Why All the Fuss About Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia?
If you missed it, there was a huge music festival in Saudi Arabia just a couple of weeks ago in mid-December. Somehow, I missed it and didn’t make the party, but I heard about it. Reports were that 700,000 people attended the four-day MDLBeast Soundstorm music festival held somewhere in the desert of the oil-rich kingdom. That kind of attendance puts it in the league of Coachella, Lollapalooza, or South by Southwest, music festivals held annually in the U.S. With over 200 artists and eight stages, the festival was held with government approval. It seems that with the rise of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, social reforms are in vogue, changing the behavior of Saudi society.
As you may remember, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (Mecca and Medina). Once a year, Saudi Arabia hosts the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Last year, there were 2.4 million pilgrims, not an insignificant number. In addition, the constitution and bylaws of the country are the Holy Qur’an and the sunna. In other words, this country is Islamic to the core. To allow women to wear unconventional and possibly revealing clothing and to let men and women mingle and dance together at a music festival is sacrilege. But it has happened two years in a row, 2019 and 2020.
Other recent events in the country include art biennials, an international film festival, and a Formula One road race. These contemporary entertainment venues have been accompanied by social reforms in women’s rights that reduce or eliminate custodial oversight by male relatives, better access to jobs for women, and allow women to join the military. Alcohol and homosexuality are still illegal, but individuals are pushing the boundaries in this reform-minded environment.
So, are the Islamic fundamentalists happy over the change? No, they’re not. Social reform has come with a crackdown on social dissent. The Salafis are free to worship as they please but cannot voice public disagreements. Since most ulama (imams and religious scholars) are on the government payroll or get government subsidies, they too must turn their heads the other way.
The source of these social changes can be found in the Crown Prince’s plan for the future, a symbolic document called Vision 2030. The goals are a diversified economy focusing on trade, “world-class health care and education” to give “youths the skills for the jobs of the future,” and a business-friendly environment to attract foreign direct investment and entrepreneurs. Like other Visions from other countries, it plans to diversify into tourism and high-tech industries, touching on hot topics, from AI to cryptocurrencies and climate change, all with an eye on sustainability and the environment.
What Crown Prince Mohammed is doing makes sense. First, as a religion, Islam is structured not to allow change. The concept of Innovation (bid’ah) is heresy. Also, if a person or a group, for that matter, doesn’t believe the fundamental doctrine, they are subject to being judged guilty of kufr or shirk and then being excommunicated. Takfir can bring about execution. Because of this potential risk, few people are willing to put their life on the line. Consequently, about half of mainstream Muslims are fundamentalists. The other half will embrace change if it somehow embraces Islam in the process. Second, Islam does not allow critical thinking and reasoning. Consequently, many of their laws and their society remain feudal and underdeveloped. I write about this in my forthcoming book, Muslim Mechanics. Critical thought questions everything looking for the best solution out of numerous alternatives offered. Vision 2030 will require much critical thinking. Islam cannot stand up to the critical thought process. Muslims are not comfortable with the questioning process, which may question parts of their religion. The country will not embrace the future unless forced to, and this plan is an excellent way to accomplish that.
The Crown Prince’s vision plan is well documented, mentioning reform, sustainability, human capital, business-friendly, and even privatization. However, I did not see the words “free market” or “free-market economy.” If the Crown Prince reads this small blurb, the one thing I recommend that will make his vision for Saudi Arabia bloom in the desert is a free-market economy. The free market is the best distributor of resources. Government intervention and social engineering act like weights on entrepreneurs, restricting their full ability to excel. Although culture always restricts people to act in prescribed ways, entrepreneurs will find it challenging to enjoy free-market privileges unless Islam is restrained. I admire and applaud what the Crown Prince is doing. Whether he can pull this off remains to be determined.