The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is transforming. The once traditional, conservative, Arab nation welcomed a new leader in 2017, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, sometimes known as MBS. Under his tenure, MBS revealed an ambitious new strategy for the country’s future embodied under the name ‘Vision 2030’. This radical policy has three main objectives—grow an “ambitious nation”, produce a “thriving economy”, and stimulate a “vibrant society”. In practice, this means diversifying the nation’s economy away from its fossil fuel reserves and opening the nation’s culture to the world.
The ‘Vision 2030’ doctrine is now gathering pace. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has allegedly spent over $1.5 billion to host numerous sporting events. From football matches such as the Spanish Super Cup to horse races, world-heavyweight title boxing matches, and motorsport (including most recently Formula 1), the kingdom is spending big on securing the rights to host these prestigious events.
This so-called ‘sportwashing’ is controversial; on the one hand, citizens of Saudi Arabia are excited to witness such events on their doorstep, given just years ago it would have been inconceivable to see world-class sport being hosted in the Kingdom. However, human rights activists argue that such events act as a cover-up to the reality of life in Saudi Arabia, where human rights violations remain a large-scale issue that the kingdom has not dealt with.
It is not just sports where Saudi Arabia wants to grow its reputation—the country has made sustained efforts to open to wider tourism. The simplification of its once-notorious complex visa system in 2019 was seen as a signal of intent, with citizens of 49 countries now able to receive a one-year tourism visa when they complete a simple online form.
Saudi Arabia is also investing heavily in tourism infrastructure, in a bid to showcase the kingdom’s rich and diverse tourism sector. Headlining these projects is NEOM—a set of world-first initiatives which could transform the way people live. Projects like ‘The Line’, which would be a 170km long city built in the heart of the desert with “zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions”, and ‘Trojena’, a new mountain and ski resort which could be ready by 2026, are just two examples which show that the kingdom is serious in spending all it can to achieve the goals set out in ‘Vision 2030’.
Saudi Arabia’s sudden change in policy, spearheaded by MBS, can appear confusing. Why would this Arab nation be so willing to break away from its conservative past and open to the world? According to “Vision 2030”, Saudi Arabia wants to do this because it believes it has the qualities of a world-leading nation, such as its prime geographical position between three continents, and its youthful working population (over 70% of Saudis are under the age of 35).
‘Vision 2030’ wants to tap into the kingdom’s strengths, and in doing so propel the country into a global leader in soft power. This motive would be hard to achieve—at best, Saudi Arabia can only really be seen as a regional superpower, that is constantly in a power struggle with other regional powers (namely Iran). While the country is fortunate to possess vast natural resources and house the two holiest sites in Islam, ‘Vision 2030’ wants to diversify the country’s reputation, and in doing so vie for stronger influence in the global arena.
However, it is impossible to mention Saudi Arabia without discussing its human rights violations, and it is this fact that could hinder the ‘Vision 2030’ plan. The kingdom’s position on human rights has become somewhat of a juxtaposition in recent years. Once ridiculed rules such as forbidding women to drive or to travel without a male companion, to bans on music concerts and cinemas have all been lifted, allowing the young population to enjoy unprecedented civil liberties.
Yet, in the days leading up to last month’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, 81 men were executed for their crimes, in the largest mass execution in the country for years. Saudi Arabia is also actively engaged in warfare in Yemen, which has resulted in an extreme humanitarian disaster in Yemen, with over 23.7 million in need of aid, 13 million of whom are children. No matter how hard the kingdom tries, it is nearly impossible to ignore the country’s past record, from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to its oppressive criminal justice system.
Whether the ‘Vision 2030’ can therefore succeed remains to be seen. To insiders, the policy is widely celebrated, giving citizens newfound freedoms, and accelerating the country in becoming a global soft power, its “ulterior motive”. Outsiders however seem more sceptical of the kingdom’s activities, as its human rights record remains patchy to say the least, something that no ‘sportwashing’ or vanity tourism projects can over up.
Image: U.S. Department of State via Wikimedia Commons