x

Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

In Jeddah, two more moments of profound change

A football match and footfall in a car showroom point the way ahead in the Kingdom

Saudi women watch the soccer match between Al Ahli and Al Batin in Jeddah, Reuters
Saudi women watch the soccer match between Al Ahli and Al Batin in Jeddah, Reuters

It is now almost two years since Saudi Arabia’s then deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman sat down with a group of Bloomberg journalists in Riyadh to discuss the country’s national transformation programme. As The National reported last week, the transcripts of those conversations make for fascinating reading as the kingdom continues to make rapid economic, societal and cultural changes. While his remarks appeared then to offer a general view of the direction Saudi Arabia was likely to travel in, they now serve as a reference point for the journey the kingdom has embarked upon.

Mohammed bin Salman, who became Crown Prince last year, was asked two questions by Bloomberg about whether it was a “particular project” of his to promote Saudi women. The enquiry was framed “through the prism of the economy”, but the answer, in hindsight, suggested a broader opening loomed: “I don’t think there are obstacles we can’t overcome” when pressed on the issue of women driving. He followed that by saying “we look at citizens in general and women are half of this society and we want it to be a productive half.”

In Jeddah, two more of those obstacles were removed at the weekend: women were allowed to enter a football stadium for the first time to watch a premier league match between Al Ahli and Al Batin. The home side produced a performance to match the occasion, scoring four first-half goals in a 5-0 victory. Across town, the first car showroom aimed at women opened its doors on Thursday. A decree allowing women to drive in the kingdom will come into force by or before June this year. Part of the push towards productivity is, of course, related to more freedom of movement.

While both the football match and the showroom opening were acts that had been heavily telegraphed, the symbolism cannot be understated. One spectator, who went to the game with her three daughters said on Friday night: “My daughters still don't believe this is happening.” Prince Mohammed has made a habit out of making things happen.