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The Rapid Modernization of Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia, an oil-producing giant with strict conservative views and the wealthiest royal family in the world, is taking steps to diversify their economic structure away from oil. Under Vision 2030, Crowned Prince Mohammed Bin Salma has revolutionary plans to evolve the economy from nearly every sector imaginable. From relaxed restrictions for women to artificial intelligence in healthcare to building a city in a literal line, the Kingdom has made serval modernisation announcements that have raised eyebrows and received mixed reviews from all over the world. The country is modernising faster than in the previous decade in a direction that emphasises a sustainable and optimistic future. Here is a look at several investments, future projects, and what they mean for a country that previously relied solely on oil to boost its economy.

Visions 2030: born from a booming economy

Saudi Arabia's economy has been flourishing during the last few years. In 2022, the World Bank named Saudi Arabia one of the fastest-growing economies due to a price hike in oil and a fast recovery amid the COVID-19-induced recession in 2020 (Mati & Rehman, 2022). Although Saudi oil dependency is not going away anytime soon, Crowned Prince Mohammed Bin Salma (MBS) plans to expand the economy away from oil to become a technologically advanced powerhouse under Vision 2030. Vision 2030 encompasses three main pillars: a vibrant society, a thriving economy, and an ambitious nation (Zhavoronkov, 2022). Here are a few of the initiatives included in Vision 2030:

1. Relaxed restrictions for women:

A highly-anticipated aspect of Vision 2030 focuses on female empowerment and gender equality. Saudi Arabia has been making strides to break the notion that Saudi women live under oppression. Reforms began in 2018 under a royal decree set by MBS that allowed women to obtain a driver's license, and by 2019 women were allowed to own a passport and leave the country without a man's permission (BBC, 2019). Women's rights have since remained at the forefront of Vision 2030 and will continue to grow. The World Bank's report on Women, Business, and the Law 2020 recognised Saudi Arabia as a top reformer due to historic advances regarding women's economic participation (World Bank, 2020). Several women thus far have been appointed to top positions within projects related to Vision 2030. So far, the number of Saudi women in the workforce has doubled in the past four years to 33 per cent, exceeding Vision 2030's target of 30 per cent (Mati & Rehman, 2022). While many within the country have criticised the crowned prince, several countries in Europe and America have praised MBS for his modernisation moves. This reform will benefit women by breaking cultural boundaries and the country as a whole by increasing productivity and diversity.

2. Tourist attractions

Besides easing restrictions on women, Saudi Arabia has planned several ambitious tourist attractions. The largest plan to date is Neom, a series of four North destinations close to the Red Sea. Neom represents a new future, which is precisely what the name means. According to Neom's website, the name took inspiration from the Arabic word mustaqbal, meaning future, and the Greek word neo, meaning new. Plans for the region certainly live up to the name, as it is described as an accelerator of human progress and an attempt to do something that has never been seen before (Neom, 2017). Each destination will be powered by sustainable energy and will focus on a connection between people, the planet, and the future. Neom is expected to increase the job market for Saudi nationals by thousands of jobs in tourism, technology, and energy. From a city that will reach 170 meters long to a luxury island resort, a ski resort in the desert, as well as a hub for technology and Artificial intelligence development, here is what each city will offer:

  • Sindalah

Sindalah is expected to be the first showcase of Neom and is projected to be completed by 2024. Sindalah represents the future of luxury travel with yacht clubs, resorts, spas, and a unique marine experience. Sindalah will reflect the idea of nature preservation in the Red Sea, groundbreaking technology in sustainable energy, and of course, never before seen luxury (Neom, 2017). The island getaway is one of the most important supporting projects for Saudi Arabia’s tourism strategy and will create over 3,000 jobs in the tourism sector.

