Illustration by Joaquín Kunkel

What does Saudi’s Hyperactivity Really Tell Us?

Saudi Arabia may implement more policy reforms in the domestic sphere to compensate for an unexpected slowdown in the sphere of economic reform.

Nov 5, 2017

Over the past five months, Saudi Arabia has caught our attention on multiple occasions. A series of radical domestic changes – international ones aside – have garnered a variety of responses from the international community, some critical and others avidly supportive. A closer look at the kingdom’s behavior in the domestic sphere suggests that we should expect similar types of policy and legal reforms vis-à-vis society and culture to be implemented in the near future to compensate for an unexpected slowdown in the sphere of economic reform.
In April 2015, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman launched a comprehensive, ambitious reform package to overhaul the Saudi economy and society by 2030. The goals of the Saudi Vision 2030 are numerous, but the one that arguably stands out from the rest is to wean the Saudi economy off oil dependency and expand the private sector. However, two years in, the Saudis seem to be struggling.
While the summer of 2016 was defined as a period of partnership creation with foreign software development firms and defence contractors for the sake of job creation and foreign direct investment, the fruits of such labor have yet to be borne. There is an imperative to divert Saudi workers away from the public sector and into the private, but the Saudis have only had some success with expanding the latter. The same goes for non-oil growth. While there was some growth, it fell short of the ambitiously set targets. The good news is that the Saudis seem to be moving in the target direction; the bad news is that they’re moving at snail’s pace relative to their 2030 plan.
Societal reform trends, especially those regarding women, exist in an entirely different ballpark, with a positive and rapid trajectory. Inherent in the Saudi 2030 Vision plan is the recognition that women are an untapped domestic source of potential in terms of increasing employment in the private sector. So far the Saudis have done well in incorporating women in this sector: the number of Saudi women in the private sector has risen from 30,000 in 2005 to 500,000 in 2015.
Parallel to increasing women’s economic participation is the acceptance that the culture surrounding women in Saudi Arabia will have to undergo radical changes if this source is to be harnessed for economic good. This cultural shift has started somewhat suddenly. Just over a month ago, in a watershed milestone movement, the kingdom lifted its ban on female drivers, and very recently, women have been granted access to sporting stadiums. Even more contentious, Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to a female robot named Sofia, last week.
A sudden shift in gears to social reform may be an effort to compensate for the disappointing performance in the economic reform sphere. Paying more attention to social aspects of Saudi culture may be, at present, the most feasible option the Saudis have to maintain momentum on their trajectory towards achieving their goals. Economic reform is proving to be much more difficult than the House of Saud has initially envisioned, a challenge compounded by the taxing Saudi-led war in Yemen, among other regional diplomatic issues. Therefore social and political reform seems to have moved up on the Saudi agenda. Although not vocal about the downturns in their economic reform plans, the Saudis openly express their ‘on-track’ status when it comes to improving the status of women. This suggests that the Saudis’ see the importance of keeping up with their Vision 2030 goals, which currently requires a prioritization of social reforms.
As long as Saudi Arabia struggles to make gains in their plan to steer their economy away from oil-fuelled public spending, we can expect more social-based reforms to make up for the economic shortfalls. Although perhaps not made entirely for their intrinsic merit – to overcome the negative effects of not allowing women to drive vehicles, according to the Saudi royal decree – these types of reforms are clearly necessary to keep the Saudi Vision 2030 in sight.
Simrat Roopra is a Middle East and Africa Politics Columnist. Email her at
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