Modernising Saudi Arabia 'is like rehabilitation'

Prominent Saudi female says Vision 2030 is positive yet painful step for the conservative kingdom
By Sarah Townsend
Wed 19 Jul 2017 10:18 AM

One of the first women to be elected as a female councillor in Saudi Arabia – who subsequently stood down – has likened the kingdom’s path to modernisation to the painful process of rehabilitation.

Lama Al Sulaiman, who is vice-chairwoman of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) and a board member and business developer at conglomerate Rolaco Holdings, told Arabian Business that implementing Vision 2030 would be “as painful as rehabilitation after an accident” because of the level of societal change required.

“It’s like a rehabilitation. It’s painful. I know that if I walk more the pain will be less, but as I’m walking it’s painful,” she said in an exclusive interview.

Vision 2030 and the accompanying National Transformation Program (NTP) set out an ambitious roadmap for diversifying Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil revenues.

There are plans to grow the private sector and entice more Saudi nationals, including women, into the workplace.

Implicit in the plans is the need for a cultural shift away from hardline conservatism, towards a modern kingdom that embraces international standards.

The kingdom even plans to lift some restrictions on women, including permitting them to travel and study overseas without the consent of a male guardian.

Trained biochemist Al Sulaiman was elected as a Jeddah municipal councillor in December 2015 in the kingdom’s first elections open to women, but stood down three months later over inequality in the workplace.

She told Arabian Business: “I am very optimistic about the transformations taking place. But at the same time I can feel there is a course of resistance.

“Some people in society are fearing the change and reacting to it. There is a concern that it may cause a loss of identity and culture, so you find people more protective of the way they were.

“For the future of my kids, the change is excellent. But for others living through the transition, it’s hard.”

Just this week, religious police in Saudi Arabia were said to be investigating a Saudi woman who had posted a video of herself on Snapchat dressed in a Western miniskirt and croptop.

Al Sulaiman, meanwhile, was also damning about the quality of jobs on offer for Saudi nationals. A strengthened private sector could create more exciting prospects for Saudi youth, and help stave off criticism that Saudi workers are unproductive.

She said: “I am a strong disbeliever in the rumours that Saudis are dependent [on the state], lazy, don’t work hard, and so on. The reality is that these jobs are not decent jobs. They are not jobs of quality. They are heavy-duty, boring jobs, and a young 21st century millennial kid…there’s no way he’s going to take these jobs.”

“We produce young people motivated and inspired, who want to embrace the world, and then tell them, this is it: eight hours, punch in and punch out, sit behind a desk, and that’s it. As a mother … I do not like what I see and I’ve fought a lot over this.”

To read the full interview with Lama Al Sulaiman, click here.

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