  • Oxagon

Oxagon is a city dedicated to innovators and entrepreneurs. This floating city represents a reimagined industrial city "where people, industries, and technology come together in harmony with nature" (Neom, 2017). The city is close to the Suez Canal, where 13 per cent of global trade passes through, and will include a "state-of-the-art integrated port and airport connectivity"(Diaz, 2022). Currently, the largest port connecting Europe to the Middle East is in Dubai; if Oxagon comes to fruition, there will be no need for ships to manoeuvre the entire Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and up past Oman. While this might spell trouble for the economy in the UAE, Saudi's economy will flourish with new trade possibilities. Apart from manoeuvring trade business away from the UAE, the city will also focus on sustainable energy, food production, modern construction methods, and other development sectors. Oxagon will create around 70,000 jobs, mainly related to science and technology.

  • Trojena

Trojena, a mountain ski resort, won Saudi Arabia the bid to host the 2029 Olympic games as the first country in western Asia. This alone is a considerable accomplishment, as west Asia has a reputation for being "undeveloped". Apart from the Olympics, this unique destination redefines mountain tourism with year-round skiing, a man-made lake, and plenty of adventure opportunities (Neom, 2017). It will be completed by 2026 and will create around 10,000 jobs.

  • The Line

The final and, some call, the most ambitious project connected to Neom is The Line. "The Line is a civilisational revolution that puts humans first, providing an unprecedented urban living experience while preserving the surrounding nature" (Neom, 2017). It represents the future of city living and will fit into an area of 200 meters wide and 170 meters long. The line will contain no roads or cars, offsetting emissions from standard vehicles. The two sides will be connected via a walkway and a high-speed train under the structure that will take people from end to end in just 20 minutes (Neom, 2017). Saudi Arabia anticipates that it will eventually be home to 9 million people.

3. Artificial Intelligence in Health care

Another development within Vision 2030 is Artificial intelligence (AI) and innovative healthcare. AI is virtually everywhere as the world is already accustomed to voice assistants on our phones, facial recognition, and now ChatGPT. Saudi Arabia wants to take that technology further by incorporating it into science and the healthcare system. The Saudi Genome Project will use AI to "develop personalised medicine practice, reduce the cost of healthcare, and improve the quality of life" (Vision 2030, 2016). This project was created with the mindset of extending a healthy life for everyone on the planet. As the price of health care becomes increasingly expensive, and the process of getting healthcare is difficult, Saudi Arabia could have the power to transform the medical system and become a hub for medical procedures. "It (Vision 2030) is actually designed to make Saudi Arabia one of the most competitive countries in terms of scientific innovation" (Zhavoronkov, 2022). MBS certainly has the money to compete on a global scale, and he has partnered with and created many companies to find the means to compete. The Saudi Data and AI authority and The Saudi Company for Artificial Intelligence will focus on positioning Saudi Arabia as a global leader in AI advancements within the realm of healthcare and society. Along with these companies, Saudi Arabia is partnering with other global tech companies to optimise the benefits of AI for sustainable development, Arabic-related AI capabilities, and other AI services (Zhavoronkov, 2022). This is one of the more tangible projects to come out of Vision 2030, and the development of advanced AI will help progress the other Vision 2030 developments more smoothly.

A new ear for Saudi Arabia?

Details for many of these projects are primarily outlined on Vision 2030 and Neom's Website due to several critics with doubts about these projects coming to fruition. In terms of Neom, the costs are high, they want these cities to run on 100 per cent renewable energy, and they are very ambitious projects. These projects might seem far out of reach, but other projects attached to Vision 2030 have already come to light. Al Ula, Saudi Arabia's Petra, became the country's first UNESCO World Heritage site and focuses on preserving an ancient city, archaeology, and tourism (Vision 2030, 2016). For a family that boasts a net worth of over 1 trillion dollars, they have nearly all the money in the world to help change the face of tourism, technology, healthcare, and so much more. It is refreshing to see the fruits of such a mass amount of oil money go towards a positive future and should not be discredited quite yet.

About the Writer

Leah Tyler is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder. She graduated with a Major in International Affairs, a minor in Political Science and a certificate in Peace, Conflict, and Security Studies. She spent part of her time studying sustainable development as well as politics and religious and ethnic divides across the Middle East and Africa.

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