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Is Saudi Arabia modernising with the recent reforms?

Ever since Salman bin Abdulaziz became the king of Saudi Arabia on 23 January 2015 and his son, Muhamamd bin Salman, the Crown Prince, emerged on the Saudi political scene, there is an air of social and educational change. Muhamamd bin Salman, or MBS as he is called, shows a promise to modernize the conservative Saudi society. He launched Vision 2030 for changing the status quo in the Kingdom, is aimed at transforming the economy and reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil.

The big decision to allow women to drive from June 2018 has been hailed as a giant step towards social equality. The women are allowed more freedom to watch soccer matches in stadium, participate in sports and attend entertainment concerts. Women are being provided jobs in sectors like aviation, hotel and retail markets. The Vision 2030 aims to increase women participation in the job market from 22% to 305% the next 15 years and reducing total unemployment from 12.7% to 7% during the same period. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, Saudi Arabia, the private sector, as on 1 March 2017, has registered a 130% growth in the number of working Saudi women during the last four years.

The curtailment of dominance of the religious leaders, particularly the excessive interference of official of the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in public life. The highhandedness by the officials called 'the moral police' used to prosecute those who did not adhere to Islamic way of life. For example, anyone seen outside the mosque during Namaz (salah) were sent to jail or fined. Non-Muslim often faced tough times, but the advent of MBS has provided much relief to the people at large. In his opinion, MBS, and rightly so, says that religion is not an act of forced imposition, but a willing submission, and none is allowed to curtail individual freedom of any person.

Prince Muhammad pushes for moderate Islam, the one which promotes tolerance and peaceful coexistence, not the radical thinking prevalent in Saudi society. In the education sector, MBS has strictly directed the Ministry of Education asked for comprehensive change in school textbooks, especially erase all those anti-Semitic portions and passages from the books that teach radical or extremist ideology. He directed to revive the educational policy designed by the Muslim Brotherhood, an ultra radical organization of Egypt, which contain radical or anti-Semitic contents in the textbooks for public school to which western countries particularly the US has raised serious objections. Religious preachers are directed to preach Islam which was preached practiced by the Prophet, not the extremist ideology propagated for hatred and intolerance. Sermons on Friday prayers are strictly monitored.

Within two years in office, MBS, as per the Vision 2030 social and economic reform programme, announced the entertainment industry, which was dubbed as moral crime, as economic driver in the Kingdom. The cinema industry which was banned in 1979 finds its presence once again when Enter Animation Arabia, one MiSK, is a non-profit organization for cultivating learning and leadership in youth for the Saudi Arabia of tomorrow, promoted a one-of-a-kind event when the Hakaya Theater of Riyadh screened Bilal, an Arabic 3D action-adventure film for the first time on 17 August 2017.

In December, Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year ban on commercial theaters and the 'cinema alley', of Riyadh, or 'Bab Sharif', the most famous theater in Jeddah or 'Abu Safeya' cinema also of Jeddah got fresh lives. By the year 2030, Saudi Arabia will have more than 300 theaters with over 2,000 movie screens. Live concerts are being organized in Jeddah and Riyadh. In early December 2017, the first public concert performed by a female singer in Saudi Arbia was staged in Riyadh where thousands of girls cheered and rose in a standing ovation to greet Hiba Tawaji, the famous Lebanese singer. In March 2017, Riyadh hosted its first male concert since 1988 marking the start of a major social shift in the conservative country.

According to General Authority for Entertainment (GEA), Saudi Arabia will play host to more than 5,000 live events in 2018, including theatre shows, circus performances, community festivals, and live music performances. Group like Cirque du Soleil and the Lion King musical as well as the first Saudi Comic Con are due to stage live performances. On 8 March 2018, German band Mellow Maroc proved a big hit during a live concert in Jeddah. The Saudi government has decide to invest $2.7 billion in the entertainment industry to attract international players and expects annual profits $300 million. With the ever changing time, the primitive society of Saudi Arabia is evolving and undergoing a lot many changes with the modernising world.

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-Abu Talha