Saudi minister says kingdom to become ‘softer’ after reforms

Kingdom plans to shift economy to being led by private sector

COLOGNY - Saudi Arabia will become a "softer", more tolerant place as it reforms its oil-dependent economy, a leading government figure said at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday.
"We're going to turn Saudi Arabia into a softer place, a more pleasant place to live," said Khaled al-Falih, Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources.
The changes will come under a plan launched last year to shift the economy of the world's biggest oil exporter into one led by the private sector.
While the plan calls for development of non-oil industries, small and medium enterprises, and a broader investment base, it also has what Falih called "soft" factors.
"We're going to strive to make people happy within the kingdom, and we've taken many steps to do that," he told a panel discussion with two other Saudi ministers.
The Islamic kingdom bans alcohol, public cinemas and theatres, and normally segregates men and women in public.
But a new entertainment authority has already brought in some foreign shows, seen by limited audiences.
Saudi's Vision 2030 plan calls for more sporting and cultural activities, as well as a greater economic role for women.
Saudi Arabia is founded on ultra-conservative Wahhabi thought, which has been accused by foreign critics of inspiring extremists, and the kingdom's minority Shiite community complains of marginalisation.
"We're going to promote tolerance in our society, which exists today, but make sure it is universal within Saudi Arabia," Falih told the discussion in the Swiss resort of Davos, where 3,000 members of the political and business elite have gathered for annual talks.
He said the kingdom will ensure it is "a model" for other Muslim societies in terms of tolerance.