Is Saudi Arabia on the cusp of change?

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A Saudi woman wearing a Niqab gets into a taxi at a mall in Riyadh as a grassroots campaign planned to call for an end to the driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia on October 26, 2014Image source, AFP
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Women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia

Ask about change in Saudi Arabia.

The reply used to be: it will come, in its own way and in its own time, in the conservative kingdom.

It was another way of saying it would take a long time - and might never happen.

But, in Saudi Arabia now, talk of change is measured in months.

"I made a bet with a male colleague that the ban on women driving would end in the first six months of this year, and he said it would happen in the second half," a successful Saudi businesswoman says to me over lunch in the capital, Riyadh.

"But now I think it will happen early next year, and apply only to women over 40," she adds.

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Rocking out, Saudi-style

That's a prediction you hear in Riyadh's royal circles too. Some even say younger women will be allowed to drive before too long.

Change on every front is still slow and cautious in a culture where ultra-conservative religious authorities wield great influence, and many Saudis want to hold on to their old ways of living.

But an accelerating pace is largely being forced on Saudi rulers and society by a dramatic change in fortune for the world's biggest oil producer.

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Oil and gas provide 90% of Saudi Arabia's income

The crash in world prices for Saudi Arabia's black gold halved its revenues a few years ago and now shapes the hard choices and changes it must make in many parts of life here.

"It's been a one engine jet for decades," is how John Sfakianakis of the Gulf Research Center explains a country that depends on oil and gas for 90% of its income.

"Now it needs multiple engines."

Enter a new master plan, grandly titled Vision 2030, which was unveiled with great fanfare last year.

Image source, Reuters
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Vision 2030 hopes to boost private sector growth

It's stamped with the imprimatur of the 31-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who crafted the ambitious blueprint with a cast of highly paid foreign consultants.

The deputy crown prince and those around him know that someday oil wells will run dry and, even before that, most people will be driving electric cars.

"It's absolutely necessary to get to Vision 2030 and our objectives," says the country's powerful Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih.

The former CEO of the state oil giant, Aramco, the world's biggest oil company, Mr al-Falih even has the need to diversify written into his new title. He's the minister of energy, industry and mineral resources.

"Whether we get there in 2030, whether we get some of them in 2025, some of them in 2030, some of them in 2035, we'll see," he explains in a nod to a master plan with demanding benchmarks for every ministry.

Saudi editor and writer Khaled Maeena points to a new accountability starting to emerge.

"Everybody is on the go, ministers bureaucrats and all, looking over their shoulders not to make mistakes," he says.

Those at the top, he adds, must "lead by example".

Image source, AFP
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Two third's of Saudi Arabia's population is aged below 30

Salaries and lavish perks have been slashed in government jobs. The private sector is expected to provide one of the big engines for growth. It's still not up to speed.

"We're not hiring now," asserts a Saudi business executive who oversees a vast conglomerate of companies. "And we're not selling to the government unless we're sure we'll get paid for our goods."

"Vision 2030 is unlikely to reach its destination in 2030," a sceptical Saudi statistician replies when I ask for his view. Like most Saudis who criticise, he asks not to use his name.

"But at least there is a vision, and this time there are practicalities about how to achieve it," he adds, in a reference to previous schemes which never went anywhere.

"This is la la land," was the even more scathing assessment of another consultant. "Is there a bureaucracy able to implement it and a readiness at the top to change their own lives?"

Image source, AFP
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Many of Saudi Arabia's young are educated abroad

The young deputy crown prince driving this plan, who is seen as the favourite son of 81-year-old King Salman, knows there's another clock fuelling pressure for change.

Two-thirds of Saudis are his age or younger.

Hundreds of thousands of them, men and women, were educated at the best western universities thanks to a generous scholarship programme started by the former King Abdullah.

Now they're back, looking for work but also ways to spend their weekends in an austere culture where even cinemas are banned,

Image source, AFP
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Saudi restaurants are carefully segregated

Under the rules, men can only sit with women if they are dining with their female relatives, or "families" as that section is known.

But even since my last visit about a year ago, small but significant steps are visible.

Gone from the streets of the capital are the notorious religious police, the Mutawa, who used to roam in a mission to "prevent vice and promote virtue" and were often accused of zealously abusing their powers. The deputy crown prince is credited with sorting this out.

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Many Saudis are excited at the prospect of more entertainment events

Wealthy Riyadh residents speak excitedly of newly opened restaurants where seating arrangements are less strict and music blares loudly.

"We need to see women drivers and cinemas here," insists Waleed al-Saedan when we meet at one of the few public places where the speed of life truly picks up.

"Dune bashing" in the desert provides one of the few legal thrills as Saudis rev the engines of sand buggies and SUVs to careen down the soft slopes of sand.

Image source, Getty Images
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Dune bashing is a popular sport in parts of the Middle East

As is so often the case here, it's usually a men-only adventure.

But a new General Entertainment Authority is on the case. Despite its stern title, the people who run it are on a mission to bring some fun to Saudi lives, albeit within limits. No one is suggesting drinking and dancing.

"My mission is to make people happy," asserts the authority's chairman Ahmed al-Khatib, whose own serious demeanour is quickly brightened by a smile.

A calendar of some 80 events ranging from art festivals to light shows and live music concerts is carefully prepared and implemented to avoid any backlash which could put the whole project at risk.

Image source, AFP
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Huge crowds turned out for a rare concert in January

"We will definitely provide things for the more open people and we will provide activities and things for the more conservative people," Mr al-Khatib explains, choosing his words carefully.

Opening up more social freedoms isn't just about providing more fun.

"Seventy billion riyals are being spent by Saudis on holidays abroad," laments a Saudi tour operator who is trying to tempt Saudis to spend more of their time and money at home instead of fleeing to the bright lights of Dubai or London.

Image source, AFP
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Women are being encouraged to take part in Vision 2030

More profound changes like political reform, tackling a questionable human rights record, or easing a web of restrictions on women's lives aren't on the agenda.

And at the same time as happiness is on the agenda, so is pain.

This is a country where people have always lived with cheap petrol, without taxes, and free water and electricity.

Image source, Getty Images
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Saudi Arabia will have to diversify its revenue streams in the coming years

Now subsidies are being cut and a sales tax introduced. A new "Citizen's Account" will help lighten the burden for poorer families, but Saudis are having to juggle their own finances now.

"Saudis have taken too much for granted for too long," insists Nadia al-Hazza, an engineer who used to work in the oil and gas sector who is now helping to get women involved in Vision 2030.

She starts her presentations with a famous mantra from former US President John F Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

So now Saudis are also being asked to do more, and faster, than they've ever been used to.

"We're like a turtle on wheels," says political observer Hassan Yassin. "We're moving in a faster way to try to meet local demands and 21st Century obligations."