Over the past decades, Saudi Arabia has evolved in all spheres of life. By affirming itself as an economic nation, modernized society, and peacemaker in the Middle East, it withholds the power to transform regional and global relations.
Saudi Arabia is on track to be the fastest-growing G-20 Economy. The government has launched an ambitious economic reform program known as Vision 30, seeking to diversify the country’s economy and reduce its dependence on oil exports, all while sustainably managing its revenues. Sweeping pro-business reforms have matched with a sharp rise in oil prices and a powerful recovery from a pandemic-induced recession in 2020. Furthermore, being the largest country in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia holds a strong influence in shaping the regional economic order by working to promote economic cooperation among the GCC countries, investing in initiatives such as the Arab Free Trade Zone, hoping to create a common market among Arab countries. With its GDP expected to expand by 7.6 percent, Saudi Arabia is considered the fastest growing economy in almost a decade. Finally, by being a founder member of OPEC, the country has had the upper-hand over global oil supply and demand, making it a crucial weapon in controlling regional economies and geopolitical relations. Indeed, Saudi Arabia could choose to increase or decrease its oil production in response to diplomatic or economic pressures as was seen in 2016 when oil production was cut to stabilize prices and pressure non-OPEC member Russia to cooperate on production policies.
In some places around the world, religion isn’t simply a way of life – it’s the law. Bound to forever being “The Land with the Two Holy Mosques”, Islam has been the identity of the population. The country’s legal system has long been based on the Islamic law and implements a strict adherence to religious practices, individual morality and behavior. The nation promoted itself as a guardian of Islam and defender of Muslim causes, which has allowed it to form alliances with other Islamic nations, mainly in the Middle East. While its religious identity has allowed it to gain influence in the Muslim world, it has also created challenges in its relations with Western countries. In other words, the Wahhabism ideology, prohibition of alcohol, and women’s relegation in society caused conflict with the West known for the opposed cultural and social norms. It wasn’t until MBS’s rule that a call for moderate Islam was made, in an attempt to refine ties with the US, and other westernized policies.
Lining up with moderate Islamic values, the cultural and entertainment industry has had significant growth positioning the nation as a more inclusive society. Indeed, the growing appetite for music, film, and theater has led to the emergence of a thriving cultural scene with a growing number of artists and entrepreneurs entering the market. Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman launched a new era into the kingdom featuring Formula One racing, American-inspired concerts, and attractive tourist spots.
Saudi Arabia’s journey towards gender equality and women’s rights has been a gradual and ongoing process, trying to meet and exceed the global norm. For centuries, Saudi Arabia was known for codifying male guardianship, promoting a male dominated judiciary and embodying gender-based discrimination. Obeying by righteousness, committing to legitimate reasoning, functioning on the essence of a patriarchal culture are principles that have been tormenting Saudi women since the country’s beginning. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022, Saudi Arabia was ranked 127th out of 153 countries. On International Women’s Day of 2022, the first Personal Status Law was established. While this may welcome a progressive path, the law rests with inconsistent interpretations among other gaps to fill. Nonetheless, significant milestones were achieved in recent years. In September 2022, the kingdom announced a new astronaut program featuring a first female Saudi astronaut to the International Space Station in the name of Mishaal Ashemimry, a female Saudi national and first to be elected as one of the Vice Presidents of the International Astronautical Federation. Moreover, according to the Kingdom’s Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, female labor participation reached 37 percent last year. The progress of Saudi Arabian women in politics, business, education, and the arts is a testament to the nation’s commitment in promoting female leadership. Through their notable achievements, they have also strengthened the nation’s economy, increased its global competitiveness, and paved the way for greater female representation in many positions. Therefore, under the rule of MBS we may hear the echoes of a long-awaited liberation, but without the new norm’s entire emergence, an overall internalization of women’s emancipation remains a work in progress.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia took over this week’s headlines by reconciling ties with its long-time rival: Iran. While a great amount of distrust remains, Saudi Arabia and Iran demonstrate a phenomenal evolution going from an adversarial history to a cooperative partnership. This deal was conceived out of need to restore peace in the Middle East, work on filling the power vacuums left by the United States and Russia, and most importantly counter to counter China. In 2019, China hosted a meeting between Saudi and Iranian officials in Beijing in an attempt to reduce tensions between the two countries. China has also played a role in regional security by participating in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s security dialogue and by providing military assistance to both Saudi Arabia and Iran. By reopening diplomatic ties, the oil-rich countries are attempting to rebuild the region’s economy and security and shield it from external interventions that may disrupt its political structure. In other words, the renewed union indicates shifting geopolitical tensions and is likely welcoming the construction of a new Middle East.
Therefore, with its large economic investments, political changes, evolving social norms, and growing influence, the kingdom is poised to reshape power dynamics in the Middle East and beyond.
Edited by Sophie Gunyon.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image by Nadir Hashmi obtained via Flickr under a Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.