Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Riyadh and the region, my proposal looks at how some sections of Saudi society respond to the social dimensions of current state reforms. In 2016, important changes started to occur under new political leadership: It launched Vision 2030: a series of economic diversification and legal reforms aimed at reducing oil dependence and promoting the private sector. Moreover, the reforms include the promotion of official entertainment, international tourism, women in the workforce, or changes in school curriculums. This recent, top-down and fast-paced social transformation goes with increased nationalist narratives and regulations on the religious sphere.
A large part of the reforms is future-oriented, aspiring to develop Saudi Arabia as the hub of the digital economy, promoting artificial intelligence, innovation and entrepreneurship. An anticipated future is drawn from an idealized past of the Kingdom (meaning pre-1979), toward an aspirational society. It is a shift toward a technologically based future able to answer the environmental crisis, where all issues have an innovative answer.
However, if a state tries to centralize visions of the future, my project aims to explore how civil society, too, is visionary.
What forms of ethical struggle does one have to compose with, in a changing environment implying uncertainties and novelties? What are the continuities in what is often presented as unprecedented changes? What does it mean to grow up in a society that officially condemned what it now celebrates? How do the ‘liberals’, the ‘conservatives’ and the in-between sections of Saudi society respond to this particular point in history?
My ethnographic offers a unique insight into Saudi reforms, with material drawn from everyday conversations in private majalis and interviews with government officials, journalists, and scholars.