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How a young royal is driving change in Saudi Arabia

The reforms, brought in by Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, popularly known by his initials MBS, have seen the ban on cinema being lifted, women being allowed into sports stadiums, entertainment activities being openly promoted and avenues for tourism being tapped

analysis Updated: Jun 27, 2018 09:01 IST
Women,Driving,Saudi Arabia
Hessah al-Ajaji drives her car down the busy Tahlia Street after midnight for the first time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, June 24, 2018. Saudi women are in the driver's seat for the first time in their country and steering their way through busy city streets just minutes after the world's last remaining ban on women driving was lifted on Sunday. (AP)

The French have a saying: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same). This was the conventional wisdom in Saudi Arabia whenever there was any talk of change. This has now been turned on its head by a series of changes that have taken place over the past year.

The reforms, brought in by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, popularly known by his initials MBS, have seen the ban on cinema being lifted, women being allowed into sports stadiums, entertainment activities being openly promoted, and avenues for tourism being assiduously sought out and tapped.

Today there is a new-found enthusiasm in Saudi Arabia. Young people, who are the majority of the population, are very happy about the changes that have taken place. Those who once went abroad for education are coming back because they feel there is an atmosphere conducive to innovation.

The leadership in Saudi Arabia realises that the young must be encouraged in their entrepreneurial efforts. The crown prince is passionate about the private sector taking the lead; he has often spoken of how the most successful companies — Apple and Google, for instance — began with only two or three people and went on to become international conglomerates, creating thousands of jobs. That is part of his Vision 2030 for innovative young Saudi entrepreneurs and for making Saudi Arabia investor friendly so that corporations can come in and have a real stake in the country.

At the stroke of midnight on June 23, women were allowed to drive and Saudi Arabia was no longer the only country in the world where only men could drive.

There is a much-told story of when the late King Faisal fought to establish girls’ schools and how many people at that time, especially the religious conservatives, opposed him. Gradually, however, most families sent their daughters to school and now women are among the most educated groups in society. There are even universities that are exclusively for them. It is true too that the scholarships the Saudi government gives to students are awarded to a large number of women.

Changes have been very slow, indeed admittedly almost glacial, in Saudi Arabia. In the past year, however, we have seen that the crown prince’s new young leadership has moved quickly to introduce changes and reforms. And not only to introduce them but to see that they were implemented within a specified timeline.

For decades, there was talk of weaning the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil. Things would move slowly in that direction but every time, they seemed unable to change and the country went back to square one. Changes and reforms were talked about but were somehow never transformed into practice.

On the other hand, this time the reforms were deep-rooted and, most importantly, there was a schedule for their implementation. For example, about nine months ago, it was decided that women would be allowed to drive. It was more than a mere announcement and so a proper infrastructure was created. Driving schools were set up; universities were asked to run training courses so that women could be taught how to drive. Female driving inspectors were appointed and trained. In other words, the introduction and implementation of these reforms included precise methodologies.

The crown prince is known for his own brand of meticulous management. He believes in key performance indicators (KPIs). This is a totally new kind of management that the traditional hidebound Saudi bureaucracy was unaware of. In the past, people would wait and wait for a decision to be made, a step to be taken, or a change to be implemented. Time passed and nothing happened, so people would say that nothing would happen and that the ideas and innovations had suffered and died on the altar of bureaucracy.

If you go to any Saudi city, whether Jeddah, Riyadh or Dammam, you will see that young people are excited about the changes that are happening. By itself, the matter of women driving may not be the most important thing from the Saudi point of view, but it is surely the most symbolic for the simple reason that it is the one which can be most easily seen.

No one would or should pretend that the road is short or easy to navigate. What they would agree with is that he is moving ahead and making progress. He is absolutely sure about what he is doing. People here often quote Mahatma Gandhi who said of those at the forefront of change who have to struggle against those who are simply against any change at all. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you; then they fight you, then you win.” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is surely set to win.

Siraj Wahab is managing editor, Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s leading English-language daily.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 27, 2018 09:00 IST