DUBAI: Saudi Arabia has begun the groundwork for momentous change next year, defying its conservative reputation for slow, cautious reforms by announcing plans to let women drive, allow movie theatres to return and to issue tourist visas.
King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and his 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, have upended decades of royal family protocol, social norms and traditional ways of doing business. They bet instead on a young generation of Saudis hungry for change and a Saudi public fed up with corruption and government bureaucracy.
In June, the kingdom plans to begin issuing driving licences to women, even allowing them to drive motorcycles, according to local reports. It will be a huge change for women who have had to rely on costly male drivers or male relatives to get to work or school or to run errands and visit friends.
In 2018, women will also be allowed to attend sporting matches in national stadiums, where they were previously banned. Designated “family sections” will ensure women are separate from male-only quarters of the stadiums.
After more than 35 years, movie theatres will return to the kingdom. They were shut down in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism. Many Saudi clerics view Western movies and even Arabic films as sinful.
The first theatres are expected to open in March. The opening of cinemas will give families and young Saudis another way to kill time as the crown prince introduces more entertainment options to encourage local spending.
The kingdom will begin issuing its first tourist visas in 2018 and announced plans to build a semi-autonomous Red Sea destination where strict rules of dress need not apply.
In a bid to attract even greater foreign investment, the crown prince held a massive investment conference days before the anti-corruption sweep. He also announced plans for a hub for technological innovation. The futuristic city will be funded by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, which the prince oversees, as well as the Saudi government and a range of private and international investors.