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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - DUBAI: A new generation in Saudi Arabia is doing its best to transform the country, and there is a greater tendency among young Saudis based in the West to return, according to a seasoned analyst of Middle East affairs.
Norman T. Roule, CEO of Pharos Strategic Consulting LLC, which focuses on the Arab Gulf states and Iran, thinks the significance of the changes he has witnessed in Saudi Arabia in the course of his many visits to the region cannot be overstated.
“I see the same strong hearts and good aspirations that I’ve seen for 35 years — the family environment within the Kingdom and the desire to have a better future,” he told Arab News on the sidelines of this week’s SALT conference in Abu Dhabi.
“What’s different now is that you have such a large young population, and the population is eager to transform the country to make it more effective in a very new world,” he said.
“It’s the same new world Americans will be facing in the coming decades. It’s no different for a 30-year-old in Ohio than it is for a 30-year-old in Riyadh or Abha.”
Talking about the opportunities that he thinks young Saudis, especially women, sense in their home country, he said: “I find that not only very heartening, but it underscores my point: What we need most from the Middle East is not oil and not a market for weapons. We need its people’s ideas, friendship and assistance in developing new technologies, and there’s no reason we can’t build a better world together.”
He added: “When you talk to the people on the streets in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the region, you see this is possible. And our entrepreneurs, our academics and the growing tourist population who come to the Kingdom are all seeing this underway.”
Saudi Arabia has a generation with access to social media, and an engagement with the world that makes all things possible.
He attributed these developments to the decisions taken by the Saudi leadership. Although the king and crown prince are the country’s decision-makers, Roule described the Cabinet they are assisted by as extraordinarily able.
“This is probably one of the finest, most experienced and best educated cabinets any country could aspire to,” he said.
“The Saudi people also have a generation (that has) access to social media, and an engagement with the world that makes all these things possible. Many components are making this work.”
During his latest visit to the Kingdom for the Formula E Championship, he attended the much-acclaimed Riyadh Season, where he came across the coffee shop Toqa, owned by a Saudi entrepreneur.
“This entrepreneur, who has relations with the West, has had discussions with American and European businessmen. She has a product to offer that’s enjoyable, it’s fascinating, and it shows Saudi culture,” Roule said.
“It’s exactly the type of thing that symbolizes what Saudi Arabia can bring to the West: Culture, enjoyment, people and business.”
He said over the years, publicity regarding Saudi Arabia in the US has been dominated by the 9/11 attacks and the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Yet, Roule added, every American he knows who has been to the Kingdom recently has witnessed the many “unknown” parts that had not been opened (to the public) until recently.
These include the governorate of AlUla, one of Saudi Arabia’s archaeological gems that is home to Madain Saleh, the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.
“Because of Saudi Arabia’s special role in Islam, and because of its geographic position, they have a historic responsibility to lead the region in a new direction.”
“AlUla is an amazing place. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it, and the world should come to AlUla,” Roule said, adding that the governorate is a testament to the extraordinary work done by the Ministry of Culture.
Visitors “come away saying, ‘this is a lovely place that I wish I could come back to more often’,” he said.
“The potential for tourism and the potential to become a source of regional entertainment is vast.”
Looking at the bigger Middle East picture, Roule said Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a crucial role to play due to the size of their economies, and their interest and experience in working to improve regional stability.
“Because of Saudi Arabia’s special role in Islam, and because of its geographic position, they have a historic responsibility to lead the region in a new direction,” he added.
“I believe success in Saudi Arabia, by promoting a moderate Islam, can not only push back extremism but also improve dialogue between different civilizations of the world,” he said.
“I’ve met, on a number of occasions, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa of the Muslim World League. He’s an extraordinary man, and his vision of Islam and of interfaith dialogue is something that can not only transform the region, but also have an impact on global society.”
Roule expressed confidence that terrorism, extremism and radicalism will decline as long as Saudi Arabia succeeds. If it does not, the West will suffer, he said.
“It’s in our interest (for the Kingdom to succeed) because of terrorism and extremism, but not just because of that,” he added.
“There are millions in the region, in the states of Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, who require assistance and a better life. This is something the region has to lead with Western support,” he said.
“It’s not America’s job to come over and rebuild these countries. It’s the region’s job, with American and international support, and the Saudi and Emirati leadership, working with friends in Kuwait, for example, or Bahrain. This is the path forward,” he added.
“The consequences of not doing that would be terrible for the people who live in these countries, and who so desperately need a better future.”
But will the West change its stance vis-a-vis the Kingdom in the near future? Roule is optimistic about businesspeople and tourists, saying social media will propel some of this change, while governments move slowly.
On the subject of Yemen, Roule cited the Masam demining program to point out the billions of dollars that the Saudis, Emiratis and Kuwaitis have spent in that country, something that is “rarely seen or talked about” in the West.
“It tells a lot about the Saudi people and the Emiratis that they’re participating in this program as well as the Yemenis,” he said.
“But the international community should be behind the demining program, to rebuild Yemen once the conflict ends,” he added.
“So I encourage greater international partnership with the Kingdom and the UAE to solve the region’s problems, because it’s in the global interest to do so.”
A new era for the Middle East could be in the works due to such changes and transformations, Roule said.
“The speed with which it will achieve all of its goals is something I can’t predict, and I’m not sure anyone else can,” he added.
“But I do know that the intent of the Saudi and Emirati leaderships is honorable, and it’s something that benefits the international community. It will make the world safer, more prosperous and more interesting.”
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