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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: US broadcaster Fox News aired a two-day special on Saudi Arabia’s transformation this week, featuring an exclusive interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Thursday.
Veteran broadcaster and chief political correspondent, Bret Baier, was in Saudi Arabia for the program, where he was given “unprecedented access” to top officials to discuss oil, social reforms, economic diversification, and relations with the US.
“This country is one of the world’s largest oil producers, the origin of Islam, (and has) the world’s largest sand desert, the world’s largest oasis, the world’s largest airport,” Baier said in a promo for the channel’s special coverage.
“Politically, it is one of the most important places on the planet, as a cultural center for Arabs and Muslims, and its pivotal strategic location.
“Over the next two nights, we will bring you an exclusive, behind the scenes look at the Kingdom, to show you what it’s about, its beauty, its uniqueness, and its increasingly important role in world affairs.”
Baier met with Saudi Arabia’s ministers for tourism, economy, energy and sport to explore how the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 social reform and economic diversification agenda is moving the country away from its reliance on oil production and expanding into whole new industries.
“We have to be sharp, we have to be ready, I tell my team, we need to do the impossible,” Faisal Al-Ibrahim, minister of economy and planning, told Baier in a segment about the transformation.
“Vision 2030 is about unlocking potential. That’s the main objective of Vision 2030. It’s a blueprint of where we want to be and how we will get there.
“It’s designed to address our long term economic challenges and risks through three things; diversifying the economy, empowering the youth of the Kingdom, and building institutions that can help carry this beyond 2030.
“It helps Saudi Arabia play a bigger role connecting the world, positioned where we are today. This is an asset we need to leverage and it’s about connecting energy, it’s about connecting data, connecting goods and services, connecting people, all for the betterment of the world at large.”
Vision 2030 is also about creating opportunities for young Saudis to study and work in a range of new creative and high-tech industries and to explore entrepreneurship. “Every day is a blank canvas with the Saudi youth,” said Al-Ibrahim.
“They’re painting pictures that we’ve never imagined could be possible more than seven years ago. So, this is just the beginning. We’re about to see more and more potential being unlocked and we’re very adamant to make this transformation count.”
Commenting on the crown prince’s style of leadership, Al-Ibrahim said it comes from a desire to improve the lives of Saudi citizens. “His leadership style comes from the ownership of the cause,” he said.
“He wants Saudi Arabia to be the best version of itself. He wants Saudi Arabia to be a global player that helps improve the world, a global change agent. He wants Saudi people and people residing in Saudi to live the best lives and to be able to contribute the most to this economy but also the global economy at large.”
BIO: Bret Baier
* Bret Baier, American anchor and journalist, joined Fox News in 1998 and served as the network’s chief White House correspondent during the presidency of George W. Bush.
* He covered some of the most important events in recent US history, such as the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
* He is best known for being the chief political correspondent for Fox and for hosting “Special Report with Bret Baier,” a nightly news and political analysis program on Fox News.
* Baier has interviewed political figures such as Donald Trump (2023), Barack Obama (2016) and Volodymyr Zelensky (2022).
One of the most exciting developments in the Kingdom is the growth of the tourism industry. Long closed to the outside world, only religious pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah were permitted to come to Saudi Arabia.
Now, thanks to the launch of tourism e-visas and massive investment in new leisure, entertainment and hospitality mega-projects, the Kingdom is well placed to become a global destination.
“Tourism is at the forefront of Vision 2030,” Ahmed Al-Khatib, the Kingdom’s minister of tourism, told Baier. “We’re unlocking this sector. We have doubled (the number of tourists) in the last two years and we will double (again) in the next two years.
“We revised our targets. We revised it up to 150 million visitors, domestic and international. Seventy million visitors, international, by 2030. We will achieve 30 million this year out of the 70 million international visitors, and this is before the (opening) of Red Sea Global, NEOM, Qiddiya and Diriyah.”
Commenting on “The Line” — a completely new reimagining of urban living designed for the NEOM smart city in the Kingdom’s northwest — Al-Khatib confirmed that construction had commenced and that “1,000 percent, it’s going to happen.”
“We have an advantage. We are building a new city and it is easier to build something from scratch rather than to transform something. Today, if you want to transform a big city like London or Paris or New York, it’s very difficult because the city was built over many, many decades.
“It (The Line) will be the example of the future city where any one would love to live and experience how future living will look.”
Concerning the crown prince’s drive to transform the Kingdom, Al-Khatib said: “We are running very, very fast to catch up with him (the crown prince), honestly, and to deliver his vision.”
