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Tue 26 Dec 2017 02:29 PM

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Opinion: Saudi women take the driver's seat in 2018

Sunil John, CEO, ASDAA Burson Marsteller says that Saudi Arabia's optimism and energy can't be ignored

Opinion: Saudi women take the driver's seat in 2018
Road to reform: allowing women to drive will fastfoward progress in Saudi

It is probably no exaggeration to say the past year has been most momentous year in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s history. Vision 2030, announced in 2016 by the Crown Prince, HRH Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud, outlined the path ahead – but the nation, and the world, could be forgiven a hefty dose of scepticism. Lofty economic plans are nothing new in the Gulf, and the Vision’s author, while noticeably ambitious, was young and untested.

Actions, not goals, were what people needed to see – and while attention initially focussed on the economic aspects of the plan, it was the sweeping social reforms that ended up stealing the show in 2017.

A small sideshow to US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Kingdom in May gave a glimpse of what was to come: the landmark trip saw Riyadh host its first ever music concert by an American – the country star, Toby Keith. Then, in October, an investment conference that saw the unveiling of Neom, a futuristic $500bn city on the Red Sea, was nearly overshadowed by a declaration to return the Kingdom to a more moderate Islam seen before 1979. The year ended with news that cinemas would return to the Kingdom for the first time in 35 years.

But for Saudis, and for the international reputation of their country and their Crown Prince, nothing made a bigger impact than allowing women to drive from June 2018. The restriction was indefensible, needlessly damaging to Saudi’s image, and entirely self-defeating from an economic point of view. That one decision will do more for Saudi prosperity than any other. Unthinkable just five years ago, next year, we will see Saudi women driving to colleges, workplaces, and even cinemas, without male guardians.

At Asda’a Burson-Marsteller, we worked with Ford and creative agency GTB on a campaign to show how momentous this decision was. Young and educated, Saudi women make up 52 percent of university graduates. By empowering women, Saudi Arabia has unleashed a potent force that can really transform the Kingdom’s economy. “Welcome to the Driver’s Seat,” indeed.

Of course, a transformation so rapid is going to throw up challenges that can’t be ‘spun’. Despite PR wins – Sophie the robot citizenship was a nice stunt – the Kingdom’s accelerated pace of reform has faced thorny scenarios. The corruption crackdown detaining businessmen and princes has sent decidedly mixed messages to international investors and the Saudi business community alike. The rapid changes caught others by surprise, too – a senior government advisor was dismissed after a fashion show in Riyadh that proved a step too far for the conservative capital.

In my own frequent visits to Saudi, however, I have seen firsthand a Kingdom transformed. There’s a new energy and optimism that simply can’t be ignored. But I also hear concerns: more needs to be done to show what Vision 2030 will do to benefit the small and medium enterprises expected to do the heavy lifting in a post-oil economy and not just swell offshore accounts of international companies – or worse, fill the pockets of the elite. Also, with all the attention on youth and liberalisation, it’s easy to forget that large swathes of Saudi society are deeply conservative. There are reasons previous ‘reformers’ in the house of Saud introduced change glacially.

While a degree of trepidation is only natural amid such upheaval, to the naysayers I have only one response: What’s the alternative? None.

The Kingdom’s leadership must take heart in knowing the country and its people are not alone in this journey. In many ways, the Kingdom is following in the tracks of its neighbours, especially the UAE, which has demonstrated that economic and social reforms can be embraced without abandoning culture and tradition.

So much of what we see in Saudi Arabia today, is the fruit of a strong relationship between the Crown Prince and HH Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces – a relationship based on positivity, capability and shared vision for a prosperous future.

Their partnership, and the recent news of stronger ties between the two nations, also points at another truth laid bare by 2017: the Arab world, and particularly the Gulf states, can no longer rely on allies as they have done in the past. The US, the traditional guarantor of Gulf stability, has taken something of a back seat in the region under two administrations now.

This year’s ninth Annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey presented some interesting and alarming findings: across the Arab world, more youth now view the US an enemy than ally, while Russia has overtaken the US as the region’s top non-Arab ally. It’s in that context that we saw the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in Riyadh in November, a willing partnership of 41 Muslim-majority nations brought together to defeat terrorism and extremism throughout the Islamic world. Its launch demonstrates that Saudi’s commitment to reform and action are not just an internal matter.

I’m sure the coming year will bring plenty more news from Saudi Arabia. The breakneck pace of change we saw in 2017 may not be sustainable but it is clear that Saudi Arabia is committed to this path, and can’t turn back now.