In addition to lifting a ban on women driving, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is overseeing a wider program of modernization in the historically conservative kingdom.
Frequently referred to as “the minister of everything,” the prince has a stated goal of transforming the country in a dozen years as part of a project called Saudi Vision 2030.
Such modernization is manifesting itself in both big and subtle ways. The prince has decreed, for example, that women no longer have to cover their heads or wear long black robes in public, so long as they remain modest.
“Now we can wear colours,” a young woman told CTV News’ Paul Workman from a modern shopping mall in the capital, Riyadh. “Everything is happening really fast, so people are just like sitting down, and just shocked.”
Women are also now taking part in sports and joining the police and army. Long the enforcers of conservative values, the country’s religious police have also been stripped of many of their previous powers, such as the ability to make arrests.
Cinemas have been screening films since April after a ban dating back to 1979 was lifted. Saudis previously spent billions of dollars seeing movies in nearby countries such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The country now plans to open hundreds of movie theatres over the next decade.
“I’m very excited to see it for the first time in Saudi Arabia,” a woman said from a new movie theatre in Riyadh.
Sulaiman Al Salem, a well-known Saudi television personality, says the country's changes have been significant.
“The change will be okay, inshallah,” he told Workman, using an Arabic expression that means “God willing.”
Despite such social changes, Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers, with criminal charges for apostasy and male homosexuality that can lead to the death penalty.
Press freedom also remains non-existent in the county, which continues to wage a vicious war in neighbouring Yemen, leading to a persistent humanitarian crisis and an untold number of civilian deaths.
With a report from CTV National News London Bureau Chief Paul Workman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia