A few years ago, Royal Brunei Airlines sent a 747 to Saudi Arabia. What was unusual about this normal scheduled flight, between two states that operate under Sharia Law, was that the crew was exclusively made up of women. Yet on arrival in Riyadh, none of the women including the two women working in the cockpit, charged with the safety of the dozens of souls on board this aircraft, were allowed to drive a car from the airport into town.
Saudi Arabia is changing. In a high profile and imminent mark of progress of the Vision 2030 programme is that women will be able to drive from this June. Vision 2030 is the brainchild of 32 year Crown Prince HRH Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who seeks to modernise his country and to make it more recognisable to the western world – the most ambitious reform programme the kingdom has seen for over 8 decades. It certainly needs change. In a country of 32 million people, a third are expatriates and they represent 80% of the working population. Women’s rights, democracy, education, public sector reform, healthcare, major infrastructure investment: all are areas that are up for change and many are areas where the UK can play a significant role.
Yet to visit Saudi Arabia is to learn more about a culture that many see as alien, unfamiliar, even threatening. But like cultures across the world, it is made up of families, with the same aspirations and hopes that we see as familiar here in the UK. Like us, they want the best for their kids, they want a safe environment, free of crimes, violence and temptations. They, like us, want the next generation to have a better life than the one they have now.
Visiting a shopping mall is like visiting any the world over. Instantly recognisable by the flagship store Marks and Spencer’s, the shops are as familiar, with familiar brands, as any you would see in the west or, indeed, anywhere else in the world. Families of men in their white robes and red headscarves, accompanied by their wives in their black robes, some with face veils, walk past shops full of brightly coloured western clothes. For a westerner conditioned to a certain image of Saudi Arabia, one of those shops is surprising: Victoria Secrets, the US underwear retailer.
So, much of a different culture is that of a different viewpoint. In sharing their vision for a tourism industry, they are adamant that they will not allow alcohol to be sold freely. Whilst wondering what a dry holiday would feel like, the average westerner would do well to see what has happened to in a country like Thailand, where many consular services spend time getting visitors out of gaol, having expected too much of a free for all. The same applies to many European capitals. Dubai has experimented a mix of western drinking habits with sharia law and we are reminded frequently, in the press, of how that ends. Whilst certainly not for everyone, the offer of a holiday free of drunks and safe for young children can be enticing.
On the death penalty, we abhor the idea of taking a life for a life and the swift execution of a sentence. Yet in Saudi Arabia, some would see it as almost barbaric to sentence a person to death and then allow them to languish on death row for years, if not decades, while a cumbersome appeals process plays out, frequently not to the benefit of the sentenced. The US does not necessarily have all the answers.
Of course, we must hold them to account. The conflict in Yemen is something that is under significant scrutiny in the UK – especially the process of target selection and the command structure in the Saudi military. The recent judicial review of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia reminds us that this is an area of intense contention. The UK operates under the International Humanitarian Law protocol and every arms export is considered under the consolidated criteria that determine Saudi Arabia’s compliance with IHL. It is right that we do this, but we can sometimes forget the efforts that the Saudis make on the humanitarian front, rehabilitating Houthi child soldiers and evacuating and supporting hundreds of thousands of refugees. Moreover, we are also, sometimes, ignorant of the huge efforts the Saudis are making to identify and tackle extremism and radicalisation. In seeking a peaceful society, they are not so different from the UK in the 1970s, tackling the atrocities of the IRA and others. This is an area that we benefit from, and enhance, through co-operation.
Saudi Arabia is changing and has set itself a vision for a country that seeks to be ‘more normal’. It is a country to which, in 2015, we exported £6.6 billion worth of goods and services and there is tremendous opportunity for us to do a great deal more trade as their Vision 2030 programme is rolled out. There will be conservatives, fearful of change, but for a young population, change is less frightening. Over time, issues important to us in the west – women’s rights, amongst others – will mature and develop. So, we should not force another society to adopt all our values and, in some cases, faults, but we should work with them, trade with them and help them identify what works for us and what lets us down. After all, with many Saudis educated in the west, they see what a scary Saturday night in any western city centre looks like. For a country with a rich and fascinating cultural history, it provides an opportunity for a family holiday free of drunken brawls outside noisy nightclubs. It is a country we should work with.