Saudi Arabia will soon become “a place for dreamers who want to do something in the world”. That was the striking pledge made by the kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to a gathering of investors from across the world in Riyadh on Tuesday. Even the most implacable critics of Saudi Arabia will have to concede a new dawn has broken. For change in Saudi Arabia is being ushered in by a young man working under the watchful gaze of his father, King Salman, whose receptiveness to the aspirations of his country’s young is matched only by his determination to build a future worthy of them.
A string of enhancements to culture and society have been introduced in the past few months, including the announcement of an entertainment city south of Riyadh in April. This was followed by an historic decision in September to overturn the long-standing ban on female drivers in the kingdom. Sweeping social transformation has been has been accompanied by thorough and detailed plans to diversify the economy and make it less reliant on oil revenues.
Vision 2030, a brainchild of Prince Mohammed, is the blueprint for Saudi Arabia’s modernisation. The kingdom is turning a 200-kilometre stretch of its coastline on the Red Sea into a semi-autonomous tourist haven as part of the plan. When completed, it is estimated to create upwards of 35,000 jobs and bring in 15 billion riyals (Dhs14.7bn) in revenues annually. This colossal project, however, is only one part of Vision 2030, whose crowning glory will be NEOM, a $500 billion business and industrial zone on the Gulf of Aqaba that will extend into Jordan and Egypt. Part financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and Japan’s Softbank, NEOM, when finished, will be a transnational avatar of Dubai: a hub of innovation, and a gateway to and embodiment of the future.
On Tuesday, Prince Mohammed drew applause and cheers when he announced that Saudi Arabia will soon embrace a “moderate Islam that’s open to all religions”. Extremism will not be spared. “We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today”. What Prince Mohammed is superintending might be called a “consensual revolution”; what we are witnessing is epoch-making transformation without any of the chaos that usually accompanies change. That can be explained, in part, by the willingness of the leadership to engage with and understand the needs and wishes of the young people who collectively represent the kingdom’s future
It is important to note that Saudi Arabia’s focus on its own future has not distracted it from its sense of obligation to others. On the same day as Prince Mohammed was sharing his vision, Riyadh’s foreign minister, Adel Al Jubeir, emphasised his country’s commitment to bringing stability to the region. The self-confidence radiating from a fast modernising Saudi Arabia can only strengthen the Middle East.