'Overwhelming support' for Saudi Arabia's reforms

Social and economic changes expected to continue in 2020, experts say

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on November 20, 2019 shows Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) arriving with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to address the Shura council, a top advisory body, in the capital Riyadh. Saudi Arabia's King Salman urged arch-rival Iran to abandon an expansionist ideology that has "harmed" its own people, following violent street protests in the Islamic republic. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL-JALOUD" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Saudi Arabia is expected to press ahead with social and economic reforms this year, with the changes introduced so far enjoying widespread support from citizens, experts say.

The reforms, which have picked up pace recently, are part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 programme to attract foreign investment, wean the economy off hydrocarbons, strengthen the private sector and create jobs for Saudis.

The plan, unveiled in 2016, also aims to increase Saudi women's participation in the workforce to 30 per cent from 22 per cent currently.

Perhaps the most significant reform in this regard was the lifting of a ban on women driving in June 2018. Further changes recently removed the requirement for permission from a male guardian to take a job, enrol for university or undergo surgery.

Women now also have the right to register child birth, marriage or divorce and to be issued official family documents and serve as guardians to minors. The former system required women to seek permission from their male guardian – usually their father or husband, but sometimes a brother or son – to marry, apply for a passport and leave the country.

The reforms have been accompanied by a reining in of the religious police who used to patrol public spaces to impose strict dress and behaviour codes and enforce business closures at prayer times and bans on music and mixed-gender gatherings.

At the same time, Saudi authorities have eased restrictions on public entertainment, such as ending a 35-year ban on cinemas and allowing music concerts, and have opened up the country to visitors other than pilgrims.

"The positive effects of such changes are very clear to anyone who lives or visits Saudi Arabia, from women and youth empowerment to the opening of new lucrative sectors such as tourism and entertainment," Abdullah bin Khaled Al Saud, the director of research at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, told The National.

Other reforms aim to increase the “efficiency and transparency of the government”, he said.

Mr Al Saud said the most promising aspect of Vision 2030 was the investment in human capital and the increasingly educated youth.

“It is safe to say that the vast majority of people are welcoming of the vast majority of changes, and I believe such overwhelming support will continue,” Mr Al Saud said.

Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a columnist for The National, said the social changes Saudi Arabia has implemented are a "radical transformation".

"They could be described as very sudden and dramatic form of devolution or, alternatively, top-down in a lot of fundamental norms and expectations," Mr Ibish said.

He noted that the changes "picked up a lot of speed” in 2019.

Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher in international relations at Oxford University, said the reforms would have the support of women and the younger generation.

"Keep in mind that 67 per cent of Saudis are under age 34, so I suspect that Mohammed bin Salman's policies could have majority support within Saudi Arabia," Mr Ramani told The National.

“I see the reform trajectory of the past two years continuing in 2020. Saudi Arabia will likely make a series of economic and social reforms, especially as the G20 summit is coming up,” Mr Ramani said.

As the current president of the G20, Saudi Arabia will host the group’s annual gathering this year.