The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia organised a massive “rave in the desert” this month. Men and women danced together with enthusiasm, an activity which was unthinkable in the kingdom five years ago. The Kingdom has unveiled a slew of new social changes in the last year. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has pushed for and championed many of these changes.
Saudi Arabia has opened its doors to visitors and international investment in an effort to diversify the country’s oil-dependent economy and make it more modern, liberal, and business-friendly.
Prince Salman, the Saudi heir to the throne, has presided over significant social changes, including letting women drive and work in the government, ending a decades-long ban on theatres, and allowing women to travel alone.
These reforms have coincided with a crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression. By taking up the reins from his elderly father, King Salman, the crown prince is leading the charge from receiving foreign leaders to heading regional conferences.
Here’s how Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is bringing about change:
Allowing women to operate motor vehicles
On September 26, 2017, the Saudi government issued a historic decision recognising women’s freedom to drive in accordance with Sharia law. For the first time in 30 years, Saudi women hit the road in June 2018. Saudi Arabia had previously been the only country in the world where women were prohibited from driving.
Prohibition of cinema hall lifted
Saudi Arabia abolished a decades-long ban on theatres in 2017, as part of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to reinvent the ultra-conservative country to an “open, moderate Islam” and eliminate extremist beliefs.
Despite objections from conservatives who have traditionally demonised movie theatres as vulgar and immoral, reviving cinemas constituted a paradigm change in the monarchy, which is pushing entertainment as part of a broad reform strategy for a post-oil period.
Changing the rules of guardianship
Saudi Arabia officially introduced a legal amendment allowing an adult woman to live and travel alone without permission from a “male guardian”. The landmark move gave single, divorced, or widowed women the right to live independently in separate accommodation.
Under the new amendment, if a woman is sentenced to a jail term, she will not be handed over to her guardian after completing her term.
Before the kingdom’s guardianship system was scrapped, women in Saudi Arabia were treated as legal minors, requiring a male relative’s permission for a range of critical decisions, such as working, obtaining family records, and applying for a passport.
Issuing tourist visas
Saudi Arabia opened its doors to tourists for the first time in its history in 2019, providing an electronic visa to travellers from 49 nations. Visitors may now obtain a year-long multiple-entry visa that allows them to stay in the country for up to 90 days.
Previously, Saudi Arabia solely provided religious pilgrimage and commercial visas to visitors.
One of the centerpieces of Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform initiative to prepare the largest Arab economy for a post-oil world is reviving tourism. The government has stated that by 2030, it hopes to attract up to 100 million local and international tourists. The tourist industry is estimated to provide up to one million employees jobs.
Relaxing entertainment limitations
In 2017, Saudi Arabia legalised live music and stand-up comedy acts in restaurants and cafés. Previously, religious police patrolled the streets, fining establishments that played music.
The “Rave in the Desert” music festival was one of the first in Saudi Arabia to allow men and women to dance and socialise openly in public. More than 180,000 people attended the music festival’s first night, challenging limits as the kingdom develops.
Prince Salman’s efforts to implement changes in order to diminish Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil while coping with the country’s profoundly conservative and long-closed society are visible. Needless to say, observable evidence of the new changes is there to witness.