Riyadh: At the crest of landslide reforms, Saudi Arabia is changing. And with aid diplomacy, the wealthy kingdom now wants to overhaul its global image and be seen as a world humanitarian leader.
Towards this endeavour, an international aid conference began in the capital on Monday seeking to pitch Saudi Arabia’s “humanitarian face” and how it has been contributing to alleviate global distress and suffering beyond its borders.
The country’s de facto political leader, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recently introduced a slew of social and political reforms — letting women drive cars, allowing them into sports stadiums and a widespread crackdown on politicians on suspicion of graft.
Saudis may also get to go to the movies now after the government said it would grant commercial movie theatre licenses this year — lifting a 35-year ban.
All that has been done to restructure the conservative kingdom into a modern state.
But the allegations of civilian deaths in a Saudi-led military campaign that has killed thousands in the neighbouring Yemen since March 2015 and blockade of Qatar have earned the kingdom a fresh barrage of stinging global criticism.
Against the backdrop of that condemnation, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz’s Humanitarian and Relief Centre (KSrelief) organized the first of its kind Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum at a glittering conference centre in Riyadh.
The conclave was in continuation of Saudi Arabia’s previous global aid ventures to bring “changes to the humanitarian landscape in the world and formulate new responses to reflect the changing needs on the ground”, according to the organisers of the two-day conference.
The conference was opened by King Salman, 82, who arrived walking with a stick amid dozens of Royal Saudi Guards. The king didn’t speak at the forum.
But Abdullah Al Rabeeah, who heads the king’s relief centre, said the kingdom has been “pioneering humanitarian role in serving the international community” and now it “realises the significance of its role in alleviating human suffering and ensuring that all people are given the opportunity to live healthy, dignified lives”.
He said the king’s aid and relief centre established nearly three years ago provided humanitarian aid and relief to those in need “outside of the kingdom’s borders” and “in every part of the world”, including in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
The conference, he said, was based on the relief centre’s mandate and the world’s growing need for increasing amounts of humanitarian aid.
Ambassador Abdullah bin Yahya Almoalimi, Saudi’s Permanent UN Representative, recollected “the recent initiative launched by the kingdom and its sister countries from the coalition countries to restore legitimacy in Yemen in announcing $1.5 billion that will lead to a quantitative leap in the new humanitarian aid” for the war-torn country.
“The kingdom’s record in noble deeds in the world to serve human beings in very well know and anyone who doubts this should balance their views with these figures and statistics. We will see what their (view will) will be,” he said, obliquely referring to criticism by global rights groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.