By Angus McDowall
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s sweeping plans to overhaul its economy in coming years are matched by proposals for social transformation that extend to ways of tackling domestic violence, increasing city park space and reducing road deaths.
While proposals in the “Vision 2030” reforms to reduce Riyadh’s dependence on oil revenue and boost the private sector have drawn most attention, some of the most consequential changes envisaged for Saudi Arabia are to its society.
“The Vision 2030 or the other programs are intended to transform not only the economy. The intention also is to transform the society and to address the needs of the younger generation and the aspirations that they look for,” Information Minister Adel al-Toraifi told reporters on Tuesday.
The kingdom’s strict social customs and rapid development created a nation in which community feeling is highly valued but opportunities for public gathering are scarce, one that reveres the harsh life of its Bedouin forebears but in which obesity is rife.
Religious strictures are particularly influential in shaping Saudi society, tightly limiting the role of women, enforcing rigid public morality rules and battling some government efforts to modernize the legal and education systems.
Meanwhile, rapid development since the discovery of oil in 1938 has led to inefficient provision of government services and an expansion of cities and towns with little thought given to the social needs of their inhabitants.
In a country where Saudi citizens have no vote, and where falling oil income means their economic horizons may contract in coming years, improving their sense of satisfaction with daily life in the kingdom is important to ensure political stability.
Education reform is widely regarded by Saudi social and political analysts as the single most important area for change, but also the most difficult. It requires overhauling a large bureaucracy and changing the mindset of teachers often trained to regard their profession through a religious lens.
“While the plans look good I’m worried the bureaucratic machinery is not up to the mark. There has to be a true political will to ram this thing ahead,” Khaled Almaeena, a former editor of Arab News and Saudi Gazette daily newspapers.
The new plan aims to more than double enrolment of children aged three-to-six years in education at a cost of 2.5 billion riyals, as well as to provide new training opportunities for large numbers of teachers with a price tag of 2 billion riyals.
The ambition is to improve average maths and science scores for students by around 15 percent over the next five years. Religion, a big component of the curriculum now, was not mentioned in the education part of Monday’s plan.
The plan also aims to increase the number of Saudis exercising weekly to 20 percent from 13 percent. Some clerics frown on women exercising and most girls’ schools do not offer physical education.
Women’s gyms are licensed as “health centres”, making them much more expensive. One initiative in the new plan is to spend 10 million riyals on improving licensing procedures for women’s sports centers to make them easier to set up.
An area where the contradictions between modernization and Islamic tradition are evident is in a new focus on tackling domestic violence. The reform plans target spending 9 million riyals on services for family violence victims and another 19 million riyals on improving awareness about the issue.
The plan sets goals of increasing the number of units to protect victims of family violence to 200 from 58 and resolving three quarters of domestic violence incidents within three months of them being reported.
But in a country governed by Islamic Sharia law, many judges regard the use of violence by the patriarch of a household as permissible in some circumstances and one cleric recently spoke on television about ways to beat a wife without causing injury.
Women remain the legal wards of a male “guardian”, usually a father, husband or brother, who is empowered to make big life decisions for them, and are forbidden from driving.
No changes appear likely soon in those restrictions, but the government is promoting measures to get more women into work, something that could itself spur social pressure for new reforms.
Poor governance has contributed to Saudi Arabia’s woeful record in road safety, analysts say. Around 20 Saudis die each day in traffic accidents. Now the government will spend 3.25 billion riyals on new safety measures that aim to reduce the number of deaths by a quarter.
The plan offers Saudis more access to public space, which has often been neglected in the rush to expand cities as the population exploded after the 1950s.
One target is to raise the amount of park space in municipal areas by a quarter, and to achieve a five-fold increase in the size of national parks at a cost of 417 million riyals, aiming to boost annual visitor numbers by 60 percent to 5.6 million.
The Vision 2030 plans set up new commissions for culture and entertainment – seen by some Saudis as a possible precursor to allowing cinemas for the first time since the 1970s.
Ultimately, the plans may simply end up acknowledging social shifts which have already taken place in Saudi Arabia, where change can be hard for outsiders to notice because it is gradual.
“What is said about social change is not even 10 percent of the changes that will take place quietly, in the Saudi style. The stupid West expects us to do things on their clock. The Saudi government does things by the Saudi clock,” said Ibrahim Mugaiteeb a Saudi human rights activist.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; editing by Susan Thomas)