04/25/2023, 12.23
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Riyadh: diplomacy, reforms and (denied) rights. Silicon Valley Saudi style

by Dario Salvi

The kingdom wants to become the region's main digital and technological hub. Bin Salman's nationalism has supplanted religious Wahhabism. Entertainment and modernity, but only with a concession from the state. The node of infrastructure and fibre optics. Social changes are reflected in the real estate market.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Diversification in the economic sphere, activism in the diplomatic field starting with the resumption of relations with Tehran (Shiite rival in the region) and dialogues with the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels in Yemen, social reforms and nationalism to supplant Wahhabi Islam.

Saudi Arabia has made radical changes in recent years that go hand in hand with a profound mutation in the policies promoted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Mbs), who has moved from military confrontation to dialogue, at least externally.

In fact, if on the domestic front Riyadh continues to use the iron fist - and the death penalty - to repress any form of dissent, across the border it has launched détente policies - from the Islamic Republic to Yemen - with a view to security and economic growth.

Wahhabism and nationalism

The reference remains the ambitious 'Vision 2030' strongly advocated by bin Salman himself, a radical economic and financial transformation plan that aims to free the nation from oil and hydrocarbons by strengthening the tourism and entertainment industries.

However, the real goal is to turn what was once the Wahhabi kingdom that was a landmark of the Sunna and the Islamic religious pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina into a modern financial, technological and innovation hub. 

At the time of the presentation in 2016 of 'Vision 2030' Mbs was not yet crown prince. Today, he is also prime minister and is the true strongman who determines Saudi policies, at home and abroad, pursuing a diversification of international alliances that have led the country to reconnect with Iran and dialogue with Israel, though without ending up in the embrace of the 'Abrahamic Agreements'.

And again, to keep alive the axis with Washington in which the Democrat Biden has taken the place of the Republican Trump, without disdaining the diplomatic initiatives - and money - of Beijing, which looks to the Middle East with growing interest.

A reformism that finds in the mega-project of Neom, the futuristic city on the shores of the Red Sea and realised at 20%, the most significant showcase with young targets in a nation where two-thirds of the population is under 35.

Accompanying this is the plan for increasing 'de-Wahhabization', where the strictest interpretation of Islam is put aside and fundamentalist leaders sidelined, in favour of a nationalism that leaves marginal room for freedoms and rights. Concessions, in fact, always come 'from above' and religious minorities, ethnic groups and civil society remain under the yoke of heavy restrictions or are persecuted, just as widespread recourse to the death penalty remains.

Silicon Valley Saudi style

Analysts and experts point to the ambitious project promoted by the Saudis in the field of technology, with the attempt to become the 'Silicon Valley' of the Arabian Peninsula, even if more centres and infrastructure are needed to establish itself as a web giant. And beat off competition from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which in terms of reform and change has been a model that, in many ways, still remains unmatched despite Riyadh's commitment - and money - today.

On the table, however, remain the billion-dollar investments made by the Saudis in data centres, metaverse and fibre-optic cables. Global network players such as Microsoft, Google, Oracle, Meta and Apple are looking at the kingdom with interest, attracted by the huge capital at their disposal, the high internet usage and development plans for the future.

Fahad Alhajeri, CEO of Center3, a subsidiary of the Saudi Telecom Company (Stc), confirms that the goal is to become 'the main digital hub' connecting the three continents of 'Asia, Europe and Africa, as well as driving the largest share of internet exchange and data traffic in the region'. 

Already today, Saudi Arabia can be considered a digital giant, hosting over 55 per cent of the region's telecommunications market share and 51 per cent of the Information Technology industries, according to Goldstein Research data. Internet penetration in daily life and society stands at 98%, even though consumer spending on IT is only 0.7% of GDP, compared to 1.3% in developed countries, reflecting the wide margin for growth available. And that growth is coming.

Cloud services in Saudi Arabia are expected to reach USD 10 billion by 2030. Google has entered into a joint venture with the state-owned oil giant Aramco. Microsoft will invest .5 billion in a new cloud data centre. Chinese technology giant Huawei will invest USD 400 million in the cloud. In May, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, will open the region's first metaverse academy in Riyadh to train people on how to build new digital environments.

Finally, Apple is about to locate its first distribution hub in the Middle East, near the capital. The fibre-optic network, within which 95% of global Internet traffic travels, will be instrumental in achieving these goals. Hence the decision of the Saudis to set up a local infrastructure.

Society and rights

The economic and financial changes taking place also have a profound impact in the cultural sphere, with a transformation affecting society and the family. Saudis and Saudi women are marrying later and later and having fewer and fewer children, disrupting family units and affecting the housing market.

Among the new female role models are powerful women, while the number of those establishing themselves in the professional or diplomatic fields, such as the various ambassadors in Western countries, is increasing.

Riyadh is increasingly a focus of transformation, awaiting the completion of the futuristic Neom, with house and flat prices rising at an unprecedented rate. Young people are tending to move out of their families of origin earlier and earlier, due to a collapse in demand for mega-apartments in favour of smaller but functional flats, as confirmed by the real estate consultancy Knight Frank.

Of the approximately 555,000 residential units under construction by the end of the decade, most will be priced at least one million dollars. 'We are witnessing,' says the company surveyed by al-Monitor, 'the decline of the multi-generational family' while more and more people, especially young people, 'are internal migrants in search of better career prospects'. Added to this is a growing education abroad, greater awareness in terms of life and goals, and the search for a community lifestyle.

The changing and affirming world of youth is followed by an entertainment industry - led by the state - that looks with increasing interest to theme parks, festivals, cinema and sports (from football to motor sports). Finally, there are changes in schools and textbooks, where the pre-Islamic past finds a place and the most intolerant passages towards Jews and Christians are removed, as well as the introduction of Chinese as a third language and the practice of yoga in schools and universities.

However, the reforms stop at the threshold of human rights and religious freedom. In fact, Islam remains the only recognised religion in the land of Mecca and Medina, while churches, synagogues and temples are off-limits.

Finally, a further area of concern for companies and investors concerns digital privacy and surveillance, given the introduction of the Personal Data Protection Law (Pdpl) in March 2023. A regulation that has come into the crosshairs of activist groups such as Smex, according to which it could allow privacy violations and holes in data protection.


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