A visit to Saudi Arabia: Vision 2030

• By MECRA •  May 22, 2018 

Daniel Rasmussen* took a trip to Saudi Arabia, what follows is an interview with him about current affairs in the Kingdom as it undergoes reforms.

Tell us about what brought you to Saudi Arabia? 

I recently took a trip to Saudi Arabia after receiving a generous business visa, which required an sponsor letter from a local firm, and the official ministries. It was an eyeopening experience to see first hand whether the Kingdom is changing and reforming and to get a sense of local conditions and concerns. 

When I first got to Riyadh I was in the international arrivals terminal. It looked very dated. I thought that they say they are building this $500 billion megacity in the middle of the desert, but their capital city airport is not that great. I had come from Dubai and saw that and wondered what is going on here. It turns out it is step by step. Driving across the country you see signs and billboards with King and Crown Prince and "Vision 2030” — and that is like the new slogan of the nation. If there is any takeaway it is that.  They have building going on everywhere. For domestic arrivals and departures it is all brand new.

What is interesting is that there is a lot of development but some of them are like ghost towns. Whether we went to a village on the side of the road, there is no one there. So what I was wondering is if after Ramadan and during Hajj that is when the infrastructure starts to fill up.

 

Dammam and Dhahran are nice and have resorts.

Emir Ekşioğlu,

Driving in Saudi Arabia (Courtesy Daniel Rasmussen)

Saudi Arabia 2018

An image of the royal family on a building

Saudi Arabia 2018 b

A highway in Saudi Arabia

Graffiti of Vision 2030

Graffiti of Vision 2030

Royal Saudi Armed Forces

A sign for the Royal Saudi Arabian Armed Forces

Did you stand out

Other than the foreign workers in Medina, at the bookstore or Starbucks, I never saw any foreigners or tourists not in the city for religious purposes. They have a very few number of hotels outside of the pilgrimage area. People who were overtly non-Muslim or tourist, I couldn’t say I saw a lot. In the Marriot I was staying in, there would be a lot of foreigners but it was clear they were on pilgrimage. Not as many tourists as I thought there would be. 

 

And women?

At first I didn’t notice it, but most women had full face veil. I didn’t really see Arab women that had no covering at all. Only foreigners. Probably 80% wore full face veil. Every restaurant had a single section for men and then a family section. When I went to Chilis the men’s section was darkened and it feels like a bomb shelter. When I went to IHOP there was this younger guy who wanted me to go into the family section to take a photo with a Saudi rapper YouTube celebrity that was in there. 

When I got to the airport. When we were going out the door there was some hustler there who asked if we wanted a taxi. He was 26 years old. We said ‘Yes’ but we had so many people and bags we needed a second taxi. The hustler had casual clothes and his colleague had traditional dress. So we paired off. We joked that we wanted a female taxi driver, and he said “wait until next month” and he said equality was normal and he was fine with that. But in the other taxi the more traditional man said that “women belong in the home and shouldn’t be out driving.” But when we asked what he thought of the Crown prince changing policies, then he responded “Now, you’re talking politics, I don’t know anything about that, I’m a taxi driver.” And that seems to be emblematic of what’s happening in Saudi Arabia.

One man predicted that having women drive and work will be a big economic help. This will cut out the need for maids and drivers to drive women around, which basically ate up the earnings of the second earner or of the man.

Another young man told me that he wished he could leave to America, where life is "more free and modern," -- but he predicted that Saudi Arabia would be modern within 10 years.

I got the sense from people that they think having women drive and work will be a big economic help. This will cut out the need for maids and drivers to drive women around.

 

Can you give us a sense of 'Vision 2030'

When I first got there I was in the international arrivals terminal. It looked very dated. I thought that they say they are building this $500 billion megacity in the middle of the desert, but their capital city airport is not that great. I had come from Dubai and saw that and wondered what is going on here. It turns out it is step by step. Driving across the country you see signs and billboards with King and Crown Prince and "Vision 2030” — and that is like the new slogan of the nation. If there is any takeaway it is that.  They have building going on everywhere. For domestic arrivals and departures it is all brand new.

 

What is interesting is that there is a lot of development but some of them are like ghost towns. Whether we went to a village on the side of the road, there is no one there. So what I was wondering is if after Ramadan and during Hajj that is when the infrastructure starts to fill up.

 

Dammam and Dhahran are nice and have resorts.

 

Did the businesspeople speak much about the changes?
 

A lot I spoke with of the people work for Aramco, and so maybe the nature of ARAMCO is they don’t have segregation of sexes and foreign workers and Christians and Jews and so they have their own tolerant sub-culture which is a bit more skewed than what the general population would think.

When I was there they opened the first cinemas and a lot of the taxi drivers and services workers are foreign workers who are Muslims. And they didn’t seem interested in cinemas. They said they could watch movies on their computers. I asked them if the changes after so many years was important. Most chalk it up to the government wanting to move forward. There didn’t seem to be misgivings. 

 

Did they discuss Iran or the US or Israel

Most don’t seem to have opinions they volunteer about that. They don’t speak much about Yemen. But when asked they do say that Iran is dangerous. They say the dynamic between the governments has the potential to explode and is one of the greatest threats. They didn’t even discuss it as rockets were being fired at Saudi. I read about that in the newspaper and I was there when the drone flew over Riyadh and there was a guy watching it on his smartphone.

In Dhammam there was a sign for conversion rates and for Qatar it was blank. 

 

Was there a lot of security

There are a lot of police vehicles going around. The highway is regulated with speed cameras. All the shops close at prayer time but there are no morality police going around trying to get people to pray, as was the case before. In the old days there used to be segregated buses. But that’s also bygone. And women working in the airport didn’t have their faces covered at the reception counters, nor on the planes.

What happened to this vanguard of terrorists striking at people not so long ago, how does the government grapple with conservative elements in society? The Crown Prince is popular among the youth. Older people may oppose the reforms but won’t speak out. And Imams who would preach against the policies will be shut up or locked away.

Very few websites seem to be blocked. We weren’t followed around and there were no minders or anything.

There are checkpoints on the highway between provinces or cities, but it wasn’t clear what they are looking for. They waved us through.

 

Did you see poverty?

There are some poor areas. I was in one apartment that was in one. They are trying to diversify the economy and provide more outside of the oil industry.  You see a lot of foreign workers. You feel their presence everywhere. Many of them from Indonesia or Pakistan.

 

Do social media sites work?

Social media works. Whattsapp works, as of recently. There were a lot of international channels as well. I didn’t try Al-Jazeera. Newspapers seemed balanced vis-a-vis their sympathies to the Palestinians with the reality of Israel's role versus Iran.

 

It seems like people don’t discuss politics much?

People self-censor a lot. They are pretty reserved. People did not respond to anti-semitic comments.  People said it was forbidden to ask someone what their background, nationalist and religion is.

 

You got to see some of the new educational initiatives, can you describe them? 

Laying the groundwork for a more diversified economy, they’re investing exorbitantly in education and done it in a short period of time, building universities, bringing in many students from abroad — Asians talented in STEM — and paying $30,000 stipends. King Abdullah Science and Technology University, the Saudi answer to MIT, is one example of a state-of-the-art campus, boasting the best endowment per student ratio in the world, and has an extremely competitive admissions process. It’s clear they are pushing toward being more modern, doing everything they can to catch up.


*Rasmussen's name was changed at his request and due to his work, his discussion is intended to give an accurate picture of his trip.

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