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How will social reform in Saudi Arabia impact assignees?


My colleague Lee recently discussed how the current social and political upheaval in Hong Kong has led to worsening Location Rating scores. Negative events, such as social unrest or natural disasters often lead to changes in our Location Ratings scores, but sometimes the opposite is the case, and scores can be affected by positive changes in a country. My recent trip to Saudi Arabia is a case in point as the nation continues to undergo a significant cultural shift.

This was my third visit to the kingdom, the others being in 2011 and 2015. Since my last visit a new and relatively youthful crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has been appointed and he has made it a key plan to push through with the country’s Saudi Vision 2030 project. The ambitious project is designed to improve the financial fortunes of a country which currently relies heavily on revenues from the oil and gas industry. Saudi Arabia is keen to diversify its economy away from these sectors and attract more foreign investment from other sources. To achieve this, however, the young and progressive crown prince has recognised that many aspects of the country’s strict cultural laws and social codes need reform. There have been economic reforms, such as a 5% VAT introduction last year, and in 2017 a newly created anti-corruption committee was set up leading to a ‘purge’ of many prominent ministers and business leaders. It is, however, the social reforms which have the most obvious impact on the day-to-day lives of the Saudi people and also the large expatriate population living in the country. 

I arrived in Jeddah, the first of three Saudi cities on my data collection trip, on 1st October. This was three days after a new tourist visa had been introduced for the first time in Saudi Arabia. This was seen as quite a leap, as previously it has only been possible to visit the kingdom on various business, diplomatic or employment visas – overseas tourists were strictly not permitted. The new visa is available to citizens of 49 nations and the push for tourism represents one of the new sources of revenue that Saudi Arabia hopes to develop in the future.

On the same day that the visa was introduced, the government also brought in progressive reforms which relax the previously strict dress code for foreign women in the country. This was clearly evident to me during my visit. When catching up with a local Saudi friend, he told me that in the three days since my arrival he’d never seen so much ‘expatriate hair’ in his home country. Foreign women are now no longer required to wear the formerly mandatory abaya – a flowing loose over-garment. Conservative dress is still required, however, and there are specific dress codes for public places, each with specific fines if breached. The timing of this reform is clearly aimed at the anticipated influx of foreign tourists, but it will also have a big impact on expatriate women who have been living in the country previously. The lack of such small freedoms, which can often be taken for granted at home, can be an important factor in reducing assignee contentment while living overseas.

Another welcome introduction for the expatriate population has been the opening of cinemas, which had previously been banned for 35 years. The new cinemas are state-of-the-art multiplexes and show many of the big Hollywood blockbusters you’d expect to see elsewhere in the world. Although currently only in the larger cities, there are plans to open 300 more as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 project. The likes of the Black Eyed Peas and Enrique Iglesias became some of the first Western artists to appear in concert in the kingdom last year, and since then this has been followed by various global favourites including Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and 50 Cent. Cinema, theatre and concert tickets are included within ECA’s cost of living basket and the fact that these will now be more widely available for people living in Saudi Arabia means that we will be able to provide an even more detailed picture of the cost of living for overseas workers and their families who reside in the kingdom.

Sport is also seen as a crucial way of attracting investment and garnering overseas interest in the country. In 2018 the first professional boxing event was held in Saudi Arabia and just last weekend the heavyweight title bout between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz was held in a suburb of Riyadh. Even boxer Tyson Fury got in on the act by appearing in a WWE wrestling event in October. At the same event a women’s wrestling match was also approved to take place and, although the event itself may sound frivolous to many, this would have been unthinkable during my last visit in 2015 and represents another important step in the relaxing of strict social rules. 

One of the other recent reforms which made many global news reports was the lifting of the ban on women driving cars in June 2018. I admit I did double take when I saw a woman behind the wheel of a huge SUV, but soon realised that there were already plenty of women enjoying their new-found freedom to drive. In January of this year a ban on playing music in restaurants was also rescinded and just recently another restriction has been lifted that previously required restaurants to have separate entrances for men and women and families.

These changes would seem all rather normal in most global locations but it’s important to remember that social options for expatriates in Saudi Arabia have been hugely restricted for decades. This relaxation of societal life is a big change for the country, and for many foreigners who have had to previously live two separate lives – a public one and a private one – this new atmosphere will be well received. That said, there are still many restrictions in place and the kingdom remains extremely conservative compared to most other countries in the world, including within the Middle East. Still, from an expatriate point of view things are clearly changing for the better and, as they say, progress is progress.

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