Saudi Arabia, reforms under King Salman

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has undergone sweeping changes since King Salman came to power three years ago, announcing major economic reforms, cracking down on the elite and allowing women more rights. After an overhaul of the military and government leadership decreed late Monday, including announcing the rare appointment of a woman, here is a summary.

– Changes at the top –

Soon after inheriting the throne in January 2015 at the age of 79, Salman changes the order of succession with the promotion in April of his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as his heir.

In a dramatic move in June 2017, he fires his nephew and installs his 31-year-old son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince on top of his post as defence minister.

In early September 2017 authorities arrest dozens of people, including prominent anti-US clerics and academics, in what is seen as a crackdown on political dissent.

In November a purge leads to more than 200 public figures, including princes, political and business leaders, being arrested in what is called an anti-corruption drive but critics see it as a bid by the crown prince to amass power.

In decrees issued late February 26, King Salman replaces the heads of the ground forces and air defences as well as several deputy ministers and, in a rare move, names a woman to the government.

– Rupture with rival Iran –

In March 2015 a Saudi-led military coalition intervenes in Yemen to stop Huthi rebels, who are supported by Shiite power Iran, from taking control.

Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia enrages Iran with the execution in January 2016 of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, among a group of 47 people convicted of “terrorism”.

There are violent demonstrations in Iran and the Saudi embassy is attacked, leading Riyadh to break off diplomatic relations with Tehran.

US President Donald Trump, highly critical of Iran, chooses Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip since taking office, arriving in May 2017.

The countries announce major contracts including $110 billion for the sale of US arms to Saudi Arabia aimed at countering what they see as a threat from Iran and radical Islamists.

In June 2017 Saudi Arabia and several Gulf allies and Egypt sever diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of being too close to Iran and of supporting terrorists. Doha denies the accusations.

– Economic reform –

In April 2016 the government approves major reform plans dubbed “Vision 2030” that are aimed at diversifying the oil-dependent economy.

Under the auspices of the crown prince, the plan involves privatising part of oil giant Aramco and setting up a sovereign wealth fund of $2 trillion.

There are also plans for a regional Silicon Valley, an entertainment city in Riyadh to rival Walt Disney and a reef-fringed resort destination on the Red Sea.

The country announces it will begin issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018 and will invest $64 billion in its entertainment sector, including for new venues and flying in Western acts.

– Relaxing restrictions –

In December 2015 elections are opened to women as both candidates and voters for the first time.

Royal decrees are issued in 2017 allowing women to attend events in sports stadiums for the first time and to drive from June 2018.

But strictly-controlled Saudi women remain subject to restrictions, including wearing the full veil and requiring permission from a male relative to study, travel and engage in other activities.

Authorities announce in December 2017 that cinemas will reopen after a ban of 35 years and in February the first-ever jazz festival is held in Saudi Arabia.