Saudi Arabia is rapidly pursuing its comprehensive reform agenda, introducing policies and initiatives to modernise the country and strengthen its economy. Included in the programme are steps to improve women’s participation in business, which is seen as crucial to the kingdom’s progress.
The Saudi Ministry of Commerce and Investment has announced that “women can now launch their own businesses and benefit from [governmental] e-services without having to prove consent from a guardian.”
The move is a watershed development in Saudi Arabia, where women had been required to secure written permission from a male guardian to legally start a business venture. It comes as part of broader efforts to empower women through the country’s Vision 2030 reform programme.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia reversed its long-standing ban on female driving and eased aspects of its male guardianship system, granting women independent access to government services, jobs, education and health care without the need for prior consent.
Saudi women have also been allowed to join male fans at athletic events and Riyadh recently hosted the first all-women’s squash tournament, which Saudi women participated in.
In an interview with NBC News, Fatimah Baeshen, spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, stressed that the Saudi reform drive would encompass all segments of Saudi society.
“There’s something within Vision 2030 for everyone,” Baeshen said. “It talks about opening up. It talks about diversifying. It talks about developing various industries like entertainment, like sports, attracting more foreign investments, etc.” She added that Saudi Arabia was not “Easternising” or “Westernising” but modernising.
This drive for modernisation in a country known for conservative posture is a daunting task but Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz vowed to return the country to its “moderate” roots. His endorsement of new technologies and a potentially lucrative domestic entertainment industry is part of that vision.
The kingdom is creating it with the aim of providing more recreational options in Saudi Arabia. This would allow the country to keep some of the income usually spent on leisure abroad, as well as create job opportunities and attract foreign investment.
Saudi officials announced in December that cinemas would be returning to the kingdom after a 35-year ban, with the first movie theatre opening in March.
The government’s goal is to see more than 300 cinemas, with more than 2,000 screens, open in the kingdom by 2030. Experts said the industry could add $24 billion and 30,000 permanent jobs to the Saudi economy.
Officials also announced that Riyadh would set up an opera house. Ahmad al-Khatib, head of the kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority, said on Twitter that construction had already begun.
“We are not talking about plans… Implementation has begun and we will continue to reach the desired level and achieve the highest international standards,” Khatib posted on the entertainment authority’s official Twitter account.
The entertainment authority said the opera house is part of a $64 billion budget allocated to Saudi entertainment projects over the next ten years. The investment is already starting to bear fruit, with hundreds of Saudi start-ups springing to life in the last year, Khatib said at a news conference in Riyadh.
“Eight million people attended our activities in the main cities but we are expanding the reach to build up for receiving 15 million visitors to the planned events in more cities. In two to three years, we promise a wider range of events coming to more areas in the kingdom,” Khatib said in an interview with the Dubai-based Al Arabiya news channel.
“God willing, you will see a real change by 2020,” he said, adding that more than 5,000 events were being organised for the next year.
Saudis spend an estimated $20 billion a year overseas on tourism, with regional cities like Dubai and Bahrain benefiting most from the business. Saudi officials said they hope to recoup one-quarter of that market while also attracting tourists from those cities.
“I promise you that we will reverse this migration and people from Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain will come to Saudi Arabia,” Khatib said.
Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.