Can economic reform alter social norms?

Author: Emily Clifford

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has made history with the announcement of a $500bn megacity project, NEOM, during Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative Summit, 24th – 26th October 2017.

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Source: Arab News

Dubbed the ‘destination for the future,’ NEOM was born from Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to transform the economic, social, and governmental foundations of the nation. The megacity will sit in over 26,500km2 of northern Saudi Arabia, with the aim of becoming a global hub connecting Asia, Europe and Africa.

With efficiency, sustainability, safety, and security as the basis of this new venture, the Prince has set forward a plan for NEOM to become a ‘blueprint for sustainable living.’ The project aims to generate economic growth and diversification through multi-sector innovations, such as greater investments in technology and tourism, powered entirely by renewable energy. This drive shows Saudi Arabia attempting to move away from reliance on oil and gas revenues, which still dominate the national economy but are depleting fast.

Building on the ambitious pillars of Vision 2030, NEOM aspires to combine on the best technology, governance, and lifestyle to become the ‘best place to live and work’ in the world: undoubtedly an appeal to foreign investors and businesses put-off by the Kingdom’s restrictive social codes, such as the repressive guardianship system. As documented by Amnesty International, these guardianship laws mean every woman has a male guardian who has the authority to make decisions on her behalf, creating an unappealing legal environment for liberal-minded and equal-rights orientated investors.

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Source: Business Insider Australia

‘Independent of the Kingdom’s existing governmental framework’

Hand in hand with NEOM’s progressive economic and technological initiatives, the megacity and its initiator seem to be enticing the nation down a path of increased social liberalisation. NEOM’s promotional video shows men and women working, living, and socialising together, noticeably diverging from Saudi Arabia’s strict codes of public dress and conduct.

During the Future Investment Initiative, the Prince also announced his desire to restore Saudi Arabia to a more open and tolerant form of Islam. For years, Saudi Arabia has been touted as a systematic human rights violator; as well as openly discriminating against women and minorities, the country is blamed in the media for spreading hard-line Wahhabi Islamist beliefs, and regularly resorting to arbitrary arrests to crush political dissent.

Building on an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Salman believes that Saudi Arabia’s rigid, ‘ultra-conservative’ doctrine was implemented in response to the Iranian Revolution, suggesting that this is not ‘normal’ and indicating that the Prince sees a more socially liberal future for his country. With its focus on social progress, could NEOM be an instrument to tackle this supposed ‘age of fundamentalism’?

With near central control of most aspects of Saudi society, there is real possibility for ‘cultural revolution’ under the 32 year old Royal. However, a closer look at this innovative Prince casts doubt on the idea that the next in line to the throne will be the progressive change the Kingdom needs.

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Source: Al Arabiya English

Appointed as Defence Minister in 2015, one of Salman’s first acts was to lead a military campaign in Yemen, in response to the forced exile of Yemen’s President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi by the Houthi rebel movement. The campaign has done little but escalate the already dire humanitarian situation, with the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen labelling it a humanitarian disaster and a breach of international law.

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Source: Amnesty International

Furthermore, Amnesty International is currently documenting numerous executions in Saudi Arabia of detainees accused of terror and/or spying related offences. According to their reports, these acts of capital punishment are the result of grossly unfair mass trials which rely on ‘confessions’ believed to have been obtained under torture. At least 100 people have been executed in the Kingdom since the beginning of 2017, and this cruel and inhumane response to internal and external dissent suggests that Salman’s growing influence in the country is not altering the hard-line, intolerant attitudes of the country’s authorities.

At the same time, despite the grand unveiling, it is unlikely that Salman’s city of the future can be implemented in reality. Spectators question whether the funding is there, whether it will gain global traction, and whether he can generate support from his population? International commentators remain sceptical about the young royal’s ability to transform the regressive absolute monarchy enough to encourage his ambiguous ‘thriving, ambitious nation,’ whilst maintaining an uncompromisingly hostile approach to opposition.

Therefore, although Salman hopes to renovate the economic and social life of the Saudi people, Vision 2030 is let down as more profound social changes are omitted. Although moves such as allowing women drivers and removing the power of arrest from the religious police indicate a socially liberal reformer, judicial reform, political accountability and restructuring, freedom of expression and a fair and transparent detention process must be tackled if the Crown Prince’s sustainable visions are going to be met. Although becoming a diverse global financial hub is an exciting prospect for the ambitious future King, arguably Saudi’s liberalisation remains an abstract concept without a foundation of political reform and social justice.

Read more:

‘Saudi Arabia Death toll reaches 100 as authorities carry out execution spree’ https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/10/saudi-arabia-death-toll-reaches-100-as-authorities-carry-out-execution-spree/ 

‘Fourteen men at imminent risk of beheading as Saudi Arabia continues bloody execution spree’
https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/07/fourteen-men-at-imminent-risk-of-beheading-as-saudi-arabia-continues-bloody-execution-spree/

‘Saudi Arabia: Execution looms for teen tortured to “confess” to protest-related crimes’ https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/09/saudi-arabia-execution-looms-for-teen-tortured-to-confess-to-protest-related-crimes/

Do more:

‘Stop 14 men being executed in Saudi Arabia’ https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/stop-14-men-being-executed-in-saudi-arabia/

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