Often hidden behind the headlines about its war in Yemen and growing tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia is experiencing profound social and cultural changes. Insight interviews Amir Ramzan on the end of his posting as British Council Country Director.
Amir, you have represented the British Council in Saudi Arabia for three years. In those years the wars in Syria and Yemen and the tense rivalry with Iran have dominated headlines about the country in the UK. But there has also been a controversial new Crown Prince, some reforms for women’s rights, and an apparent opening up of society. How broad and deep do you think these changes really are?
They are broad and deep. Societal change has been substantial. There has been a significant liberalisation of society. In terms of breadth, though these changes started in the major cities like Riyad and Jeddah, there’s been a deliberate strategy for this to go out across the whole country. Women now have more rights to drive, travel, and increasingly to work. Just in the last week, a tourism visa has been announced, and the Saudi Commission of Tourism has said that foreign female tourists will not need to have a guardian or wear an abaya. Society has moved from being based on an austere narrow interpretation of Islam to being much more diverse. We’re talking about a complete change in society. Indeed, I think Saudi Arabia has changed more in the last three years than in the last thirty.
Are these changes top down or bottom up?
Both. It started being top down, led by the new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But this is a response to what the population want. We’re talking about a very young population. 65% are under 35. They want opportunities in their own country rather than having to travel overseas – from tourism to sport to cinema and popular music. This creates employment opportunities for young Saudis too – new sectors like tourism and events management are growing. This is an attempt at diversification away from a purely oil-based economy to one able to provide jobs as well as entertainment for its booming young population.
The Crown Prince has said that he wants to return the country to a more moderate version of Islam, which impacts on the interpretation of Islam both domestically and overseas
What do these changes signal for the likely future of the country?
These changes reflect a significant change in ideology. The Crown Prince has said that he wants to return the country to a more moderate version of Islam, which impacts on the interpretation of Islam both domestically and overseas. This religious and soft power shift is one of the things at the heart of the ‘Vision 2030’ strategy. For him this is as much about reclaiming national identity: about modernising and diversifying, but also protecting Saudi heritage and religion.
There was a specific finding in the recent Arab Youth Survey about religion, about young Arabs being religious, but thinking that religion plays too big a role in society and wanting religious institutions reformed. Is that true in Saudi Arabia?
Religion is important and will remain important. It’s part of the Saudi identity. This is the birthplace of Islam and host to the holy sights of Mecca and Medina. Vision 2030 actually seeks, for example, to increase religious tourism threefold. But, as in many countries, lots of Saudis want religion to be a personal thing and to be able to decide for themselves exactly how they practice it. The return of a more moderate form of Islam therefore has lots of support.
At a recent gathering of young Arab intellectuals I was struck by the admiration expressed for Putin as at least a strong leader who stuck by his friends in Syria, this was compared unfavourably with the perceived abandoning of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt by the West.
The Arab Youth Survey, which seems to confirm much of the British Council’s own research into the attitudes of young Saudis, also looks at perceptions of other countries. In terms of perceptions, the US has apparently declined in people’s estimation. Russia has risen. Do you think that’s accurate?
I think so. Trump’s initial anti-Islamic immigration rhetoric didn’t go down that well in the region. But the decline in positive perceptions of the US pre-dates Trump: Obama was not very popular either, not least because of his policies towards Egypt, Syria, and Iran. Russia is interesting because it’s on the other side of the proxy war in Syria from many Arab countries. But in the Arab world there’s often attraction to strong leaders. At a recent gathering of young Arab intellectuals I was struck by the admiration expressed for Putin as at least a strong leader who stuck by his friends in Syria.
This was compared unfavourably with the perceived abandoning of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt by the West. Arab concepts of friendship highlight sticking power through thick and thin. Russia has managed to re-establish itself as a significant force in the Middle East. The current King of Saudi Arabia was the first to visit Russia, which was viewed as a success. To an extent, soft power has flowed from hard power.
When it comes to specific criteria like attractiveness as a place to live, the US does much better, coming in third after Canada and UAE. Why?
The US remains a superpower which projects into the Middle East. And it also projects cultural influence. It’s been the most popular overseas study destination for Saudi students, often supported by government-funded scholarship programmes (although those numbers have somewhat declined recently, while the figures for the UK have remained stable). It is an attractive place to visit and study.
As for the UAE, it is relatively unique as a modern centre for trade and entertainment in the region, which nevertheless retains cultural familiarity. Saudis find that attractive. But every country has its own identity and I would say that Saudis want to maintain their own rather than mimic others too closely.
In these surveys the UK also seems to do well in the eyes of young people. Is that true?
Yes it doesn’t surprise me that the UK does very well. Views of the UK are generally very positive in Saudi Arabia. It’s striking the number of Saudi tourists to the UK and the amount of time and money they are spending there: they are the biggest spending nationality in the UK as tourists. This is partly a question of cultural familiarity and feeling comfortable. I can’t tell you how many Saudis I’ve encountered who have second homes in the UK. They like how diverse the UK is. When Sadiq Khan was appointed Mayor of London, it was striking how excited people were that a Muslim from an immigrant family could lead one of the greatest cities in the world – that meritocracy really appeals to them. Simple things like the growing availability of Halal food and feeling welcomed really matter. Plus the UK has many top universities where they want to study. This is all very appealing to young Saudis.
What opportunities and challenges are there for the UK in engaging with Saudi Arabia and its young people?
There are two things. One challenge is that there’s quite a bit of negativity about Saudi Arabia in the UK, especially in the cultural and educational sectors. That can hinder people from engaging with the country with an open mind. Education and Cultural reform is at the heart of Vision 2030 and what the Saudi government is trying to achieve, and is desired by many young Saudis. In my experience, when people engage with the country they become really positive about it, regardless of any political disagreements. So we should engage more.
The final thing is for people in the UK to understand the number of assets Saudi Arabia has going for it, from its history and culture to its people, and the opportunities there are to engage. The UK should continue to do so across all sectors and needs to stay open minded about working more closely together. There’s so much potential there for both countries.
Amir Ramzan was British Council Country Director, Saudi Arabia, for three years. He is now Country Director, Pakistan. With thanks to Alison Baily, Senior Policy Advisor, Security and Stability, and Noora Alsheddi, Senior Arts Strategic Advisor, Saudi Arabia.