Chop Chop Square
Some years ago, The Lens had the pleasure of visiting Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. After meetings with asset managers such as Riyad Capital and the National Investor, a spare afternoon was available for purposes of sightseeing. A taxi was hailed, piloted by a garrulous driver from Pakistan, who gave a condensed tour of the oldest parts of the capital, including a wander through an empty piazza beside a grand mosque.
Upon returning to the car, the driver remarked with a grin that The Lens had just toured what is known colloquially as Chop Chop Square, where public beheadings take place.
Yes, Saudi Arabia still practises capital punishment – and some have argued its policy is at odds with the ambitions of the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, to modernise the country. MBS, as he is known, appears to have made considerable progress lately. Women are finally able to gain driving licences, there are plans to build a church or two, and cinemas have opened. The first film to screen, after a 35-year cinema ban, was Black Panther.
For the financial sector, other tantalising reforms are planned, such as the part-privatisation of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, whose initial public offering may create the world’s largest listed company. There have been other surprises. The kingdom’s Public Investment Fund has reportedly bought a $2 billion shareholding in Tesla – thus, the world’s largest oil exporter hedges its bets with an investment in electric cars.
Alongside these developments, Saudi Arabian assets are easier than ever to buy. Index compiler MSCI will add Saudi equities to its Emerging Markets index in May 2019. A once closed and forbidding kingdom makes itself accessible.
But how far-reaching are the modernisations? Although female drivers are now sanctioned, the guardianship system, in which women must gain the approval of husbands, fathers or brothers to travel abroad or marry, remains in place. Other commentators are concerned about political stability in the kingdom, where opposition to the policies of MBS appears to have been suppressed.
Chop Chop Square, or Deera Square as it is otherwise known, is still accessible to the tourist. The most dramatic day to visit is Friday.