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Baseless Controversies

Instead of taking a dim view of the recent wave of reforms in Saudi Arabia, we must appreciate the on-going moves, which are largely aimed at transforming the once-sleepy kingdom into the region’s dominant economic and cultural hub.

By Dr. Farah Naz | February 2022

Saudi Arabia has a population of 35.08 million, where the youth accounts for more than 75% of the total population. Recently, in Saudi Arabia, new social reforms are taking place at a dizzying pace. According to Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan, about 1,000 laws have been altered or removed in the last five years. With those legal changes, adult women can now live independently and perform pilgrimage to Mecca without permission from a male guardian. Other significant changes since 2016 have involved allowing women to drive, lifting a decades-long ban on cinemas and letting women travel alone, as well as the on-going, gradual relaxation of gender segregation rules.

Emerging as a secular and liberal society, Arabs are increasingly saying they are no longer religious, according to the largest and most in-depth survey undertaken of the Middle East and North Africa. The finding is one of a number on how Arabs feel about a wide range of issues, from women’s rights and migration to security and sexuality. But questions are raised that are Saudis turning their backs on religion? Are these reforms justified and what could be the major factors behind such drastic changes? Can we call it the effect of digitalisation, globalisation or something else?

In terms of digitalisation, Saudi Arabia has the third-highest smartphone penetration rate and by 2022 it is expected to increase to almost 24 million with 5.4 networked devices per capita. The active internet users are 33.58 million. The young generation is all over social media with YouTube as a predominant virtual destination with 31.40 million users (89.50%) followed by Instagram with 26.80 million users (76.40%), Facebook with 25.92 million users (73.90%) and WhatsApp with 28.24 million users (80.50%).

The social media users are about 27.80 million with an average time spent on the internet of 7 hours 45 minutes. The global rise in social media amounts to 9.2% annually and Saudi Arabia leads the race among other nations with an exponential annual growth rate of 8.7%.

This majority has been the game-changer that has thrust Saudi Arabia to the top position on the global social media charts. The largest consumption of social media content has played a decisive role in the rapidly transforming Saudi society and changing in laws.

According to the Statista 2022 report, the highest female literacy rate in the Middle East and North Africa, Jordan ranked as number one with 97.8%, followed by Israel with 96.8% while Saudi Arabia ranked eighth with 92.7%. That is not too bad as compared to other states such as Pakistan where the female literacy rate is 47%. The UK’s King’s College has agreed to open a branch in Riyadh, as has Spain’s SEK Education Group — to complete the construction of the King Abdullah Financial District.

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The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Government and Public Policy, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, National University of Sciences and Technology. She can be reached at

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