In 2016, a plan to unlock Saudi Arabia’s future potential was established, to be realised by 2030. The country’s Vision 2030 initiative includes social and economic reforms and modernising elements ranging from new laws to mega-projects.
The “quality of life” component of the Vision 2030 reveals how far these changes will go. They aim “to improve the individual’s and families’ quality of life by creating the necessary environment to develop and support new liveable and lifestyle options in Saudi Arabia. These options will bolster the participation of citizens, residents, and visitors in cultural, entertainment, sports, tourism, and urban activities, and other related activities that nurture their quality of life,” it says.
These are all ambitious goals that are worthy of our attention.
Let’s start by examining the gender parity component. The Vision 2030 stipulates that the Saudi government “will continue to develop women’s talents, invest in their energies, and enable them to obtain appropriate opportunities to build their future and contribute to the development of their society.” These giant strides have already affected Saudi women in powerful and visible ways.
Saudi women have fulfilled many dreams. Fatma Tanis, a journalist who visited Saudi Arabia recently, was asked in a National Public Radio (NPR) interview in the US what struck her most on her visit. NPR is a non-profit broadcaster.
“You know, it was immediate. All of the border agents processing travelers when I arrived in Jeddah were women. It’s [sic] unimaginable a few years ago. The speed in which Saudi women have been integrated into the workforce is really something that’s remarkable. They are now pretty much everywhere doing all the jobs, including in the military. And this is something that almost happened overnight,” Tanis said.
This has been shown by Saudi women filling leading posts in the country. In 2019, Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud took office as Saudi ambassador to the US, becoming the first female envoy in the country’s history. In 2022, Saudi Arabia appointed the first female vice secretary-general of the kingdom’s Council of Ministers, Al-Shehana Al-Azzaz, and the first female vice minister in the Ministry of Tourism, Haifa bint Mohamed.
Indeed, Saudi women have proved themselves in many vocations, one of which is as aviation pilots. Saudi Flyadeal, an example of the many establishments that pursue gender parity in Saudi Arabia today, has “over 55 female employees working in all departments, both onboard and on the ground, including air operations, ground operations, human resources, marketing, finance, information technology, and more.”
Flyadeal has also announced its first domestic flight within the Kingdom with a fully female and mostly Saudi crew. Yara Jan, a young co-pilot, said that “although being a Saudi woman pilot is new, it is not impossible for our generation, especially with the backing that we are receiving from our beloved country and our respected leaders, who have supported me a lot to become the youngest female pilot in a Saudi airline.”
In addition, Saudi women today, overcoming the male-guardianship system, can travel alone across Saudi Arabia without a male guardian’s permission while enjoying the gender parity they have always desired. Women can also apply for passports, travel outside the Kingdom, study abroad, and register births, marriages, or divorces.
A cultural shift has been apparent in many changes. In 2018, the Saudi Ministry of Culture was established, bringing significant outcomes and entailing a wide range of diversified entertainment options. Music, art, creativity and sports are now celebrated at cultural venues, sports events, and musical concerts in Saudi Arabia.
At AlUla in the northwest of the Kingdom, home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, several festivals and musical events are currently running or being planned, including the Winter at Tantora Festival, the Sky Festival, the Arts Festival, and the Wellness Festival during a programme called AlUla Moments.
The Red Sea International Film Festival, launched in 2019 and held in Jeddah, focuses on emerging talents from Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. This year Jeddah is gearing up for the 10-day Festival on 1 December.
Leisure tourism is expanding exponentially. In 2019, Saudi Arabia formally announced the issuing of tourist visas for the first time in its history. With advertisements starring celebrities such as footballer Lionel Messi and other big names, visitors are lured to visit the country. The official Saudi visa site invites visitors to “explore the warmth and hospitality of the Saudi people and discover Arabia’s rich heritage, vibrant culture and breathtaking landscapes.”
“Come experience it all, from the mountains of Abha to the beaches of the Red Sea and the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter.”
Then, there is Neom, a futuristic city that promises to be like no other. To be built in the north of the Hijaz region on the Red Sea, Neom is planned to incorporate smart, revolutionary technologies and become a hub that generates tourist attention.
Saudi Arabia is intent on diversifying its sports as well. In 2019, the Saudi Olympic Committee launched five new sports federations for hockey, lacrosse, rugby, baseball and softball. It is also organising many international events, such as the Dakar Rally, “which has been held in Saudi Arabia since 2020 and will take place this year on 31 December.”
The Neom Beach Games this year saw participants from across the world. According to the Neom site, “the Neom Beach Games feature kitesurfing, beach football, mountain biking, 3x3 basketball and triathlon, the latter putting participants to the test with the disciplines of swimming, cycling, and long-distance running.”
In a master stroke, Saudi Arabia stunned Lionel Messi and Argentina by winning 2-1 at a football game at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Each day brings something new in Saudi Arabia. The developments are quite breathtaking as this conservative kingdom opens up to the world.
* The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.