Tamara Cofman Wittes wants Americans to know that there is more to Saudi Arabia than oil, desert and sharia law.
The capital, Riyadh, is being redeveloped into a modern, bustling city of 5 million people with a subway system that is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Young scholars and students dream of the day when their country’s economy is driven by private sector innovation instead of petroleum. And women are slowly becoming more independent.
“The pace of change is really notable compared to my previous visits to the kingdom where there was a sense that the leadership of the country moved very slowly and cautiously,” said Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “It is clear that that’s not the case now.”
Wittes was in Saudi Arabia last month as part of a research team from Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies, which was trying to get a better understanding day-to-day life and cultural shifts that are occurring there.
This was her sixth visit to the kingdom. She made earlier visits as President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for Middle East. Then she was focused on the politics of the region. This time she came to hear from ordinary Saudis.
“Young people are excited about the possibility for that change, whether it relates to being able to go to the movies, or creating a different kind of career path than you might have imagined earlier,” Wittes said.
Behind much of the country’s optimism is Vision 2030 — a campaign announced in 2016 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to improve economic equality, increase tourism and modernize the economy. It also calls for the gradual integration of women into society by granting them privileges such as driving, which the country’s leadership agreed to last September.
Wittes said Vision 2030 was the overwhelming topic of conversation during her weeklong visit, and that the government is not shy about bolstering the country’s image. One poster printed by a utility company features drawings of the crown prince and his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, against a blue backdrop and a shining city skyline.
“There are posters advertising” Vision 2030, she said. “We went to a cultural festival in Riyadh, and they had pavilions for various regions of the country, and there was a pavilion for Vision 2030. There are TV ads about Vision 2030. It’s omnipresent.”
The research team also visited the Red Sea cities of Jizan and Jeddah. Wittes said Jizan has become a popular tourist destination for Saudis, who would otherwise take vacations in neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. But the city has become ripe with sunbathers and scuba divers who frequent the seaside resorts on the weekends. Nowhere to be seen, she said, were Yemeni refugees who she expected would be fleeing their country’s civil war just over an hour’s drive to the south.
“We wanted to get a sense of a different sense of the country, and it is a different part of the country,” she said. “The climate’s different, the culture’s different, the food is different and it was interesting to be there.”
The innovative spirit of the younger generation is even showing up in architecture and art, Wittes said. The group met with well-known artist Abdulnasser Gharem and several protégés. Gharem, she said, cuts against the grain of traditional Saudi Arabian art, which focuses on nature, by painting political symbols such as stamps, which represent the country’s bureaucracy.
Gharem has also drawn upon his experience of attending high school with two of the 9/11 terrorists by creating paintings inspired by the memory of that day, such as a painting of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center called “Pause.”
Gharem, Wittes said, has gone out of his way to provide aspiring artists with a workspace in his home, and art books — resources not available to him growing up.
Wittes said Gharem and his students traveled to the United States last year and toured the country in a recreational vehicle, showing off art in cities that included Los Angeles and Seattle. His rise to popularity, she thinks, is a sign that Saudi Arabia is becoming known for more than turmoil.
“It’s just a good reminder that no matter how challenging and difficult things in this region may be … that there are these exciting, productive, inspiring things going on at the societal level,” she said.
Despite the signs of economic progress, political change is not on the horizon, she said. The monarchy will remain in place, as will government control of newspapers and the Internet. And Islam will still be the law of the land. But economic liberalization can still happen in the absence of political liberalization, Wittes said.
“[Americans] are rooted in this liberal idea that open politics, open society and open markets reinforce one another,” she said.
“We believe that you can’t innovate unless you liberate people to experiment, and that requires them to be able to speak freely and raise new ideas and criticize one another robustly. But that’s not necessarily the premise that this country is working from.”
Wittes said Saudis continue to worry about the instability in the region, including the wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as Iran’s influence. She said Saudis she spoke with would like to see more American intervention, and are no more excited about President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy than that of his predecessors.
“What I heard on this trip is that President Trump is largely continuing Obama’s approach to the region,” she said. “There’s a lot of positive rhetoric, but they don’t see commitments that they would like to see in terms of military or diplomatic engagement to push back on the Iranian challenge.”
Wittes said she plans to return to Saudi Arabia later this spring to do more research. She said the main takeaway from this trip is that there is more to the country than what is typically seen in media coverage.
“If you just read the headlines every day, you think that this whole region is a disastrous mess,” she said.