Naharnet

Conservative Saudi Arabia Loosens Up

Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most conservative countries, is undertaking major social and economic reforms including allowing women to drive from June 24.

Here is an overview of the ancient kingdom's far-reaching modernization drive under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

- Curbing oil addiction -

Even before he is named heir to the throne in June 2017, the powerful young prince initiates a major reform plan to reduce the kingdom's dependence on oil, of which it is the world's top exporter.

Vision 2030, approved in April 2016, includes privatizing part of oil giant Aramco and creating a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund.

It will also elevate the role of women in the workforce and massively invest in the underdeveloped entertainment sector to boost domestic spending.

In August 2017 Saudi Arabia announces a major tourism project to turn 50 islands and a string of sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

It plans to issue tourist visas in 2018, another first for the desert kingdom though no firm date is announced.

- Women stepping out -

In September 2017 a royal decree announces the end of a ban on women driving -- the only one of its kind in the world -- to take effect in June 2018.

In other reforms, women are allowed to enter a football stadium to watch a match for the first time in January 2018, an easing of rules separating the sexes.

In February Riyadh announces women will be allowed to open their own businesses without the consent of a male relative.

The same month, a scholar on the kingdom's highest religious body says on television women should not have to wear the abaya. It is the first such comment from a senior religious figure.

In May Riyadh adopts a law outlawing sexual harassment.

Restrictions remain though, including that women need permission from a male relative to study and travel.

- End of 'destructive ideas' -

In October 2017 Prince Mohammed pledges a "moderate, open" Saudi Arabia.

"We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas," he says.

Saudi society has been dominated by Wahhabism, a harsh strain of conservative Islam, since the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by around 400 extremists.

They were angered at what they saw as society's plunge into immorality, with Muslims embracing "Western" entertainment.

After the men were dislodged in a bloody military assault, their influence remained.

Religious leaders took measures such as banning cinemas and imposing restrictions on women, requiring them to be covered in a full-length black abaya in public and limiting their role.

- Catwalks and cinema -

In February 2018 the kingdom announces it will invest $64 billion in boosting its lagging entertainment sector, including for new venues and flying in Western acts. 

The first concerts are held in December, followed by the country's first-ever jazz festival in February and an opera that draws crowds at Riyadh University.

In April Riyadh hosts its first Fashion Week, although the event is women-only. 

It also holds its first public film screening in more than 35 years, with what theater owners say is a sold-out showing of Hollywood blockbuster "Black Panther".

- Arrests -

In June 2018 the government announces the arrest of 17 people, casting a pall on its much-publicized liberalization push.

They are mostly identified by rights groups as women campaigners for the right to drive and to end the male guardianship system.

State security says they had conspired to "destabilize the kingdom" and collaborated with foreign parties. Eight are provisionally released until the investigation is completed.

Source: Agence France Presse


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