Saudi Arabia has for decades been one of the world’s most culturally austere and restrictive countries, not allowing gender mixing, concerts, and cinemas, amongst others. However, the government’s Vision 2030 reform program is set to return the country to a more moderate Islam, diversify the economy and reduce the country’s dependence on oil by growing sectors like entertainment, arts, tourism and culture.
This liberalizing reform drive has already opened the door to concerts, comedy shows and women drivers over the past year. From June 2018 women will be allowed to obtain driving licenses and drive cars. The old laws that have severely limited women’s movements without the consent of a male guardian will also be relaxed. Women will no longer need permission from a legal guardian to get a license and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive. The female part of the Saudi population will also be allowed to attend sports events.
Additionally, in December 2017, Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year ban on commercial theaters. The government approved licensing regulations for cinemas, opening the door for companies to apply and start operating in the kingdom, as the country eases social restrictions.
Creating new sectors is expected to employ young citizens and open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles. It is also an indication of the declining influence of the country’s conservative religious leaders. The reforms have already sparked interest from international and regional entertainment operators, keen to tap into the spending power of the young people who make up roughly 70% of the population.
The enforcement of these reforms could change the negative face of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism into a positive one and could demonstrate Wahhabism as the symbol of Islam that is facing the new needs of its communities. However, according to organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, this is just one step, and that there is still plenty to be done to put an end to discriminating laws and practices. It is still to be seen if the “Moderate Islam” can create political development and democracy and if Saudi Arabia can transform into a truly tolerant country.