The New Saudi Arabia

  • Post category:Blog


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) today is a country working hard to be at peace with its neighbors, striving to bring stability to its region, and actively building strong relationships with key international partners—the US, the EU, the UK, China, and Russia in OPEC+—and is laser-focused on its internal economic transformation.

The Khashoggi tragedy is now five years old, and nothing like that gruesome murder has occurred since, proving the Saudi official position, expressed multiple times, that this crime was a horrible aberration never to be repeated. And one data point, however shocking it may be, does not make for a trend line.

Yes, human rights standards, in terms of freedom of expression and the sometimes-egregious punishments delivered to those who cross the government line, remain a problem, but this issue should be seen within the context of a country undergoing rapid and radical transformational changes, many of which are very contentious and are opposed by reactionary religious and social actors. The government is grappling to ensure social peace and stability as such changes, including women’s rights and religious moderation, are imposed on society. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia continues to wage a battle with radical extremists, those sympathetic to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, who continue to advocate violence in their propaganda against the state because of these very reforms. And this is not some abstract or theoretical point; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula regularly produces online videos condemning Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and calling for violent attacks against him and his government.

It’s difficult to discuss counterfactuals, such as the absence of violence so far in KSA, because the policies the government has adopted have prevented such things from happening. Yet, it should be remembered that this calm was not foreordained, and violence could have easily occurred because of resistance to the reforms. And whether we like it or not, the question of human rights is deeply enmeshed in these dynamics of change, including the threat of repression.

Today KSA is making waves in sports, provoking screams of “Sportswashing!” by critics who assume that such action is meant to distract people in the West from KSA’s domestic human rights situation. These critics complain about the purchase of a soccer team like Newcastle United or about the LIV–PGA golf venture, both of which have created more negative media coverage than positive PR for Saudi Arabia. This, of course, begs the question of why the Kingdom is engaging in such investments.

KSA does not make such massive commitments to cover up its human rights record; rather, it makes these commitments for two reasons:

First, Saudi Arabia is intensely focused on promoting sports within the Kingdom. Hence, signing a huge contract with someone like the soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo gives the local soccer league a huge shot of adrenaline. Also, adding top-tier players elevates the standards of the Saudi Pro League and encourages competitive excellence among its players.

This also generates a massive amount of excitement among Saudi youth, who are soccer obsessed. And it is better for the young to be excited by and engaged with sports than for them to drift toward extremism, as happened before.

Second, such high-profile, recruits play another key role, namely, promoting KSA as a tourist destination, as tourism is a key sector of economic diversification away from oil. When Ronaldo posts a message about KSA to his five hundred million social media followers, a post that introduces people to a place they have never thought about before, it does the job of promoting Saudi Arabia as an attractive travel destination and a country where exciting developments are taking place. This is one of a large number of well-thought-out objectives that underpin the strategy of turning KSA into a major global tourist destination, a country that until recently had been closed to the outside world. Saudi Arabia, with thousands of miles of virgin beaches, historical sites, and other amenities, such as golf courses, that are currently being developed, is determined to attract tens of millions of tourists by 2030.

It is this laser focus on internal economic development, under Vision 2030, that is informing much of what KSA is doing both domestically and internationally.

In the past few years, women, after having been segregated and kept out of many arenas of Saudi public life, have been fully integrated into the labor force and the public space. Their employment numbers have more than doubled. The much talked about male guardianship system has been effectively dismantled. This has brought a significant educated and motivated component of society into gainful employment, promoting economic growth, increasing family income, and improving women’s health by their inclusion in the rapidly growing sports sector. For example, after having banned women from sports, even in schools, KSA today has a women’s soccer league.

Cultural activities like art, music, and theater, which previously existed virtually underground, not only have been unleashed but are now actively supported with government grants, facilities, events, and specialized education and training.

The legal system is undergoing massive reform to modernize laws and simplify citizens’ access to legal services and justice, particularly for women, who today have much more effective recourse in matters of child custody and marriage disputes than before, when the system was strongly biased in favor of men.

Education is being totally reformed with curricula updated and refocused on practical subjects such as math, science, foreign languages, and critical thinking, rather than religious studies and rote memorization.

The list goes on and the transformations are so extensive that it would be difficult to find a single country that has gone through such a massive amount of change in such a short period of time without experiencing civil strife or an armed revolution.

The Saudi Arabia of today is working hard to get its own house in order, its region more peaceful, and its global relationships on sound footing. It is a force of stability and global prosperity and should be recognized as such.

And while it is fair to mention human rights when discussing the complex and rapid social and economic reforms that the country is undergoing, it is also important to highlight the positive changes, which include the empowerment of women, religious moderation, economic diversification, and efforts at regional peace and stability. Saudi Arabia’s transformation cannot be captured in simple binary terms of black-and-white, good or bad. To be objective and fair, journalists and analysts should take a nuanced approach that acknowledges complexity and the trade-offs this involves and, in so doing, offers a more balanced account of what is actually happening on the ground.