Time: April 5, 2018
After a 35-year ban, Saudi Arabia’s first cinema will open in less than a fortnight. This is a momentous event in the history of the kingdom, whose populace of 32 million is largely made up of people under the age of 30. Having grown up in a country with few entertainment options, they are now being ushered into a new epoch where conservative strictures are being rapidly dismantled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Since he was appointed to his role last year, the 32-year-old crown prince has presided over the most substantial reforms in Saudi Arabia’s history. The female driving ban is soon to be lifted and there is zero tolerance for corruption. Sweeping social reform has been accompanied by major plans to diversify the economy. Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed’s blueprint for Saudi Arabia’s modernisation, will see, among other things, the Red Sea coastline being converted into a tourist haven, the establishment of a $500 billion transnational megacity and the construction of an entertainment zone outside Riyadh.
Prince Mohammed’s comprehensive three-week tour of the United States, coming on the heels of his hugely successful visit to Britain, has sent a clear signal to the world that Saudi Arabia is open for business. The crown prince held discussions with practically every business, political, entertainment and technology leader in the US. Every movement of his was freighted with symbolism. Dressed in a casual suit, he sipped coffee in a Manhattan Starbucks with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Corporate America took note that it was dealing with a new kind of leader. “The crown prince is always impressive when he sets out his vision for the [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia]”, tweeted Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein. In Seattle, he held discussions with Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, which is seeking to invest in Saudi Arabia, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who are likely to play a key role in Prince Mohammed’s ambitious plans for Saudi Arabia’s digital transformation and knowledge-based innovation. In Nevada, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson briefed him on hyperloop technology, a promising transport option for the futuristic Neom city. The crown prince’s meetings with the leaders of Apple, another potential investor, Google and Lockheed Martin in California gave an indication of the enormous opportunities that are opening up for businesses in Saudi Arabia.
Observers have been struck by Prince Mohammed’s embrace of western media; no line of questioning was verboten in his interactions with journalists. The crown prince calmly laid out his vision for the future of Saudi Arabia – a nation brimming with energy and open to the world – while emphasising the ever-present threat posed by Iran’s regressive regime to all these striving to take a leap forward. The world has a clearer idea, thanks to Prince Mohammed’s visit to the US, of all that is possible in Saudi Arabia – and all that is at stake.