How real is the Social change in Saudi Arabia?

I visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after nearly four years. My first visit was in 2017, when I was invited to speak at a national conference at the King Fahd University, Dammam. It was my first visit to the country, despite having traveled to neighboring countries a few times. The visit this time, in December 2021 was eye-opening and showcased the massive changes ongoing, both economically and socially.

            It is easy to dismiss the “change” discourse in the kingdom as propaganda. And of course, social scientists will tell you not to believe what you see, at first glance. This is a wise recommendation and one that is valid. However, when the people living in a society mention these as changes that are long-term and deep, one must take them seriously.

            Here are some observations, based on conversations with several people, some of whom I know and others were passersby: strangers, taxi-drivers, vendors in stores etc. While it may be too early to say definitively how much of Saudi society has changed and in which way, the signs that are visible (and testimonies from people) do point to a significant movement of thinking. Much of it is lead by youth (or demands of the youth), as Saudi is a young country. I will update this blog with additional posts, but for now; here are some observations:

  • Women’s situation in the KSA has changed – this is the most obvious change I noticed. Four years ago, there were rumblings of letting women drive, travel without their guardian’s permission etc. While again, one may (as an outsider) question how serious this change is, conversations with local women revealed that this is indeed a big and massive change that has brought millions of women to the public square. Opportunities to travel, work and determine one’s own destiny is not a small change.  I did notice many women driving, and far more women working in public facing jobs: sales women, employees at museums etc.  A recent study by Brookings Institute also showed that the labor force participation has increased.
  • Change in social dynamics with regards to non-Saudis: There is a huge flow of expats out of KSA. As the country introduced fees for the iqamas (visas) and also on dependents of the worker, many South Asian and African expats were forced to leave the country, as they could not continue living in the country.
  • New tax-regime: With the introduction of the value-added tax, there is a new 15% VAT that is in place on goods. This is causing some consternation among both locals and expats, who are feeling the pinch. For a country that does not have income tax and is preferred for that reason, it is quite a surprise for many people that this tax has been introduced. This Arab news article analyzes the change.
Image of an Oud shop (perfumery) in a Souq. Photo by Sabith Khan

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