The changes undergone by Saudi Arabia in the last couple of years are tremendous, to say the least. The Kingdom has transformed to a point where it’s difficult to believe that just last year, women couldn’t sit in cafés with men, attend sporting events, or drive cars.
These changes can be attributed to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, affectionately known as MBS. The 33-year-old outlined his goals for the Kingdom in his Vision 2030 plan, a blueprint that will allow Saudi Arabia to move towards a more modernized, tourist-friendly future, with aims such as diversifying the economy away from oil, moving towards a more tolerant form of Islam, and increasing the percentage of women in the nation’s workforce from 22% to 30%. Since this year, men and women have been able to go to concerts and cinemas, while women have also been allowed to attend sporting matches in select stadiums. Just last month, Saudi Arabia passed a law to criminalize sexual harassment. But perhaps the climax of Vision 2030 was last week’s Ad Diriyah E-Prix – a three-day festival of motorsport, music, and culture; the first of its kind in the nation.
“In my personal opinion, change was bound to happen,” says Aram Kabbani, an entrepreneur and stylist from Jeddah. “I have a great deal of respect for our beautiful culture, but the idea is never to be afraid of change just because we’re told to. The event was overwhelming for all Saudis, considering how this was not at all possible a while ago.” Last weekend, thousands of Saudi men and woman were joined by visitors from all over the world – thanks to a new visitor visa system implemented for the event – to watch history unfold at Diriyah, on the outskirts of Saudi’s capital.
A major highlight of the event was having several female race-car drivers participating in a Formula E test session, including 18-year-old Emirati Amna Al Qubaisi. “The hugely anticipated event proved that men and women are welcome to take part in their passions,” notes Aseel Al-Hamad, the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation. The car enthusiast, who celebrated the end of the decades-long driving ban in the Kingdom by driving a Formula One vehicle in the streets, believes that the race could inspire a whole generation of Saudi women to become involved in all aspects of motorsports. “It also serves as a general statement of empowerment and a focus on community,” she states.
In addition to the races, men and women attended gender-mixed concerts from international acts including Jason Derulo, The Black Eyed Peas, David Guetta, and OneRepublic, where dancing was allowed. Considering it was just a couple of years ago that women could only attend a lecture by a male professor via a monitor, the events of the inaugural Ad Diriyah E-Prix were nothing short of momentous.
People were merely enjoying themselves there and feeling the overwhelming vibe of happiness and change all around,” notes Kabbani. “Regarding it being a gender-mixed event, it is simply a natural thing, as long as everyone is as respectful as we’ve been raised here in Saudi to be. From what I witnessed, everyone there was just having a good time.” Nora Alshaikh, a Jeddah-based fashion designer, agrees with Kabbani. “Ultimately, we are all working together to create positive change for everyone, regardless of gender, and to support Vision 2030. The events related to Formula E are part of a much larger and ongoing initiative to promote cross-cultural exchange at a time when we need it the most.”
In addition to gender-mixed concerts, Saudi Arabia witnessed another first: the facilitation of tourist visas to international visitors. The new visa system, entitled Sharek, was launched with the aim of bolstering tourism to the country for such events. The visa system was introduced for the inaugural Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix via online application when visitors purchased their Formula E tickets. This resulted in thousands of tourists from all around the globe, including Scott Disick and Sofia Richie, who flew in specifically for the event.
“Young Saudis are not only proud of their heritage, but also see themselves as global citizens,” comments Alshaikh. “We have a very rich culture and arts and design scene representing Saudi Arabia’s diverse regions. There is a pride that comes with being able to share that with the rest of the world through these events.”