Saudi Arabia in Nine Acts - by Alberto Zannoni
Saudi Arabia is a controversial country. It holds a debatable track record in human rights and gender equality, while virtually its whole economy runs on oil in the age of global warming. Many people are ready to express dissent when asked to comment on it. Having little knowledge of Saudi Arabia and no previous experience on the ground, venturing inside this country with an open mind was likely the best decision I could take.
I was quickly and positively surprised by the warmth of the Arab nation. From the moment I stepped off the plane I met very welcoming people, happy to share the beauty of their country with us. Wherever I went, people would be curious about my birthplace and would do their best to make me feel at home. Surprisingly a large chunk of the locals speak English well and are eager to practice with foreigners. Nobody during my stay tried to question my beliefs or promote his ideals.
Conversations were always open and respectful: both sides would be genuinely interested in knowing what the other party had to say. People were always eager to help, some going as far as offering us drinks and inviting us into their homes to share traditional Arabic coffee and food with us. I never felt so welcomed in any country I ever visited.
Saudi Arabia has still got a long way to go before becoming a world-class tourist destination. Until recently, virtually all the foreigners visiting the country were pilgrims on the way to Mecca and Medina. The country is not ready for mass, global tourism. The infrastructure is still sub-par. Some airports are old and inefficient, while public transport does not exist1 . Our group was lucky to be granted special access to unique activities (visiting the headquarters of Saudi Aramco, watching horse races from the royal box, just to name a few). I doubt that a normal visitor could find enough diverse activities to fill ten days without getting bored. The nightlife is non-existent. Because of the alcohol ban, there are no bars, clubs or any other afterhours gathering places, except for massive malls. On the bright side, traveling around the country, makes one feel more like an explorer than a tourist. Souvenirs shops are rare and merchants respectful of your right not to buy. The magic of going somewhere other people have not been to makes one feel like a merchant on the Silk Road. It is rare for travellers to find “untouched” land nowadays. Saudi Arabia is one of these special, last places.
The country is adapting and modernising rapidly. A few years ago, it would have been hard to obtain a visa for Saudi, cinemas or concerts did not exist. It is now2 easy for many countries to obtain a tourist visa and cinemas are common (though still undersupplied) in all major cities of the Kingdom. Events like the Riyadh season, a series of mixed-gender concerts taking place during the months of October, November and December in Riyadh were unthinkable or even banned just a few years ago. The religious police (CPVPV) was stripped of its powers in 2019. Interacting with locals of different sex and ages, it is easy to understand the reforms brought about by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Sa’ud have long been waited for. New generations are the loudest supporters of this paradigm shift, although many older people are just as optimistic. There is however a desire to modernise without becoming a bad copy of the west.
People are strongly attached to their traditions and hold a shared desire not to lose the country’s values. Saudi Arabia wants to modernise on its own terms, whether it will succeed only time will tell.
Women’s rights have improved rapidly, but complete freedom is still lagging. Less than two years ago women were granted the right to drive. To understand the huge impact of such a decision, one needs to understand the basic characteristics of Saudi Arabia. The country is built around cars, walking from place to place is inconvenient given how spread-out cities are; the extreme summer heat makes it virtually impossible. Not being able to drive is equivalent to being unable to independently leave one’s home. Allowing women to drive meant a huge improvement in their freedom. Women used to be unable to renew their passports without the permission of their father, husband or even brother. They now are. While progressive examples were available before the reforms, the women we met were very vocal on how these and other changes have immensely improved their lives. Social pressure, however, still dampens the progress made by law. While in cities women have witnessed significant improvement in their freedom, social forces, especially in rural areas, leave many of these changes on paper. It is somewhat hard to offer a thorough report of where women’s rights stand today. It is clear however that things are changing rapidly and for the better, giving hope for further improvements in the future.
Quite surprisingly to many westerners is the diversity in the social structure of Saudi Arabia. While the discovery of oil meant a general improvement in the living conditions of the vast majority, poverty exists like in any other country and only a small minority lives a lavish and somewhat surreal life. The sense of community however prevents or at least largely limits the existence of extreme poverty. Like a young Saudi explained to us, when someone is struggling, the whole family will come together to support her. The state-funded system of study abroad scholarship helps level differences arising from census.
Every year hundreds of thousands of Saudis nowadays complete their higher education abroad, mainly in the UK, US and Canada, entirely funded by the Saudi government. This feat is unmatched anywhere else in the western world and provides an example of excellence by Saudi Arabia.
