudi Arabia was tottering on the fringes of the dark ages for decades until much recently when a young crown prince decided that the country had languished long enough along medieval lines and put in swift moves to correct the situation and fast.
He began with clipping the wings of the Commission for the Promotion of Good and the Prevention of Evil, a body which came to be known as the feared religious police who through the extreme actions and biases of some of their members began alienating people while they espoused a very rigid and unyielding derivative of Islam. With a stroke of a pen, the crown prince made this group which numbered in the thousands redundant.
Realising the enormous yet untapped potential of the country’s youth, the prince unveiled the country’s Vision 2030, which among its key features includes divestment away from oil, and raising the percentage of Saudi women in the workforce.
And acknowledging the stifling and prohibitive barriers on the social scene, the government then ordered an entertainment and a sports commission to cater to the needs of the people. Maria Carey, K-Pop and WWE were among the many that have highlighted the sports and entertainment scene.
More barriers began to fall. Segregation was fast becoming a distant memory as men and women joined forces in the workplace. Cinemas began to operate and flourish for the first time in decades and women were finally allowed to drive themselves without the need of a male guardian or driver.
Changes are real
As a matter of fact, the male guardianship laws today have been so watered down that they basically apply to the minors in the family, a practice followed in most parts of the world.
Yes, indeed changes are real. But are they good? If I was to generalise, then I would say with a degree of accuracy from my own observations that the youth of the country who make up some 70 per cent of the total population love and embrace the changes with passion. The crown prince, or MBS as he is popularly referred to as their hero, their icon for understanding their needs and delivering. And it’s not all about entertainment. The crown prince has embarked on a number of major projects throughout the country that have increased the potential for employment for Saudis in many sectors.
Good time to be young
Tourism, which was previously unheard of, is today the rage and as more and more visitors head to the country, jobs in this sector are opening fast. It is actually a good time to be young in Saudi Arabia. There is much hope.
What about those who are older, the 40-55 years old? How do they take all these changes? For the most part, I sense a sense of bewilderment and understandably so. They were the prime victims in their youth of the harsh restrictions imposed on them by the religious police which carried over to all facets of their existence. They cowered under the fearful edicts that were being issued by powerful clerics on a weekly basis, edicts on what should not be done and who they should carry themselves in a puritan society. The enforcement of the abaya with the niqab, strict segregation and the fear of listening to music in public became their norm. For this group, today’s changes may seem unbelievable with many professing that they wake up thinking it’s a welcome dream, albeit a confusing one.
At the right pace
Those older and retired remember the good old days when the country was not hostage to the extremities that arose in the decades following the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1979. They welcome all they see in today’s Saudi Arabia. A few worry whether the changes are coming too fast, but many others believe the government is going about it the right pace, and acknowledge that it was only through the persistence of MBS that such changes are possible. He is a young man in his early thirties and has the energy and youth to master changes.
Dormant for so many years, Saudi Arabia has indeed begun to spell positive vibes.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena