Saudi Arabia's foreign minister voiced confidence Thursday that the kingdom could implement an ambitious plan to diversify its economy, saying it had already undergone "incredible" change in recent decades.
The Vision 2030 plan will take the country’s advancement “to another level”, creating jobs and making government “more efficient, more transparent, more accountable,” Adel al-Jubeir said.
He told reporters that Saudi Arabia would not succumb to foreign pressure to ease what he described as “social restrictions”.
“What Saudi Arabia has done in the last 50 years is incredible. Very few if any societies have been able to change as rapidly and as effectively as Saudi Arabia has over the last 50 years,” he said.
Jubeir was responding to a Norwegian journalist who asked how the kingdom could achieve its wide-ranging Vision 2030 plan, to reorient the economy away from oil, while it restricts free speech and other civil liberties.
“They are social restrictions, not necessarily government restrictions,” Jubeir told a press conference with his visiting Norwegian counterpart, Borge Brende.
“When you have a society that is conservative, that lives by certain morals, you have to respect this. But these what you call restrictions are part of who we are and our society will deal with them in its own way.”
Saudi Arabia is an Islamic absolute monarchy with one of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, including the only ban on female driving.
Jubeir said Saudi society will deal with the women’s driving issue on its own terms and “not because somebody outside the kingdom criticised us or asked that this happen.”
The kingdom had the third-highest number of recorded executions in the world last year, according to Amnesty International.
Rights activists have also complained that Saudi Arabia imprisons people for exercising the right to free expression.
But Jubeir said there has been “very positive, if not radical change in Saudi Arabia and we were able to do this while adhering to our values.”
In the early 1960s there were no schools for women but now more than half of college students are female, the minister said, pointing to other changes including the development of government and business infrastructure, and dramatic improvements in health.
Infant mortality rates 60 years ago “were at the level of sub-Saharan Africa. Today they are at the level of Western Europe,” Jubeir said, while life expectancy has nearly doubled.