In recent months Saudi Arabia has gone through strategic, social, and political changes. The word ‘change’ itself is interesting, especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia. There aren’t many countries, states, or people who would experiment with the idea of change. Not even the established democracies for that matter. Change is a risky business when it comes to state affairs. And here we are talking about a Kingdom which has been known for its conservatism, at least in the Arabian Peninsula. This week Saudi Arabia organized its first international media conference in the Kingdom’s capital, Riyadh. The conference was well organized and well attended. Issues related to the new media and the future of print media were discussed, and of course, the very idea of how open and free the media is in the Kingdom was also discussed. Saudi Arabia is a unique society with its strengths and weaknesses. The following are my observations from my recent trip to Saudi Arabia.

The idea of the conference was to exchange ideas related to new media. But beyond that, it was also about the exposure that the Saudi government wants to give to their people and young journalism students who aim to lead the future media environs. It was something new for the Saudis and of course, for many journalists who were either visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time or even for those who have visited it before.

The Saudi society under crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman is trying to open up. It wants to open up in diverse dimensions; socially, economically, and strategically. In terms of strategy, the Saudi State has kept its cards close to its chest. I’ll discuss that in some other column. But socially and economically, the trends have changed drastically.

Let’s start with the social dimension. The social aspect of any country is never in a vacuum. It is deeply rooted in its cultural fabric and heritage. It has a memory. Saudi society has been one of the most conservative ones. It still is, but that is quickly changing. There are several reasons for it. Saudi Arabia has a huge youth population that wants to grow and see the things that it can do for itself and the country. There is a need to patronize that energy. MBS is doing it. But it requires more than that.

All big decisions have an element of risk. MBS’s decision to loosen up the strict laws related to women in Saudi Arabia has brought in much appreciation and criticism. Appreciation from the middle class and from the young people who would benefit from it. Criticism from the old guard who benefits from the status quo. I saw women driving cars openly and freely without any Burqa or Niqab. That is a choice now. It wasn’t like that earlier. The veil was a must for a woman, and driving a car was unthinkable just a few months back. At the conference, few women wore western clothes, though most still wore the gown. Some wore western clothes covered like a long coat on their western clothes, shook hands with their counterparts and colleagues. This was something that nobody in Saudi Arabia thought about. Human beings, anywhere, want free social interaction. They don’t want the big brother or the state or the government to supervise them. Saudis are no exception. Interestingly, a vast number of women attended the conference. There were young students eager to interact with foreign journalists and participants visiting the Kingdom.

A considerable number of people are also concerned about the freedom that MBS is giving to the women in particular and to the people in general. This can aggravate the situation in the Kingdom, they think. There are many things that can go wrong. The culture, the heritage, the religion. All can be undermined if western ways are adopted. To them, the change is coming too fast. Then, according to the critics, there is a bunch of possibilities of things that can go wrong in the Kingdom, politically and socially. What would MBS do then? That, of course, is for MBS to decide.

For now, Saudi Arabia, under MBS, has taken some very unconventional decisions. Opening up society is just one. Saudi authorities arrested the most powerful and established wealthy sheikhs in the Kingdom. That, too, was one of the toughest decisions. Challenging the status quo and established norms in statecraft is never easy. Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify its economy. And for that, it has to open the society and provide more work opportunities to the people. This is what the Saudi Government call’s Muhammad Bin Salman’s Vision 2030.

Saudi Arabia is the land of Islam’s holiest sites. It holds a sanctity and sacredness. But it is also a country with a monarchy that has its own opportunities and challenges. It is experimenting with new ways of dealing with the economic and strategic challenges that it might face in the future. During this process, it might recreate its identity, which is never easy, while keeping its core values intact. After all, that’s what Turkey and Malaysia and several other countries did in order to diversify themselves.