An article published in Politico this week cited an unnamed Saudi official claiming that the kingdom was going through a "revolution under the cover of modernization." It said that leaders of the oil-rich state were parting ways with uber-conservative elements that they are now admitting to fostering at home and abroad in order to bring Saudi Arabia into the contemporary era.
Anyone who lives in the kingdom will tell you that there is much more to it than the stereotypical tropes portrayed in western media. They will also tell you that the social reforms Saudi Arabia introduced of late, and which the international community received with lots of fanfare, leave so much more to be desired.
Is Saudi Arabia's experiment with modernization too little, too late? Or are we really standing at the gates of a new era that promises to change the face of not just the kingdom, but the region it wields an inordinate amount of influence in?
We leave the answer up to you. Meanwhile, here are 6 things that we think you should be aware of.
1. Saudi Arabia announced the ambitious Vision 2030
This April, Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman unveiled Vision 2030 which introduces sweeping changes to the economic governance. Prince Mohammad is a polarizing young political figure, who both the international community and members of the kingdom's own monarchy have eyed with a mixture of awe and trepidation. At the ripe age of 31, the prince is widely seen as the face of a Saudi Arabia departing from past exclusively ruled by octogenarian kings, all the sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdel Aziz Al Saud.
Saudi cabinet approved the National Transformation Program, an integral part of Vision 2030, in June. Aiming to triple non-oil revenues by 2020, diversify the economy and cut state subsidies, the plan is big news for the kingdom.
The plan will "enhance the level and quality of services" provided by government and "achieve a prosperous future and sustainable development," according to Arabian Business .
2. Saudi sent an edgy romantic comedy to the Oscars
"For the first time, we have this leader who is 30 years old who speaks my tone and my language and we are very optimistic about it and we want to be part of the change,"Mahmoud Sabbagh, the director of the film, told StepFeed in reference to Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
Sabbagh is helping his country’s film industry break out of its shell. His latest film "Barakah Meets Barakah" was nominated to represent the kingdom in the Oscars, becoming only the second time a Saudi film was nominated.
“Mahmoud Sabbagh is a representative of a new generation who will soon be pioneers in the history of filmmaking in Saudi Arabia,” Sultan Al Bazie, chairman of the nominating committee, said.
Sabbagh’s romantic comedy film debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February to sold-out crowds. The film also won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Berlinale. Centering around the complicated world of dating in the conservative kingdom, the film reveals a unique aspect of Saudi society.
This is only the second film the kingdom submits to the Academy Awards in its young history.
3. Saudi women must verbally consent to marriage and have a right to copies of marriage contracts
Saudi Arabia’s Justice Ministry granted women in Saudi Arabia a right to hold a copy of their marriage contract in May. Later in July, the kingdom's Justice Minster Walid Al-Samaan directed marriage officials to get the verbal approval of the bride herself before concluding the marriage contract, in an attempt to protect women’s rights and end forced marriages.
The minister instructed the courts and marriage officials that the woman’s verbal agreement was required under Shariah law and that no one could offer it on the bride’s behalf. It's seen as a first, albeit tiny, break from social mores largely centered on Muharram (male guardianship) culture.
Clerics are now obliged to hand a copy of the marriage contract to the bride when registering a marriage “to ensure her awareness of her rights and the terms of the contract,” the ministry said in a statement . The decision aims to “protect the rights of the woman” by facilitating the process for women in case of divorce, as these documents are required in court.
4. Clipping the wings of Saudi religious police
In April, the kingdom issued a new law to regulate its religious police and it features a number of reforms that confine the powers of its members. The new law bans members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice from arresting suspects or practicing any other form of law enforcement. The stick-wielding religious police are some of the most feared figures in the kingdom, and their punitive powers are often seen as harsh and arbitrary.
The law says that committee members are not allowed to “stop people, put reservations on them, chase them, ask for their documents, verify their identities or follow them,” according to the Saudi Press Agency .
“In accordance with this regulation, the committee shall be concerned with carrying out the duty of promoting virtue and preventing vice in a gentle and kind way,” the sixth article of the new law says.
Now, the religious police must file official reports to specialized authorities who have the power to pursue further action, such as the Saudi police and the kingdom’s official body for combating narcotics.
5. The kingdom will set up a new college that specializes in entrepreneurship
Named after the vanguard apparent of modernized Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammad bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurship will be built in King Abdullah Economic City. The kingdom will collaborate with Babson College from Massachusettes and the the American defense and advanced tech giant Lockheed Martin to build the unique education facility, aiming to align higher education with needs in the job market. It will be the first in Saudi Arabia to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in entrepreneurship.
6. Six flags comes to Saudi Arabia
It may seem like a silly detail. But if you live in a country where sources of entertainment are so few and far between thanks to the ever-present eye of the fundamentalist religious police, this is a really big deal.
The popular U.S. theme park company Six Flags Entertainment Corp announced plans to expand its roller coaster empire into the kingdom back in June. Six Flags CEO John Duffy made the announcement after meeting with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"We’re very honored to be provided with an opportunity to enter into a partnership to bring Six Flags to the kingdom… Our parks can provide the entertainment to which Saudis aspire," Duffy said at the time.