RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia represents a key nation in the heart of the Middle East and the desert kingdom is going through dramatic economic and social changes that could change the region and its relationship with Israel.
The major challenge facing Saudi Arabia is implementing “Vision 2030.” It is an ambitious plan to transform the country from an oil-based economy to one based on business investment, technology and tourism.
“Vision 2030 is basically unlocking this potential of Saudi Arabia. Diversifying away from oil. Having a sustainable, growing economy. Engaging the private sector. Creating sustainable jobs for the locals. But also having a regional responsibility and a global responsibility as a good citizen of the world,” Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Economy and Planning Mohammed Altuwaijri told CBN News.
Dr. Yonatan Freeman of Hebrew University says Saudi Arabia can learn from Israel.
“I think that Saudi Arabia is asking Israel, ‘What’s your secret? How could you be so successful internationally using your own mind and not some sort of natural resource?’ So, I think what Saudi Arabia is going to learn from us is how do we move ahead without being dependent on just one natural resource?” Dr. Freeman explained.
One main focus of Vision 2030 is tourism. For the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia is allowing tourists from nearly 50 countries to apply for visas beginning this fall.
“Tourism is one pillar that checks all the boxes. It checks the diversification box. It checks the jobs box. The balance of payments, people will come and spend money here,” explained Altuwaijri.
One tourist attraction for people coming to Saudi Arabia would be at Al Ula, the southern capital of the Nabatean people and a UNESCO heritage site. It was part of the ancient trade routes more than two thousand years ago.
“A place that hasn’t been visited; hasn’t been studied. And we are committed to fully understand it; preserve it and share it with the world through an interpretation strategy that turns Al Ula into a one, large, engaging living museum. This is basically, the largest living museum in the world,” said Amer Madani, the CEO of the Al Ula royal commission.
In addition to economic changes, there are dramatic changes in society.
One major change in Saudi society is in soccer. Just more than a year ago, for the first time, women were permitted to attend games of the most popular sport in the country.
Some stadiums include a family section where husbands with their wives, mothers with their children or single women can come and enjoy the game.
It’s another barrier broken as part of Vision 2030.
“In the end is what we’re seeing in all over the Arab and Muslim world is that more and more, the local population is to want their countries to push of increasing the welfare of those citizens in those countries to be more open to the outside world,” Dr. Freeman explained.
But the changes come with challenges.
“One thing that Saudi Arabia has to make sure is the more they open up doesn’t cause too much of a challenge by those who are opposed to any sort of rapprochement with the West, rapprochement with other religions like Christians. So, one of the things that the regime has to be certain about is that they do it gradually,” said Dr. Freeman.
The threat of Iran overshadows this economic revolution. On September 14th Iran targeted Saudi Arabia’s main oil processing facility. It cut Saudi’s oil production drastically for several weeks.
But the vision expects to change Saudi society by cutting dependence on oil and offering a new Saudi Arabia to the world.
Amr Ahmed Banaja, CEO of the General Entertainment Authority, has a mission to “build the entertainment sector in Saudi Arabia.”
Banaja works on long-term entertainment projects like Qiddiya, a Six Flags-style amusement park to be built just outside of Riyadh. He is also working on the Red Sea Project, which is focused on developing Saudi Arabia’s coastline, and Neom, billed as a city of the future.
Neom located on the shores of the Red Sea is the largest mega project in the world today with an estimated cost of 500 billion dollars and it’s the centerpiece of Saudi Arabia’s vision 2030.
Projects like these are part of what Saudi Arabia is now opening and offering to the world.
“I think there is a lot to discover about Saudi Arabia,” said Amer Madani, CEO of the Al Ula Royal Commission.
“I think people think of Saudi Arabia as hot, camels, sand. I think this is a very monotonic view. I encourage for everybody to think about Saudi Arabia the way they think about the US. California is nothing like Florida, you know. Utah is nothing like Kansas. So, there’s a lot of beauty and details I think the world will come to see the largest living museum in the world being unveiled,” Madani continued.
How Saudi Arabia can achieve Vision 2030 or not will deeply affect the future of the Middle East.