According to the usual media suspects, an alliance of critics determined to seize any opportunity to undermine Saudi Arabia, the recent Red Sea International Film Festival was a “whitewash.”
December’s inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and the Dakar Rally? Cynical exercises in “sportswashing.”
Likewise the Saudi International golf tournament, to be held at King Abdullah Economic City in February.
As for recent performances by the Canadian singer Justin Bieber and French DJ David Guetta, both of whom faced and resisted calls to boycott the kingdom, critics disappointingly failed to come up with a suitably snappy put-down.
“Sonic-sluicing,” perhaps? Maybe not.
But here’s an idea. Instead of sniping every time Saudi Arabia takes another step toward constructive engagement with the wider world, how about its critics hold fire and meet it halfway – as some of the world’s leading artists and sportspeople are doing?
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of momentous change. This is, of course, exactly what its vociferous, self-righteous critics claim to be clamoring for but, ironically, can’t quite bring themselves to applaud even as it’s happening.
Those who criticize the kingdom for not changing fast enough, or for having the temerity to set and abide by its own laws and customs, should pause and consider not only the scale and nature of the great changes being introduced, but also the history of a country that until recently was all but cut off from the wider world.
Many of the demands being made of Saudi Arabia betray a fundamental ignorance of that history, and of the Islamic culture that underpins the state.
It is not the job of the Saudi leadership to pander to the cultural sensitivities of foreign critics. But having set its heart on bringing about change, it is the leadership’s job to balance the concerns and ambitions of the different sectors of its own society.
This is no easy task. While acknowledging and responding to the hopes and expectations of its young and increasingly globalized population, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, must also respect and manage with sensitivity the concerns of the more conservative elements of a deeply religious society, founded on the very bedrock of Islam.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the driving force behind the momentous changes taking place in the kingdom, has spoken frankly about the dismal consequences for his country and its people of the events of 1979 – the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the shocking takeover by Islamic fundamentalists of the Great Mosque of Makkah.
In the face of those seismic events, the kingdom defensively reverted to a more austere interpretation of Islam, and brought down the shutters.
Until then, as the crown prince told CBS News during a televised interview in 2018, “we were just normal people developing like any other country in the world…. Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere.”
Four decades later, Saudi Arabia is once again developing – although not like any other country in the world. A trailblazer in the era of oil, the kingdom is determined to become a leading force in the age of renewable energy and climate-change mitigation.
As set out in the Vision 2030 blueprint for the future, to make its way in a post-oil world, it is working hard to diversify its economy away from reliance on fossil fuels, a strategy that in time will benefit the entire world.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to that world. A series of mega-projects – from the development of the historic site of Diriyah, to the creation on the Red Sea of the smart megacity Neom – aim to bring tourists to the kingdom in vast numbers.
The advance guard of the visitors whose personal experiences will slowly alter the world’s perception of Saudi Arabia are the high-profile artists and sportspeople currently running the gauntlet of criticism to give the kingdom and its people the chance they deserve.
Take four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel, who organized a karting event for women in Jeddah on the sidelines of December’s Saudi Grand Prix.
“In general, we have so much focus on negative examples when it comes to shortcomings of certain countries,” he told the British Broadcasting Corporation.
“If we look through a Western European lens there are a lot of things that should be improved and have to be addressed. But it’s also true some things are changing” – and, he added, for people such as the women who had taken part in the karting, “it makes a big difference.”
And that’s the point that the pack of critics snapping at Saudi Arabia’s heels seem incapable of grasping.
What kind of a country do they want Saudi Arabia to be? A closed, conservative kingdom at odds with the modern world?
Or the open, rapidly evolving nation that is currently working to bring about change and progress, for the benefit of its largely youthful population and the world at large?
Saudi Arabia is a country of more than 35 million people, half of whom are under the age of 25. Each one of them has hopes and dreams for their future, and for the futures of their children.
If only for their sake, surely the time has come to give Saudi Arabia a break, and the chance to show the world what it is capable of achieving.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.