Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision vs 2020 Reality

As we enter 2021 we thought it would be a good chance to look back at the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia over the last year – and compare it to the Kingdom’s plans for the future..

Vision 2030 sits at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s global marketing strategy. For the Kingdom’s expensive PR teams it represents the essence of a post-oil future, in which KSA’s economy pivots towards a high-tech, high-knowledge, green economy focussed more on attracting tourists than selling fossil fuels.

This is not just an economic plan. Implicit throughout the Vision is a bigger message – that under MBS Saudi Arabia is modernising, it is opening up to the world. By 2030, if all goes to plan, the modern Saudi Arabia of the next decade will rest on the three pillars set out in the high-res brochure – a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.

But we should judge the Saudi authorities not by the beauty of their vision, but by the society they oversee – and today they fall well short.

Pillar 1 – A Vibrant Society:

The 2030 Vision


Our vibrant society is characterized by strong roots and strong foundations that emphasize moderate Islam, national pride, Saudi heritage and Islamic culture, while also offering world class entertainment options, sustainable living, care in the community, and efficient social and health care systems.

The 2020 reality

Moderate thinkers like Salman al-Odah are imprisoned and persecuted, the Shia minority are so oppressed that their children can be put to death for sowing sedition before they hit their teens. The continued detention of prominent peaceful religious figures who do not conform with state edicts – or even demands to send supportive tweets – fly in the face of claims of inclusion and diversity. So too does the abolition of NGOs and imprisonment of their founders. 2020’s Saudi Arabia does not allow its citizens to question or discuss its laws or the conduct of its rulers. Indeed, we have documented a number of cases of Saudis imprisoned for merely questioning the logic of parts of Vision 2030 itself. How then, can they ‘promote and reinvigorate social development’ when their people are not allowed the opportunity to promote new thinking, when academics are imprisoned as punishment for independent thought, and when they do not afford platforms for thinkers from a diverse background to come together to discuss new ideas towards change?

Pillar 2 – A Thriving Economy

The Vision 2030

A key focus for Vision 2030 is in creating an environment which unlocks business opportunities, broadens the economic base, and creates jobs for all Saudis. We will achieve this by leveraging Saudi Arabia’s unique location and potential, attracting the best talent, and increasing global investment.

“Our economy will provide opportunities for everyone – men and women, young and old – so they may contribute to the best of their abilities”

The 2020 Reality

Here, the gap between vision and reality is almost laughable. The beautifully designed brochure talks of equal opportunities but the modern reality is as ugly as sin. The nation’s highly educated and able women who today languish in solitary confinement, denied access to family and legal representation, tortured and sexually abused would beg to differ. Loujain al-Hathloul has just been sentenced to almost 6 years in jail for the crime of campaigning for those very opportunities. And she is not alone. Women may now drive in the Kingdom, but the activists who helped force that reform cannot even walk home. While the Vision 2030 calls for equal opportunities, the Saud Arabia of 2020 calls those who seek equality terrorists.

Pillar 3 – An Ambitious Nation

Vision 2030

Vision 2030 is creating a high-performing government that is effective, transparent and accountable. It is empowering citizens, the private sector and non-profits to take the initiative in identifying opportunities for realizing the agenda’s objectives.

The 2020 reality

The Vision claims the Kingdom is ‘already updating our governance and administrative practices to international standards, ensuring high levels of transparency and accountability.’ This does not match the reality.

Saudi Arabia has broken and continues to flout almost every global law and treaty it has signed:

  • It breaks the Mandela Rules , relating to the inhuman treatment of prisoners
  • It violates of International Humanitarian laws
  • It ignores the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • It tramples International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

They trumpet their transparency yet in reality international governing bodies are calling for Magnitsky style sanctions. The regime refuses to provide information on prisoners of conscience – to their legal teams, to their families, to the international community, or even to the prisoners themselves.

While the international community has focused on the pandemic in 2020 – robbing Saudi Arabia` of its ‘Beijing moment’ in hosting the November G20 Summit – the Kingdom’s authorities have show no sign of shifting decisively towards a more progressive future. In today’s Saudi Arabia, marginalised communities are evicted from their homes to make room for MBS’s latest folly, Shia minors are put to death, human rights activists languish in solitary confinement and women’s rights activists are branded terrorists.

If Vision 2030 is to be anything more than an expensively produced booklet, it’s time for the Saudi authorities to forget about the PR and begin the process of real reform. In 2021, prisoners of conscience in the Kingdom must be released, spurious convictions should be expunged and freedom of expression should be not just permitted but nurtured. At the moment 2030 feels a long way away, in more ways than one.


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