RIYADH — In the span of a few months, Hind al-Zahid’s life has changed for the better. "My dream turned into reality," the 38-year-old Saudi says. She’s become the first woman to enter the board of directors of one of the kingdom’s airports, in the eastern city of Damman. And soon, like millions of other women, this mother of two, wearing a thin layer of makeup under her embroidered black veil will be allowed to drive a car.
"This means being able to go to work alone, driving the children to school alone, going out with them alone," she says. "It necessarily implies a strengthening of women’s role in society."
One, even two revolutions launched simultaneously in the very conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Since Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the king’s favorite son, was officially designated heir to the throne in June, there’s been an acceleration of reforms in favor of women and young people.
"The government sets the example by starting from the top," Hind al-Zahid says, in reference to Sarah al-Suhaimi, the first woman to have entered the board of directors of the Riyadh stock exchange, and Rania Nashar, the first Saudi woman to chair a commercial bank.
At a recent two-day summit organized by the prince’s MISK Foundation, young and not so young attendees listened to speakers, most of whom came from the U.S. to talk about innovation, economic intelligence, e-market. "We need a leader to change things, not just a manager that runs the kingdom," says Amer al-Othashan, who has just launched his own business.
Sarah al-Suhaimi — Source: Future Investment Initiative screenshot
And indeed, how things have changed in just six months. After decades of dormancy, Saudi Arabia was awoken by this young, authoritarian and impulsive prince who’s not afraid to shake up old traditions. MBS has initiated a transformation of the economy that relied exclusively on oil, he’s introduced taxes, allowed women to drive while at the same time bringing the ultra-conservative religious establishment to heel, not to mention his spectacular anti-corruption purge, which has hit some of the richest people in the country, several princes and many businessmen among them.
Leading her own startup, 37-year-old Maha Taiba had long been waiting for this moment. "There’s been reforms regarding work," this former state employee explains. "In the past, there was no social security, so it was very difficult for young people to start their own business. And for mothers, there’s now a longer maternity leave and it’s easier to have access to nurseries. The prince’s agenda might be aggressive, but it’s giving us opportunities."
Nobody is above the law.
For the future Saudi king, who should in all likelihood be king for a long time given his young age of 32 (his father, King Salman, is 81), it’s all quite simple: 70% of his future subjects are under 30, as are half of the unemployed, whose number has grown since lower oil prices have undercut the kingdom's wealth. Here, just like for the Iranian enemy across the Gulf, the youth represents a time bomb. "If you want to develop Saudi Arabia, you simply can’t afford to marginalize half of the population. 60% of those who graduate from high school are women," Hind al-Zahid says.
"His anti-corruption offensive shows that nobody is above the law," says Nour Suliman al-Numair, a young doctor at the genetics department of a Riyadh hospital. "We’d been waiting for this for a long time."
King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA/ZUMA
For decades, young Saudis had been left uninspired and shut off. No cinemas, no concerts, no mixed restaurants. Sure, on Fridays, a public holiday, the wealthiest get some excitement by driving up and down the sand dunes in their four-wheel drives. And others kill time watching videos on YouTube. Saudi society is one of the most connected in the world: 8 million Saudis, out of a whole population of 22 million, have a Facebook account. "We would interact on social networks a lot, but it was all virtual. We are in the concrete world now," Maha Taiba says.
The crown prince is giving them a perspective. "Five or six years ago, we would have been treated as children, now we feel our voices are heard," says Abdelaziz al-Bassam, who’s just returning from Harvard University. "You go to the supermarket or to the airport and you now see young Saudis working."
Not everybody is willing to accept this sudden transformation.
Of course, Riyadh’s hip youth is hardly representative of all young people in Saudi Arabia, a country where a small fringe is still seduced by jihadist ideals. But each step forward is an indisputable victory. These young people now want to believe that things can never go back to what they were before — they’re ready for modernity.
"Now, as a woman, I can take part in meetings with senior officials," says Maha Taiba. "I feel I can raise my voice and go to the authorities to denounce wrongful behaviors, I feel I’m being heard."
But in the country of the two sacred mosques of Mecca and Medina, not everybody is willing to accept this sudden transformation. That starts with the ultra-conservative religious establishment — and the fearsome religious police, which for the moment is keeping a low profile. "You still see them sometimes in shopping malls, but their role is now clearly defined and limited to support and no longer to repress," Nour Suliman al-Numair says. "If the Wahhabi want to remain Wahhabi, they will be able to do that, but they no longer will be able to impose their view."
To be sure, MBS is leaving little room for those opposed to his reforms. Many of them — including in religious circles — were among those arrested in September. "I’ve never been prouder of my country," Hind al-Zahid says. "I used to be rather pessimistic about my daughter’s future. I’m optimistic now."
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