Winds of Change in Saudi Arabia

On September 28th, 2017, Saudi Arabia signed a royal decree that would allow women the ability to have Saudi driver’s licenses. The government will have until June 24, 2018, to implement the new order. Many view the royal decree as another sign that slowly but surely Saudi Arabia is becoming a modern state that upholds universal values such as equality. However, this news of women gaining the ability to drive should not be seen as an isolated incident but as part of a much larger and deliberate project undertaken by the Saudi Royal family. Here, the essential fact to highlight is that Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a major transformation as it restructures its economic and commercial sector from being an oil exporting “rentier” type state to one which has a much more diverse economy as outlined in “Vision 2030”. The economic transformation that Saudi Arabia seeks is linked to projects to develop the skills and abilities of the general Saudi population. This transformation is why the Kingdom has engaged in changing various other aspects including education and workforce. By allowing women the right to drive and improving access to education and work, the government and Royal Family is hoping women can contribute to improving and diversifying the economy as women have always been an undervalued and underused labour force in Saudi Arabia.

Here, the essential fact to highlight is that Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a major transformation as it restructures its economic and commercial sector from being an oil exporting “rentier” type state to one which has a much more diverse economy as outlined in “Vision 2030”.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy also illustrates these new changes as recent reports point to steps taken by Saudi Arabia, amid American led initiatives, to improve relations with Israel, which could yield a united front against Iran and an improved economic relationship. Even though there has not been a public declaration by the Saudi government to normalize relations with Israel, the ascension of Saudi Arabia Bin Salman to Crown Prince has seen an increase in overt and covert ties with Israel. The issues surrounding Palestine stand as a major obstacle between Israel and Saudi Arabia but the current situation both states face with Iran does indicate that relationships between the two traditionally opposing states is improving.

Change in Identity?

A political and religious union formed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The political status was that of House Saud as the seed of power, and the religious identity was one that was directed by the Wahabi Scholarship. The Wahabi scholarship provided House Saud with religious legitimacy as Islam was a driving force in mobilization to protect and shape the state. Thus, the religious values and norms that the Wahabi scholarship prescribed were a major contributor in forming the religious identity in Saudi Arabia which due to the importance placed on the religion became a part of the national identity. However, with all the changes in Saudi Arabia that are taking place, there is a legitimate question of how the existing religious identity will cope with changes that may contradict existing values and norms.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seems to have a desire to uphold a “frozen in time” character in which there is development or modernization without an evolving or changing value system.  However, as Saudi Arabia moves closer to a post-oil world by developing its labour force and diversifying its industry, it will be interesting to see if the Kingdom’s identity remains frozen or changes.

Somran Roy is a researcher, editor and business development coordinator with Policy Talks Podcast. He is currently a Master of Arts candidate at Norman Patterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) in the Intelligence and International Affairs field. His research interests include security, terrorism, globalization and political conflict.

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