Saudi Arabia between tradition and modernity

image: AFP

Desert landscapes pass by at breakneck speed on the “Haramain Express”. The new railway network in Saudi Arabia is one of the flagship projects of the desert state: from Mecca to Medina, about 450 kilometers, the high-speed train takes less than two and a half hours. It’s a billion-dollar prestige project tailored to the kingdom’s ambitions: high-tech connects sacred sites.

The train is not just an attraction for the legions of pilgrims who flock to Saudi Arabia year after year. Business travelers also appreciate the connection. “People are starting to realize that it’s much more comfortable than driving or flying,” says an Austria-based businessman who works intermittently in Riyadh.

About six years ago, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, or MBS for short, announced the „Vision 2030“, which aims to modernize Saudi Arabia, open up its society and make its economy independent of oil revenues. He has prescribed a violent cure for the country. Its results overwhelm even people who have long yearned for change.

Jeddah has always been considered cosmopolitan. Traders from all over the world did business here, guest workers settled who were unfamiliar with the ultra-conservative Wahhabi state Islam. Most of the country’s creative minds live in the city. It has also changed a lot, has become more colorful and lively. People no longer retreat to their homes, but go out, populate cafes and restaurants or places that look like bars, only the alcohol on the shelves is missing.

In new bars, a motley clientele amuses with booming folk music, a few older gentlemen are sitting in one corner and smoking hookahs, a few tables further young people in tight jeans, brightly colored shirts and painstakingly modeled gel hairstyles. In the center a group of fully veiled women surrounds a table at the head of which a young patriarch is enthroned. Traditional robe, under which patent leather shoes peek out, nerd glasses on the nose. “The whole country is one big disco!” says the manager from Vienna.

The country’s de facto ruler, MBS, is very sensitive to the feeling that anyone is raising even the slightest doubt about his authority. He is the one who gives the country whatever freedom he sees fit. It is better not to dare to demand more, otherwise you may be dealing with an effective repressive apparatus that, if in doubt, does not shy away from torture. Many Saudis say behind closed doors that it is difficult to calculate when you will cross a border. The majority therefore stays far away from these limits. Also, because government funding not only creates loyalty, but also dependency. If you want to be successful, you have to be part of the project. Not speaking out on sensitive issues is the path of least resistance. “It doesn’t affect my personal life,” many say again and again.

“The majority are in a state of denial – until it affects them,” says one critical journalist, one of those Saudis who suffer from not being able to speak their minds openly. “It would be good if there was more room for debate. After all, there are still circles saying that opening up only brings moral decay. And for many, life is becoming more and more expensive. Maybe some things like cinemas and concerts just turn them down because they can’t afford them”. It is not the case that the ruling house isolates itself from the problems of its subjects. They used to write letters to the royal court, but today many are cautiously taking the indirect route via social media. The Crown Prince keeps a close eye on what’s going on on Twitter.

The Saudi capital Riyadh is currently like a magnet. According to a joke, if you haven’t seen a friend from the west of the country for a long time, you only have to go to Riyadh. The city experiences a boom, which MBS promotes to the best of his ability. The number of inhabitants is expected to almost double to 14 million in the next few years, the capital is to be developed into a stronghold of the financial sector, and the new Saudi airline will use Riyadh as a hub. The new metro network is already in the test phase. A huge park is being built. In the heart of the city, the futuristic office towers rise up.

Consumption is at the center of the entrepreneurial spirit of optimism. New restaurants are opening all over the city. The large internal market is an advantage the kingdom has over its Gulf rivals, who are pursuing very similar reforms. And the high oil price relieves the state coffers. The crown prince can buy himself time and can invest in the promotion of new branches of the economy with less worries. The public investment fund is a ubiquitous player, but more large private investors are needed in the long term. The business world is still rather defensive, it has to think bigger.

That is currently left to the crown prince and his team. It is not yet clear where the kingdom’s journey will go, whether the Saudi dream will become a reality. Whether the restructuring of the economy produces noticeable results like the construction boom in Riyadh. What happens when the new openness has become a habit in a few years and enthusiasm about it wanes. What weighs more heavily in the end, the freedoms in everyday life or the lack of political freedom. The critical intellectual finds it difficult to make predictions and to weigh openness and repression against each other. On the one hand good things happen like empowering women, on the other hand you find repression against political activists. “The bad doesn’t make the good any less good, and the good doesn’t make the bad any less bad,” says the critic of Saudi politics.

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