The economy of the Kingdom still relies heavily on oil. With daily oil production hovering around 9 million barrels and internal consumption nearing 3 million, it is hard to imagine how could Saudi Arabia continue thriving were the price of or demand for oil dropped suddenly. The pivotal role of fossil fuel in the global economy however will ensure a constant and reliable stream of income for the country for years to come. Aware of these threats, the Kingdom has been diversifying its economy. Greater vertical integration in the petrochemical industry added the export of refined products, plastics and chemicals to that of crude oil. The country is aware
that to sustain growth in the long-run capital accumulation alone is not sufficient. The development of a highly technical institution with world-class laboratories and research facilities like KAUST, will support Saudi Arabia's continuous success in the future. Initiatives in renewable energy, although still limited, will help the country become less dependent on fossil fuels. Attracting international tourism could offer another stream of revenue for the country. Though the components are there, it still remains unclear how successful will the Kingdom be in diversifying away from oil.
Saudi Aramco manages the entire production of fossil fuels in the country, employing some 60,000 people. The huge developments undertaken by the company are impressive and show what is achievable when there are economic incentives to allocate resources in a certain way. These incentives led the company to push the boundaries of research and development to maximise and streamline production. While visiting the headquarters of the most valuable listed company in the world, we were shown new virtual and advanced reality tools which are being used to train Aramco’s personnel or visualise in 3D the structure of oil wells in a specific field. The production of oil in Saudi Arabia is not going to drop any time soon. The company strictly manages its resources to ensure its long-term viability. Virtually all oil fields are still active, and none has been depleted yet, with the vast majority of oil being extracted with conventional means (i.e. no fracking). It is thought that as technology advances, new ways of extracting oil will be discovered, largely prolonging the duration of Saudi Arabia’s reserves. Although fossil fuel dependency has large negative impacts on the planet, it could be argued that the extraction of oil in the desert has less severe consequences on the environment than in other parts of the world. Saudi Aramco consistently ranks as one of the most environmentally friendly oil companies in the world. An important feature of the past decades has been the implementation of natural gas collection for internal use, instead of simply flaring it as a by- product of extraction. The observer, however, is left to wonder whether many of the initiatives undertaken by the company are significant steps toward a greener future or outright greenwashing campaigns. The company has admittedly built only one wind turbine in Saudi Arabia and boasts its solar carpark roofs as its biggest achievement in solar energy at present. The ways in which the company is implementing new technologies (e.g. AI, drones...) to improve production and reduce environmental impact also appear more like a gig to impress the visitor rather than real developments.
It is unclear how the Kingdom will maintain positive relationships with conflicting powers, namely China and the United States. Saudi Arabia has historically been an ally and trading partner of the US. The Kingdom who has one of the largest military spending in the world imports virtually all of its military equipment from the US. More recently relationships with China have grown stronger. The country openly supports the new Belt and Road initiative which mimics the old Silk Road and is supposed to help propel China as the superpower of the future. The sale of fossil fuels in Yuan to the Asian country by Saudi Arabia could also dent the hegemony of the dollar worldwide and help China establish itself. The Kingdom has recently promoted the study of Chinese among its youth and is largely ignoring the way Uyghurs are being treated by China, as admitted by Dr. Awad Albadi. As the relationship between China and Saudi Arabia evolves, the one between Saudi Arabia and the US is likely to change too, in which direction, it is not clear.
The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia originates from the shared desire of political hegemony in the region. As mentioned by Dr. Turki Al Awad the differences between Shias and Sunnis play a largely minor role. Saudi Arabia is openly determined to develop nuclear capabilities or outright nuclear weapons, were Iran to do so. This could severely hinder the non-proliferation agreement in the region. As the Kingdom perceives Iran as an existential threat as vice-versa, it seems as if the divergences between these two powers will not be reconciled any time in the near future.
Saudi Arabia may still have a long way to go in terms of political and economic development, but it is progressing steadily. The future is promising, and one shall not make the mistakes of confusing the inhabitants of a country with its government. As Dr. Turki Al Awad puts it, the country does not want to change overnight, but is determined to keep improving and growing in a consistent way. Its progress may appear small from the outside, but the country has already come a long way for insiders. I am deeply grateful to Gateway KSA for having given me this unique opportunity to get an insider perspective on what is happening in the Kingdom. Given how much has changed in the past two years I look forward to observing how the country will evolve in the next 10.
Alberto Zannoni was born in Italy, but has lived in Canada, Hong Kong, Seychelles and England since then. He currently lives in London where he studies Economics and Management at King’s College London.
Disclaimer The following opinion piece touches upon a series of different topics the coverage of which should not be considered as exhaustive. The reader should bear in mind the complexity of each of the nine subjects presented. The following text should be interpreted as a short summary of the writer’s experience as a way to share his newly acquired knowledge with others. The writer does not intend to provide consent or dissent to the policies implemented by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but simply improved the reader’s understanding of this country and stimulated the reader’s reflexion. The writer invites the reader to conduct her own independent research and verify any claims made in the following text. Some of the names in the following piece of work have been concealed to preserve the speaker’s anonymity.