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Saudi Arabia’s Shift

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Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
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For Saudis, life is changing. An infamous ban on women driving was lifted in June, and the government is permitting commercial movie theaters to open. There are more gender-mixed music concerts and other kinds of entertainment, including professional wrestling. The loosening up comes as the biggest economy in the Middle East struggles to urgently wean itself from oil revenue, which fuels a vast welfare state. That means fitting in better with the modern world and tampering with the cash-for-loyalty contract that Saudi kings have had with their subjects for decades. The man forging this future is Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has amassed unprecedented power, cracked down on dissent and embarked on a grand remake. Two years into the reform drive, Saudi Arabia is trying to save money and speed up social change against a backdrop of one of the world’s most conservative religious establishments.

Government funds are pouring into education, health care and tourist resorts as part of a campaign called Vision 2030. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is increasing military spending and reining in clerics, journalists and activists through intimidation and arrests. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and government critic, went missing after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2. Turkish officials said privately that he was killed there. After repeatedly denying it, the Saudi government said Khashoggi died after "discussions" in the consulate turned physical, a claim officials in Europe and some U.S. lawmakers cast doubt on. In 2017, dozens of princes were locked up for about three months in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and forced to hand over billions of dollars to the state in what authorities called a weeding out of corruption. Meanwhile, subsidies for citizens on basics like electricity have been cut, and more revenue is being raised with a value-added tax. There are renewed efforts to get more Saudis working, since youth unemployment is about 30 percent and expatriates fill half the country’s jobs. Women are increasingly encouraged to work, despite traditional disapproval of face-to-face contact with men. There has been some pushback. After canceling bonuses for state employees that had long been taken for granted, the government reinstated the perks in 2017 after complaints on social media. Saudi Arabia had announced plans to partly privatize its state-run oil company, Aramco, to help fund the transformation, but the listing has been postponed.