Over the course of its programming, Fox News also spoke to Jerry Inzerillo, group CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, about one of the Kingdom’s most exciting new heritage tourism destinations, Diriyah.
“This is a very special place because this is the physical birthplace of the Kingdom and the ancestral home of Al-Saud,” Inzerillo told Baier.
“What you are looking at, this mud city, is 300 years old and in the famous oasis of Arabia, Wadi Hanifa, 30,000 people came and settled here 300 years (ago) and built a city of mud. So this is the source of national pride and a source of Saudi identity. This is the birthplace of the Kingdom.
“Because this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, we didn’t want to treat it as an amusement park, a theme park. So in a vision of his majesty the king and the crown prince, we are embarking on a 14 million square meter masterplan, leaving the UNESCO site pristine and building a city that can take a hundred thousand people, 20,000 residents, 38 hotels, nine museums so we can attract 100 million people to come to visit the Kingdom.”
He added: “This is a very young nation. The median age of this nation is 29.2. Diriyah, where we have 2,000 employees, 85 percent are Saudi, 36 percent of our staff are Saudi women. But the crown prince is a young global leader, he feels like he can’t be optimistic for the future unless you’re grounded in your past, you have to feel proud of who you are as a Saudi.”
The Fox News coverage was not all focused on transformations, however. It also touched upon recent disagreements between Saudi Arabia and its long-time allies in Washington, particularly over energy and the push to isolate Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
On the matter of Saudi Arabia’s decision as part of OPEC+ to reduce oil production at a time when global oil prices were already high owing to the war in Ukraine, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Kingdom’s minister of energy, told Baier the move was designed to stabilize oil markets, not to profiteer.
“We are not price driven, we are more or less stability driven,” said Prince Abdulaziz. “We are not siding with anybody. We are siding with our own national interests. We’re trying to protect our economy. There is huge ambition and we need to secure that ambition.”
He added: “What we’re doing has nothing to do with prices. What we’re doing is making sure that we reduce the volatility of the market.”
The Fox News coverage dealt with more than just economics. Baier also spoke with Saudi Arabia’s Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, the minister of sport, who highlighted the Kingdom’s success in establishing and promoting women’s teams and leagues.
“All the clubs now have women football teams. We even have a national team. Our official national team got into the FIFA ranking, where four or five months ago there wasn’t a women’s team,” said Prince Abdulaziz.
“So now we’re in the ranking of FIFA, they’re playing a lot of competitions, a lot of friendlies to make sure that they climb up the ranking. We have a target for them to climb. But two years ago or three years ago, there wasn’t a national team. And now we have a league as well.”
Fox News also spoke with experts about how major reforms concerning the rights of women in Saudi society have offered a major boost to female participation and leadership in business, governance and civil society.
“The change is so fast and unbelievable,” Basma Al-Omair, founder and CEO of Behavioral Management Consulting Co., told the broadcaster. “My daughters now sit on four boards of directors. This wouldn’t have happened a couple of years back.
“The beauty about it (is) they no longer see the glass ceiling. But we have a responsibility to tell them (the youth) that with freedom comes responsibility and this is why what we do right now is a lot of culture assessment within organizations to make sure that their policies are in place, the behavior and mindsets have actually switched.”
Also commenting on the reforms implemented since 2016, which included the lifting of the ban on women driving, Lina Almaeena, chairperson of Jeddah United and former Shura Council member, said the sudden transformation was the only way change could have occurred.
“It was a shock therapy, that’s what it really was,” Almaeena told Baier. “Because if we had waited for slow changes, it would’ve taken us decades for us to reach where we are today. We have actually surpassed so many of our targets, that we’ve put, that we’ve gone beyond and over even the new targets.”
Norman Roule, a former senior US intelligence official, likewise highlighted the transformation of the role of women in Saudi society. “A few years ago, women in Saudi could not drive,” Roule told Baier.
“The Saudis had a female astronaut just a few months ago be launched into space, from the US, by the way. Half of their astronaut program is composed of women. Their ambassador to the US is a formidable diplomat, HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar, the daughter of a famous Saudi diplomat.
“I see a country that has undergone tectonic changes at a scale and pace and degree that no country in modern times has seen.”
With regard to the crown prince himself, Karen Elliott House, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, believes the heir to the Saudi throne will play a major role in global affairs in the years to come.
“I think he is and will be a transformational leader — the major influence on the course of the world economically and politically over the next half century,” she told Baier.
She added: “He clearly intends to be a major figure on the world stage. I don’t think he’s inclined to slow down.”
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