Abrar Qari, right, 23, is a documentary film-maker. Nouf Al Osaimi, left, 29, a diving instructor, record-setting diver and the subject of a film that Qari is making. Photo: Kevin Sullivan/The Washington Post
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - In a country where cinemas are banned and even Starbucks are segregated by gender, a powerful young prince is pushing a plan to create jobs for women and a more integrated and satisfying social life for a youthful population long straitjacketed by oppressive cultural norms.
The expansive effort aims to overhaul and diversify Saudi Arabia's oil-dependent economy and modernize a restless culture in which women make up just 22 percent of the workforce and nearly two-thirds of the population is under 30.
That means most Saudis have never lived in a society that places much value on fun and entertainment - the kind of world they see when they travel abroad. And that's a world they seem to crave: Saudis spend more than $5 billion a year on overseas leisure travel.
"We want to be normal like anywhere else," said Nouf al-Osaimi, 29, a scuba diving instructor who was gearing up for a dive at Dream Beach, a few miles north of this Red Sea port. Osaimi hopes to open her own dive school and thinks the government's goals will make that easier for her and other female entrepreneurs. "The world is moving forward, and we need to keep up."
The Vision 2030 plan, the most dramatic and far-reaching set of changes for the Saudi economy and society in decades, is being driven by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. King Salman's outspoken 31-year-old son has emerged as a remarkably influential leader since his father took the crown two years ago. Mohammed met with President Trump at the White House in March, and the two are expected to see each other again when Trump visits the kingdom this weekend.
Unlike many high-profile members of the royal family, the prince was educated in Saudi Arabia, not at elite universities in the West, which young people here said gives his demands even more credibility.
"We are the same generation, and we speak the same language," said Fatimah al-Sani, 29, a woman who works at Uturn Entertainment, a Jiddah company that produces YouTube videos and is planning to expand under Vision 2030.
In this country of 32 million people, the main entertainment options are shopping malls, cafes and restaurants that are still largely segregated. While men and women have been allowed to mingle more freely in public in recent years, there are relatively few museums or other venues for them to do that.
Prince Mohammed has said that people will be more productive workers if they are happier in their leisure time.
"We have a lot of weekends in the year, so we need options," said Amr al-Madani, a top official of the General Entertainment Authority, which was created under Vision 2030 to license, arrange and sometimes finance cultural events. "People work hard, and they need to re-energize."
Since November, Madani said his group has supported more than 100 events in 21 cities, including art and food festivals, the Arab World's first YouTube Fanfest, a Comic-Con convention, and a U.S.-style "monster jam," with huge trucks with big wheels in a Riyadh soccer stadium attended by more than 25,000 people. It has even sponsored a handful of live music concerts, which have generally been banned.
More conservative members of Saudi society have complained that the prince is moving too fast. Madani noted that part of his job is to persuade people who are "intimidated" by what they fear will be an onslaught of Western-style entertainment with R-rated content. He said the authority is being careful to support only events that are family-friendly and reflect "Saudi values."
Although change comes slowly in this conservative kingdom, analysts here said Prince Mohammed clearly has the support of his 81-year-old father and the backing of much of the business community, which hopes to recapture some of the billions that Saudis spend vacationing overseas.
"It's logic and common sense," said Soraqa al-Khatib, an executive at Uturn, the online entertainment firm in Jiddah. "If we can create the right environment here, I can tap into that."
One evening last week, Maha, 30, waited in line with her sister, Ranya, 28, and nearly 200 other people to attend a show at Al Comedy Club in Jiddah, the only stand-up comedy venue in the country.
Maha and Ranya said they spent thousands of dollars last fall to fly to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to see a concert by the singer Yanni.
"I would rather spend my money here, but there is nothing to do," said Maha, a government payroll worker. "If we are just working all the time, what's the point? We need things to do."
They declined to give their last names because they did not tell their father they had gone to Abu Dhabi for the concert. Under Saudi law, women may not travel internationally without the permission of a male "guardian." Their father had given them general permission, but they worried he would revoke it if he found out they had traveled without telling him.
