ANALYSIS: Saudi's US visit to promote economic plan met with scepticism
Members of a delegation of Saudi Arabian officials, including Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heralded a “new Saudi Arabia” as they traversed the US last week to promote his Vision 2030, an economic plan which bin Salman called “an ambitious yet achievable blueprint”.
The delegation focused more on business development than traditional diplomacy on their visit during a lame duck presidency, amid a contentious political climate and continued questions about Saudi Arabia’s role in the 9/11 attacks.
“The visit was really a chance for the Saudis to say that they get it, that terrorism is a very real problem in the region, and for many reasons, it was a matter of the pigeons coming home to roost,” Mark Caudill, author of Twilight in the Kingdom: Understanding the Saudis, and a retired foreign service officer, told Middle East Eye.
“But it was also a chance to remain in front of lawmakers, and to say that although there’s an uncertain election, that Saudi Arabia is still an important country for the United States.”
Although the high-profile visit to the White House captured headlines, as did meetings with US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter and members of Congress, the cornerstone of the charm offensive was the splinter delegations that travelled to Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Silicon Valley, where the deputy crown prince met with representatives at Facebook, Snapchat and Uber.
According to a source travelling with the delegation, bin Salman signed a contract with Microsoft to train young Saudis and provide support for the creation of the kingdom’s digital infrastructure. He also signed an agreement with Cisco Systems to help to expand broadband reach throughout the kingdom.
“This was a chance for the deputy crown prince to come [to the US] on his own, without the prince or king, to demonstrate to everyone that he isn’t in anyone’s shadow,” Stephen Seche, the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, and former US ambassador to Yemen, told MEE.
“Fundamentally, there’s much less the government can do than the private sector. The Saudi government has decided that Obama is out the door, and has not shown to be making the relationship with Saudi Arabia a primary focus.”
That relationship has proven to be a difficult one to maintain at times, as the United Nations added and then removed Saudi Arabia from its list of states and armed groups that violate children’s rights in conflict, and activists have called for the UN to suspend Saudi Arabia over alleged war crimes in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is also third on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of most censored countries. One hundred and fifty-eight people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2015 - the highest number on record since 1995 - and as of the end of May, nearly 100 had been executed in 2016.
“I think the 2030 vision is very pie-in-the-sky,” Caudill told MEE. “They have serious human rights issues, they have problems with unemployment, and the tanking economy because of low oil prices. They have serious structural issues.”
“We are the most stereotyped country in the world,” Lina Almaeena, CEO and founder of Jeddah United Sports, told MEE.
“We are the most stereotyped women. But Saudi Arabia is so diverse and it’s such a young country, and it’s a young government, so they can’t do everything at once. But the ball is rolling.”
Like Almaeena, several other members of the delegation blamed negative media coverage for a lack of understanding of Saudi Arabia’s attributes and challenges. But Dr Thuraya al-Arrayed, one of 30 women serving on the Shura Council, the non-voting advisory board to the king, told MEE that changes are coming so rapidly to the country that even those in the know have difficulty staying ahead of the curve.
“There was a mixture of stereotyping based on earlier news, and the new developments are recent, and fast, and even us in the country are waking up to new developments every day. I don’t blame anyone for not keeping up,” al-Arrayed told MEE.
Al-Arrayed says the deputy crown prince’s vision calls for more empowerment for women, including decision-making and participation in all levels of the country. Women were permitted to vote in local elections for the first time in December 2015, and Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not permitted to drive.
“Having the women in the Shura made the point that we need to make sure that women are in all aspects of life and in all jobs, in all areas,” al-Arrayed said. “Now this new vision, this transformation, for Saudi Arabia is a change of culture, and we will change the culture.”
One of the most high-profile changes is the kingdom’s recent $3.5 billion investment in Uber, which has drawn mixed reactions. Both heralded as a path to independence for women forbidden from driving, and derided as a means of keeping women dependent on men, the investment is in keeping with the deputy crown prince’s aim of making Saudi Arabia the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, and his attempt to woo entrepreneurs and investors to the region.
“Change will come slowly but there’s opportunity here that never existed before,” Seche told MEE. “The growth provides opportunities for industries that don’t exist in the landscape now, which will provide opportunities for men and women to interact socially, and for more women to enter the workforce.”
Almaeena agrees with Seche on the change but insists it will come sooner than most people outside of Saudi Arabia expect.
“I really think that it’s happening soon. It’s evolving so fast and I feel it. I want to be an optimist and say it’s going to happen. I want my daughters to drive, and hopefully I will drive too. I want to support this vision because there are definitely a lot of unheard changes, historic transformations that we didn’t dream of in our lifetime.”
Caudill isn’t so optimistic, and sees the Vision 2030 plan as a means of distraction from the underlying issues plaguing Saudi Arabia.
“This is typical Saudi state. They have grand designs, grand ambitions that they announce, but the reality is, they’re going to settle for incremental change. So I don’t see the real dramatic cultural shifts that Muhammed bin Nayef was hinting at, with women’s rights and other things. There will be some change, but you have a very welded-in-place religious hierarchy that’s going to resist these things tooth and nail.”