SAUDI ARABIA REFORMS ON TRACK

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Saudi Arabia reforms have drawn huge international interest, especially from would-be investors, who wish to see a more liberal Kingdom embracing positive change.

The Saudi government and people know quite well that Saudi Arabia’s 30-year-long chapter of being closed from the rest of the world must come to an end. Saudi Arabia is an oil state of 30 million, of whom 10 million are foreigners. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is on a mission to transform Saudi Arabia into a developed and prosperous country and for him, the two main obstacles are its dependence on oil and foreign labor.

Jeddah City
Jeddah City at night.

ACHIEVEMENTS

After the launch of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 in 2016, which aims to implement massive social and economic reforms, the Saudi government was able to successfully achieve the following:

Women were given their full legal rights as the Kingdom abolished the male-guardianship system and also Lifted the ban on women’s driving. The controversial Hijab has become a personal choice and the administration has boosted women’s participation in the workforce.

Saudi Arabi reforms went through the sensitive topic of relaxing the dress code for women and women can now choose to wear the Hijab or take it off completely.
The Kingdom Opened up the country for foreign tourism and investment  for the first time and
Diversified the economy away from oil to non-oil revenues which are now 48% of the annual budget.
The Kingdom Started working on the localization of the defense industry and imposed a  50% localization requirement for every military equipment contract.

Female Saudi Uber driver
Saudi Women are now allowed to drive and even work as Taxi drivers. Image Arabian Business

The Saudi Arabia reforms agenda also Cracked down on corruption and  $100 billion was retrieved as a result. The Kingdom Invested in renewable energy as Saudi Arabia enjoys one of the best locations in the world for sun exposure which can be used to meet local demand for energy and also export it to the rest of the world, remaining yet again, an energy provider.

Saudi Arabia Launched Mega-projects that are 100% powered by renewable energy such as NEOM, the Red Sea Islands and Amaala .

The Saudi Public Investment Fund assets increased from 500 billion Saudi Riyals in 2016 to 1.5 trillion Riyals in 2020 and the fund is expected to generate 150 billion Saudi Riyals to the Saudi economy every year.

Saudi Arabia reforms have seen the appointment of women in senior roles in the government and the private sector as part of a massive campaign to empower women.

Reema Bander- Saudi Ambassador to the US
Reema Bander- Saudi ambassador to the US

DIFFERENT CITIES, DIFFERENT SOCIETIES

The reforms aim to see the kingdom switch from a conservative angle to a more liberal society.
Mecca can no longer be deemed as conservative at all. It’s very cosmopolitan, with the only element of conservatism being around the observance of religious rites and the maintenance of an outward appearance of devoutness.

The most conservative place in Saudi is the Qassim region just north of Riyadh. If you’re in Saudi Arabia, pay a visit to the main Qassim city, Buraidah,  and witness its state.

The most liberal Saudi city would be Jeddah, by far. In Jeddah, restaurants stay open during afternoon prayer times, and no one seems to mind. Dhahran, which is effectively an American city in Saudi Arabia, is pretty liberal too – thanks to the large expatriate population working in the oil fields.

Riyadh is outwardly conservative, but if you know your way around the city you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the liberalism that’s hidden in plain sight in the city. Start with the “art galleries” and move on from there to other categories.

HOW ARE PEOPLE IN SAUDI ARABIA PERCEIVED?

You’ve all heard of the extremists and terrorists in the media, but there are about 34 million other Saudis that you hear nothing about. As in every country, you will find the good and the bad, but in Saudi Arabia, the bad ones really are a small minority.

The typical Saudi is a very kind person. Saudis, rich or poor, will usually go out of their way to help a stranger. For example, it is normal that if you stop and ask someone for directions, chances are they will lead you to where you are going instead of just telling you the directions, even if they were headed in the opposite direction. They are extremely polite people.

If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Saudi’s house for dinner, you will have a wonderful experience. They will make you feel like family and more than welcome. Stemming from an old tribal tradition that dictates that all guests must be protected from any harm, your host would not allow anyone to insult you in the slightest way. You will be treated with dignity and respect, which is normally how Saudis treat everyone, as long as they are respected. You will also taste some of the best food in your life. If there are twelve people, there will be food enough for twenty-four and that is also a custom. It is to ensure that everyone has enough to eat.

