Saudi Arabia Is Modernizing Fast
I recently took a trip to Saudi Arabia (SA) with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. I came 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 US 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.
During the past five years, however, the SA government, led by 35-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad 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:
- Seventy percent of the population is below age 30, and they are demanding change.
- 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 — as well as human rights abuses.
- The price of oil is unpredictable, and SA realizes that it must diversify its economy.
- Iran represents an existential threat to SA, and it needs American and even Israeli assistance to protect itself.
- Innovation is driving small nations like Israel and Singapore. SA also must learn to become innovative, and 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 five 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; and
- It very recently opened up the country to tourism.
Very notably, MBS announced the 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 nine 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:
- Directly reeducate its youth to become more tolerant of Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others.
- Allow Christian churches, and even Jewish synagogues, to be built.
- Stop funding mosques, schools, and universities worldwide.
- Create direct diplomatic relations with Israel.
- Stop tying foreign policy progress regarding Israel to the intransigent Palestinian Authority.
- Institute real human rights reforms, and show respect for religious freedom, civil rights, and dignity of life.
Changes of such magnitude are 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.
Kenneth S. Abramowitz is the founder of SaveTheWest.