Modern Saudi Arabia? Here are top ten reforms pushed this year

Modern Saudi Arabia? Here are top ten reforms pushed this year
Riyadh has announced that from next year cinemas will be allowed in the kingdom, the latest reform designed to attract investors and appease Saudi youth stifled by ultra-conservative restrictions.
5 min read
11 Dec, 2017
Saudi Arabia is looking for a rebrand

Saudi Arabia is looking for a rebrand. After a decades-long ban on cinemas, Riyadh announced licenses would be issued to film houses next year, all part of a series of social reforms being pushed through by de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"Commercial cinemas will be allowed to operate in the kingdom as of early 2018, for the first time in more than 35 years," the culture and information ministry said in a statement.

A sweeping economic plan, dubbed "Vision 2030", has seen a number of new reforms pushed in this year. The relaxing of social rules have been seen as a way of bin Salman to appeal to Saudi youth as he embarks on a clampdown on all dissent in the country.

It is also viewed as an attempt to foster a more inviting environment for desperately needed foreign investors.

Despite this, 2017 will go down as a landmark year for the kingdom with the number of surprise reforms unveiled.

Here are the ten that will likely have the biggest impact on the conservative kingdom.

1. Women's driving ban lifted

Saudi Arabia shocked many in the kingdom late September when it was announced a long-standing and controversial ban on women driving in the would be lifted in 2018.

The announcement found both support and opposition. A number of hardliners backed the ban, and a few weeks before it was lifted one Saudi cleric had decreed that women could not drive as they only have a "quarter" of the brainpower of men.

Previously, female activists had been detained after illegally driving in Saudi Arabia in protest of the ban. 

2. Saudi's first ever Comic Con

Saudi Arabia's first "Comic Con" event - a US-based pop culture movement - was held in February. The three day festival of anime, pop art, video gaming and film-related events was the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, a country where Saudis could not even watch the latest Marvel blockbusters at the cinema.

While there were separate entrances for men and women inside the recreation centre in Jeddah, there was no segregation imposed inside the halls.

In Saudi Arabia, unrelated men and women are normally segregated with restaurants having separate sections for "single" men and families.  

3. Stadiums open to Saudi women

In another landmark move, Saudi Arabia announced its decision to allow women to enter sports stadiums for the first time from next year.

The ultra-conservative kingdom - which has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women - has long barred women from sports arenas by strict rules on segregation.

4. Entertainment city planned

Earlier in the year, Riyadh announced plans to build an 'entertainment city' outside the capital, Riyadh. The 334sq km park will include a safari, sports facilities, theme park and other activities.

Saudi Arabia also announced it will build a series of theme parks in the Kingdom with US-based developer Six Flags involved in the projects.

5. Music concerts allowed

A series of concerts by international and Arab artists were hosted in Saudi Arabia in 2017. Last week, Saudi women queued up to attend the first exclusively female music concert with a performance from Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji.

Saudis spent billions of dollars annually to see movies, attend concerts and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs of Bahrain and Dubai. Bin Salman has voiced that this money would be better spent at home.

6. Cinema ban lifted

For the first time in 35 years, cinemas in Saudi Arabia will be able to open their doors to the public. Licensed cinemas are expected to open for the first time in March 2018.

7. Tourist visas rolled out

With promises of new entertainment facilities, theme parks, cinemas, concerts and water parks, and the promotion of Saudi Arabia's historical sites, all that was missing was the ever-elusive tourist visa.

That hurdle however appears to have been tackled as the government approved a tourist visa programme in October.

Previously, travellers could enter Saudi Arabia on transit and limited two week visas which were notoriously difficult to obtain and expensive.

8.  Bikinis on the beach?

A radical plan to transform part of the Saudi coastline into a beach resort for the international market will be regulated by "international standards" to appeal to tourists from across the world.

The proposed plan could lead to more relaxed laws on what can be worn on the beach, with strict regulations currently in place on what women can wear in public.

The Red Sea Project will be "governed by laws on par with international standards" read the Saudi Public Investment Fund statement.

9. "Raucous" mixed-gender national day celebrations

The kingdom's national day in September saw women allowed to enter the Riyadh's main stadium to join in with celebrations for the first time.

The presence of women at the King Fahd Stadium marked a departure from previous celebrations in the Gulf kingdom.

Women were allowed to enter the stadium, a previously male-only venue used mostly for football matches. Women and their families were seated separately from single men but it allowed them to watch a musical show and a play on Saudi history.

Hardliners attacked the "free-mixing raucous" event.

10. Yoga now halal

Fitness enthusiasts in Saudi Arabia can rejoice - yoga is officially back on the programme.

The Saudi ministry of trade and industry has officially approved the teaching of yoga and listed it under their sports activities.

Those wishing to practice or teach yoga can now collect a license from the ministry. Fun times for yogis.

Critics however warn of a 'public relations coup' saying that Bin Salman’s contradictory programme of authoritarian-led liberalisation has been accompanied by a crackdown of social media witch hunts of alleged traitors and arrests.

HRW condemned Saudi Arabia's new sweeping counterterrorism law which includes jail time for the 'crime' of criticising the King and Crown Prince.