By Arab News
By Faisal J. Abbas*
This year, Davosians were finally able to sample the massive changes that have been taking place in Saudi Arabia. With a busy outreach program and an impressive delegation — comprising ministers, business executives and Saudi members of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers — this was Vision 2030’s international coming-of-age moment.
Participating at such events (and the WEF’s annual meeting in particular) is enormously important when it comes to telling one’s story, correcting wrong perceptions and convincing possible investors or boosting the confidence of current ones. For some reason, Saudi Arabia has rarely taken such events seriously or fully understood their impact or importance, but this appears to have changed over the past two years. The Kingdom has been participating, opening up to international events and granting unprecedented access to foreign media.
Of course, there is a flip side to this new “openness,” and the counter argument now is that these efforts are nothing more than a massive charm offensive. Several people I spoke to in Davos feel that serious questions remain unanswered, in particular with regard to the outcome of the crackdown on corruption in which a number of the country’s most powerful princes and richest businessmen have been held under investigation at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton hotel.
While the participating ministers did their best to answer every question addressed to them, observers need to remember that Saudi Arabia — like anywhere else on the planet — is not perfect, nor is it pretending to be. It is going through unprecedented change, which inevitably means a bumpy ride, and we need to allow time for results to emerge.
As for what is going on at the Ritz, the latest is that those who have been found innocent have been released without charge, others have settled and the rest will now be officially charged and put on trial; until then, it is only fair to both the accused and the legal system to wait for the outcome.
That aside, it would be both cruel and unfair to label the enormous and serious reforms that have taken place in the Kingdom as a publicity stunt. Indeed, the list of impressive women in the Saudi Davos delegation (many for the first time!) are not hired actresses or present for aesthetics. In fact, it is thanks to one of these participants — Princess Reema bint Bandar — that restrictions on female sport activity, as well as attending football matches at stadiums, are now a thing of the past.
Curbing the powers of the religious police, allowing women to drive, reopening cinemas and opening the country to foreign investment are only some of the real deliverables that the vision crafted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already achieved.
There will always be those who have doubts — but this is a good thing, as such an enormous reform plan needs the occasional reality check. This is exactly why the National Center for Performance Measurement (a government initiative set up to track its deliverables) has set up camp on the promenade outside the WEF convention center in Davos. At the pop-up shop, visitors can see not only how the Saudi government is performing, but also how it compares to other governments around the world.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas