What do historic social changes in Saudi Arabia mean for NZ businesses?

Saudi Arabia

08 March 2018

Chris Tozer / Trade Commissioner / Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

A modern and open Saudi Arabia?

Chris Tozer lifts the lid on the real Saudi Arabia, and the market opportunities it presents for New Zealand’s export companies in 2018.

Saudi Arabia is not a country that’s used to rapid change, yet few places have altered as quickly or as dramatically as the Kingdom in the last 18 months. Events that would have once been unthinkable, like public music festivals, hosting Comic Con, and the reopening of cinemas after 35 years, are now becoming increasingly commonplace – in particular over a remarkable last six months. Yet perceptions of the nation haven’t kept pace with the changes, and the largest economy in the region remains exempt from many New Zealand companies’ export plans.

Demystifying the Kingdom

Nothing displays the shift the country is currently undergoing better than the evolving place of women. As well as highly publicised changes like the lifting of the controversial bans on driving and attending sporting events, it has recently been announced that women are now able to open businesses without the permission of a male guardian. Women across the country are increasingly participating in the workplace, even political life, and comprise more than 60% of all university graduates.  And while this may seem trivial to many expats, it represents a deep change in the way the Kingdom is approaching the world.

Contrary to popular belief, Saudi Arabia is an exceptionally young country, with 70% of its population aged under thirty. Another common misconception is that Saudi is disconnected from and unfamiliar with Western views and ways of doing things. With some of the highest social media penetration in the world, particularly Twitter and YouTube, and close to 150,000 young people travelling overseas to study each year on the King Abdullah Scholarship programme, people in Saudi are increasingly familiar with other cultures.

Vision 2030

Much of the change is linked to the ascent of a young and dynamic Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. He has encouraged an intense period of internal examination centred on Vision 2030 – the country’s blueprint for modernisation as it moves away from oil production and searches for new revenue streams. As well as a greater role for private investment, this ambitious plan also features some of the largest civil engineering projects in the world – including a new coast-to-coast railway, a man-made causeway linking the Kingdom to Bahrain, and the $500 billion entertainment and technology mega city, Neom, taking shape south of Riyadh and powered solely by wind and solar energy.

What do these changes mean for New Zealand companies?

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"This article first appeared in Exporter Today on 5 March 2018"