Saudis make the best hosts and hostesses. Be careful what you admire in a Saudi’s house because chances are they will insist you take it. Saudis are known to be some of the most generous and welcoming people.

There is the myth that Saudi men are strongly prejudiced against women, caused by the media and a lot of misunderstandings on the parts of expatriates, who do not get to know the people or the culture and just assume men must be this way, because of restrictions that had been placed on women by the government. These have either changed or are quickly changing.

Starting with the mother, men are raised to love and respect their mothers completely. If something happens to their father, the sons immediately assume the role of caring for their mother and that’s not even discussed. Their mothers are never allowed to be made to feel they are a burden. This love and respect continues to the day she dies.

They also assume the care of their sisters, if there is no father present. If a sister gets divorced, she returns to her family, who will then support her financially and emotionally. She is never left alone to raise her children and support them herself. Saudi women feel genuinely sorry for other women who don’t have this support system and have to work and try to raise children as single parents.

Haifa Al Saud- Assistant minister for tourism
Haifa Al Saud- Assistant Minister for Tourism

HOW SAUDIS REGARD AFRICANS

How Saudis regard Africans and other races again can’t be generalized because that would be judging a whole community. Most Saudi homes hire foreign workers with a good number coming from East African countries. The work available usually ranges from housekeeping, security and driving, usually on a 2-year contract basis.

The norm in most gulf countries involves holding on to a worker’s passport once they arrive at their workstations and this is perceived to be a not soo humane move. The passports are only released when one has worked for the agreed duration which is usually renewable subject to a holiday break. The employers say they do this because some domestic workers breach agreements, mostly to take up better paying offers elsewhere.

To most workers, having the passport held by the employer is not a problem if the employer abides by the agreement and treats workers humanely. The problem only arises when one is received by an employer who turns out to be an exploiter. Some workers land in Saudi Arabia only to realize that they will be working at more than one homestead for the same amount.

The employer will also deduct from salaries, the expenses incurred in getting the worker in terms of agent fees and air tickets not forgetting that the worker also pays an agent fee to secure employment. This negativity can not be placed on all Saudis who employ domestic workers because some employers are overly kind towards their employees. One might be right to argue that perhaps there should be better cooperation between Saudi Arabia and African Countries, for strong legislation to be enacted so as to protect foreign domestic workers from exploitation.

Exploitation usually amounts to some sort of slavery and at times leads to the death of a worker. Exploitation can be in form of sexual abuse, underfeeding and working for more than agreed hours for the same amount of pay, deduction of “incurred expenses” without capturing that in the agreement, assignment of duties in extended family homes and outright assault and verbal abuse among others.

As indicated before, this malpractice should be treated as isolated and usually takes place within a very small number of Saudi homes hence it would be unfair to generalize or condemn the whole country. Many domestic workers have indeed worked in Saudi Arabia and advanced their families back home for the better. It will be right to say that Saudi Arabia reforms have created a conduit for the Kingdom to embrace a more liberal way of living among both citizens and non-citizens.

Mecca
Mecca- Image by Encyclopedia Brittanica

ISLAMIC LAW

Since Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, its judicial system is based on Islamic law (Shari’ah) for both criminal and civil cases. At the top of the legal system is the King, who acts as the final court of appeal and as a source of pardon. Saudi Arabia follows Sharia law as interpreted by Saudi clerics. This, however, is not necessarily the same Sharia law as other clerics around the world interpret it.

There simply is no one, unitary interpretation of Sharia law. Perhaps Saudi Arabia reforms should also change a chunk of these laws because laws and especially Islamic-oriented laws, shape the way of living for its citizens. Saudi Arabia spends significant sums trying to convince the Islamic world at large that its interpretations of Sharia are the best. It succeeds in some efforts and fails in others.

Because there is no single authority for Islam and Islamic law, there is no way for Saudi Arabia to impose its views other than by trying to convince others through argument. At present, it has not found universal agreement with its interpretations.

Perhaps more should be done in regards to trying to eradicate religious police in the Kingdom because most of the changes are closely associated with Islam and the dreaded Sharia law that has been largely seen as a hindrance to the much-needed Saudi Arabia reforms. As of now, it would be correct to say that the Kingdom has made giant leaps into the right direction.

 

NOTE: Positions of persons in Government may change at any given time in regards to time spent on researching and preparing this article right to the time of publishing.

 

 

 

 

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