Yaser Bakr, 38, said he started Al Comedy Club in 2012 and now hosts two shows every Thursday evening in the 185-seat theater. He said he initially had to request permits from local government officials who had difficulty even understanding the concept of someone standing on stage and making jokes: "It was like literally Chinese to them." Bakr said dealing with the General Entertainment Authority has been much easier.
He said his comedians poke fun at Saudi society, but they go easy on religious and political topics, and avoid profane or explicit content. All of his comics are male, and the audience is segregated by gender with wooden partitions. The audience is also sober, because alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.
"My prediction is that all the segregation will go away in a couple of years," Bakr said, crediting Prince Mohammed with driving that change, including the calls for increasing female participation in the workforce to 30 percent and encouraging more women to start businesses.
"We have never before had someone who was not the king with this kind of clear power," Bakr said.
Abrar Qari, 23, the first Saudi woman with a government license to run a video production studio, said the new atmosphere in the country toward women - and the promise of more business-friendly regulations and easier access to capital - has given her a chance to expand her company, which produces educational and cultural videos.
"I can hire other women and help them do the same - and more," she said.
Qari spoke one day recently as she strapped a dive vest and air tank over her wet suit and flippered into the Red Sea with an underwater camera in her hand. She was filming a documentary about Nouf al-Osaimi, her female dive instructor, who holds Saudi deep-dive records.
"I feel like I am building bridges for the next generation," Qari said. "And it's all happening because of the Vision."
The Vision is talked about everywhere in Saudi Arabia these days - touted on billboards, on television commercials, in newspaper advertisements and on social media. Prince Mohammed spoke about it in a nationally televised interview this month. He said in that interview that the country had also vastly increased its annual non-oil revenue in the past two years, from about $30 billion to $53 billion, from mining and other businesses.
At the same time, the government, faced with budget deficits from falling oil prices, has made unpopular cuts to government salaries and benefits, subsidies for gasoline and water and other generous benefits Saudis have long taken for granted. The plan also calls for a new value-added tax on goods, and selling off a chunk of Saudi Arabia's crown jewel, the state-owned oil behemoth, Saudi Aramco.
Those economic measures have led to backlash, most notably in the kingdom's hyperactive social-media world. But the prince's social plans seem to have broad support.
For almost a quarter century, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, 54, was a member of the Saudi religious police, tasked with enforcing the kingdom's strict cultural norms - including patrolling malls to make sure unrelated men and women weren't mixing, breaking up gatherings with music, enforcing shop closings at prayer time.
Then Ghamdi had a change of heart. He left the religious police and now embraces the ideas he sees Prince Mohammed pushing. In many ways, he said, those societal changes trace their roots to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States in which 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis. He said there was such international backlash against the kingdom, including from other Muslim countries, that "we started thinking about our own religious beliefs."
The result, Ghamdi said, was a widespread view that Saudi society needs to modernize.
"There is a youthful spirit in our country, and a push for change - things will not stay the same," he said.
That rings true in the Jiddah offices of Uturn, where women - some in hijabs, some with their hair uncovered - and men work on laptops in a shared office space filled with glass walls and ping-pong and foosball tables. The company has about 80 YouTube channels and employs about 40 people producing everything from comedy to shows on beauty - and plans to expand.
"This is exciting, life-changing and empowering," said Zoya Shahid, 24, a Uturn employee who wears a hijab.
Emad Eskander, 34, Uturn's creative director, said the company is careful to follow Saudi cultural norms. But still, he said, the religious police used to come to their offices occasionally to complain about their content - until last year, when King Salman stripped away much of the religious police's power as part of efforts to modernize.
Now, Eskander said, Uturn is hoping to take advantage of the new environment to produce feature films made by Saudis, about Saudi issues, which he hopes will ultimately be shown in Saudi cinemas, built thanks to the changes in his country.
"This is very real," he said. "And it's good for business."