Saudi Arabia aims for social overhaul in reform plan
By Angus McDowall
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's sweeping plans to overhaul its economy in coming years are matched by proposals for social transformation that extend to ways of tackling domestic violence, increasing city park space and reducing road deaths.
While proposals in the "Vision 2030" reforms to reduce Riyadh's dependence on oil revenue and boost the private sector have drawn most attention, some of the most consequential changes envisaged for Saudi Arabia are to its society.
"The Vision 2030 or the other programs are intended to transform not only the economy. The intention also is to transform the society and to address the needs of the younger generation and the aspirations that they look for," Information Minister Adel al-Toraifi told reporters on Tuesday.
The kingdom's strict social customs and rapid development created a nation in which community feeling is highly valued but opportunities for public gathering are scarce, one that reveres the harsh life of its Bedouin forebears but in which obesity is rife.
Religious strictures are particularly influential in shaping Saudi society, tightly limiting the role of women, enforcing rigid public morality rules and battling some government efforts to modernize the legal and education systems.
Meanwhile, rapid development since the discovery of oil in 1938 has led to inefficient provision of government services and an expansion of cities and towns with little thought given to the social needs of their inhabitants.
In a country where Saudi citizens have no vote, and where falling oil income means their economic horizons may contract in coming years, improving their sense of satisfaction with daily life in the kingdom is important to ensure political stability.