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Saudi Arabia is Modernizing Fast: Ken’s Thought of the Week



By Ken Abramowitz

See the sources for this article and more research in the Additional Reading section.

I recently took a trip to Saudi Arabia (SA), with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. I come away from this trip with a belief that the country is undergoing a rapid modernization process.

Historically, SA had been a “frenemy” (friend/enemy) of America. It bought huge amounts of U.S. weapons, and produced incremental oil when prices got out of control. But it also allowed the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslim clerics to spread the message of radical Islam worldwide.

Me, in front of pictures of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (left), and father and grandfather to the right. (Photo courtesy Ken Abramowitz)

During the past five years, however, the SA government, led by 35-year-old Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), is changing its historical paradigm to become more of a friend than an enemy.

Why is SA making these modernizing changes? There are several reasons:

(1) 70% of the population is below age 30, and they are demanding change.

(2) Young people are connected by smart phones and social media, and want to live like those in the West, not subjected to the legal restrictions on freedom of speech, and dissent, present in SA.

(3) The price of oil is unpredictable, and SA realizes that it must diversify its economy.

(4) Iran represents an existential threat to SA, and it needs American and even Israeli assistance to protect itself.

(5) Innovation is driving small nations like Israel and Singapore. SA also must learn to become innovative, to catch up with the modern world. It has already made some significant changes to unleash the creative spirit among its people.

During the past 50 years, SA has raised its literacy rate from 5% to 99%, cut infant mortality from 30% to 1%, and steadily raised the average life span. More recently, SA initiated particularly dramatic change over the past 5 years:

  • It vowed to “reclaim Islam”
  • It disbanded the religious police
  • It fired 3,000 hate-inciting imams
  • It is allowing Western-style music concerts
  • It is allowing women attend sports events, and to drive
  • It very recently opened up the country to tourism

Here are a few recent videos that describe the massive change occurring in SA:

Very notably, MBS announced the SA’s creation of a new city-state in northwest SA, near its borders with Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. An estimated $500 billion investment will create a new, advanced city in a new free economic zone called NEOM (new future). The city will be based on 9 economic centers that will serve innovative worldwide markets. This determination to modernize appears unstoppable, but much more change is needed for SA to be successful.

Going forward, my recommendations are that SA should:

(1) Directly re-educate its youth to become more tolerant of Christians, Jews, and Hindus and others.

(2) Allow Christian churches, and even Jewish synagogues, to be built.

(3) Stop funding mosques, schools, and universities worldwide.

(4) Create direct diplomatic relations with Israel.

(5) Stop tying foreign policy progress regarding Israel on the backs of an intransigent Palestinian Authority.

Changes of such magnitude is obviously difficult to accomplish overnight.

However, these changes are crucial to the success of SA, and its ability to thrive in a competitive world market. And MBS knows that he must make the best of the narrow window of opportunity that he managed to open.

Over 10,000 people attended Jeddah World Fest in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalid Alhaj)

Additional Reading

Saudi Arabia is America’s No. 1 weapons customer – CBS News

Why Trump is pressing Saudi Arabia to lower oil prices: Kemp – Reuters

Extremism Is Riyadh’s Top Export – Foreign Policy

Young Saudis See Cushy Jobs Vanish Along With Nation’s Oil Wealth – The New York Times

Iran’s Threat to Saudi Critical Infrastructure: The Implications of U.S.-Iranian Escalation | Center for Strategic and International Studies

Video: Israel the Startup Nation

Singapore is 3rd most innovative city globally, with innovation key to property investment: JLL, Economy News & Top Stories – The Straits Times

Riyadh May Have Unleashed More Change Than It Can Handle – Foreign Policy

‘Culture Shock Within Their Own Country’: Saudis Come To Grips With Swift Changes – NPR

Open Future – How free expression is suppressed in Saudi Arabia – The Economist

Saudi Arabia Adult literacy rate, 1960-2019 – knoema.com

Saudi Arabia Infant mortality rate, 1960-2018 – knoema.com

Saudis rise in lifespan rankings – Saudi Gazette

Video: Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving officially ends – BBC News

A Prince’s $500 Billion Desert Dream: Flying Cars, Robot Dinosaurs and a Giant Artificial Moon – WSJ

It’s a great time to be young: Saudi Arabian youth hail the changes happening in the kingdom – The National