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Saudi Arabia sees massive cultural shift after crown prince's reforms

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

In Saudi Arabia, each day brings something new. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has received ongoing criticism internationally for human rights abuses, is forging on with his plan to reform the kingdom socially and economically. He calls it Vision 2030, and it ranges from minor laws that affect how people do business to mega urban projects. NPR's Fatma Tanis has been in Saudi Arabia since President Biden's visit there last month. She joins us now to talk about how the changes are affecting daily life, how they are being seen by Saudis. Welcome.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

SELYUKH: What is the thing that struck you on this visit the most?

TANIS: You know, it was immediate. All of the border agents, processing travelers when I arrived in Jeddah were women. It's unimaginable a few years ago. The speed in which Saudi women have been integrated into the workforce is really something that's remarkable. They are now pretty much everywhere doing all the jobs, including in the military. And this is something that almost happened overnight. You know, it's part of what the crown prince is doing and why many people here do support him despite his autocratic style.

SELYUKH: So it sounds like things are changing on a daily basis. Some Saudis do support it. How are the people responding to all of these changes?

TANIS: You know, they simply can't keep up. One Saudi told me he felt numb at this point because it's just a deluge of things that are constantly changing, from laws to massive construction projects to entertainment events. But it doesn't really mean that people are against it. You know, when you ask Saudis, they'll tell you that they trust the government and that they know the crown prince will figure out the right thing to do. However, there is a general sense of uncertainty over where the country is headed and what its identity is going to be. No one knows, as one Saudi put it to me.

SELYUKH: Wow, so interesting. As you've reported, some of the changes are aimed at attracting foreigners from Western countries to come and work in the kingdom. Is that working?

TANIS: You know, the increase of expatriates here is certainly something that's visible. When I was in Jeddah, I did a story on how the government had displaced at least 500,000 locals to build these luxury apartments and hotels that would attract foreigners. But here's where it gets interesting because some of these efforts clash with another goal of Vision 2030, which is Saudization. That's the mandate to prioritize Saudis for jobs. You know, at the same time that the government is trying to attract foreigners for these high paying jobs, you have many young, college-educated Saudis in the country who are really struggling to live on their salaries and often need the support of family.

SELYUKH: Right. You have traveled a lot during your stay there. Are these types of changes happening equally everywhere?

TANIS: They are not. You know, it's mostly focused on the big cities and mainly the capital, Riyadh. But, you know, when you just drive to a town an hour away from Riyadh, it's literally like being in a time capsule back to the old Saudi Arabia, where the genders are still strictly segregated. And there are all these other social rules. The difference is pretty jarring.

SELYUKH: Aside from the social and economic reforms, one of the crown prince's legacies is his crackdown on dissent, on freedom of speech. What have you seen there?

TANIS: This is something that I saw play out during President Biden's visit here last month. Saudis were eagerly watching to see how Biden would interact with the crown prince, you know, given the president's concern over human rights, the issues of mass executions, the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. But human rights watchers, you know, say that there is an unprecedented fear here of speaking critically against the government and against anything the government is doing. While many people do support the crown prince, others have gotten in trouble simply by staying silent, which is something that's no longer acceptable. You have to be fully on board and publicly so.

SELYUKH: That's NPR's Fatma Tanis. Thank you so much for your reporting.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.