(CNN) – I visited Saudi Arabia nearly two decades ago and at that time I experienced some great things.
She climbed steep and amazingly beautiful mountains in the south. I dive into the coral reefs of the pristine Red Sea off the western coast of Saudi Arabia. I drove over the dunes in the north. I visited old wells. I spent freezing winter nights in the desert cooking food with hot red coals buried in the sand. I walked barefoot along the kingdom’s eastern shores on hot summer evenings.
I have flown in flimsy little planes, flying quietly over rich farmland. I’ve done tactical combat helicopter missions, skimming the desert floor and roaming hard around sand dunes.
However, none of these things affected me as much as it did the moment I felt the Saudi change.
It is no exaggeration to say that the recent social unrest in the country was deep and rapid.
In 2018, I was in downtown Riyadh, chatting with people at a nearly empty outdoor café in the early evening.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was widely feared and respected, arrived by car, stopped by the side of the road and started asking people to go to prayer.
Previously, this would have triggered an immediate response, with people obeying their orders.
This time, no one moved.
At that point, I got in touch with what the Saudis were feeling in the months since Mohammed bin Salman or Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, stripped these guardians of morality of their authority.
It was a sense of lightness, and freedom of choice.
Saudi women chat in a cafe – until recently they had to cover their heads and have a man accompany them.
FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP via Getty Images
That was two years ago. These days, the religious police are mostly tasked with office duties. Decades of oppressive psychological pressure to conform to Islam’s conservative restrictions have faded.
Today, freedom is flourishing, albeit still dominated by the invisible lines of most Gulf states: have fun, have fun, but don’t get ahead of the wheel.
The outdoor cafés along the new, festive sidewalks bustle with men and women outside for fun, meeting, shopping, chatting and relaxing.
Munira Al-Quwait, a 20-year-old fashion designer wearing a traditional black abaya, told me what this means to her.
“We have more fun now … go out to watch movies, go out to restaurants and meet friends,” says her eyes sparkling over a veil covering the face.
Nearby, Toto, who was dressed in modern clothes without a headscarf (an omission enough to take her off the street a few years ago) was Toto, a 42-year-old kindergarten teacher. She told me that she liked the feeling of “freedom” and “more energy.”
Green oases stand out from the Saudi desert landscape.
FRANCK FIFE / AFP via Getty Images
“Now our life as Saudis has completely changed,” she says. “In fact, from all the decisions taken by Mohammed bin Salman. All Saudis are now happy with all these changes.”
I was in town this time to cover the G20 summit of world economic powers. The Saudis were the hosts of the November 21-22 meeting – an enormous responsibility and challenge.
After its conclusion, I watched Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan praise his young team. He later concluded the “wealth of the nation.”
His offices are in Riyadh’s new digital city district – a futuristic complex of intertwined buildings with cascading water fountains and open and airy pedestrian spaces – feels more like Dubai than the dusty old Riyadh.
No turning back
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sought to loosen the conservatives’ hold on his country’s society.
FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP / AFP via Getty Images
Change is abundant here. Women work in offices alongside men, something that was illegal until a few years ago.
Thalia, 27, is one of them.
Growing up in Riyadh from her single mother, she graduated from universities in both London and Beirut before returning in 2017 when the reforms began. “It was like a week, almost today,” she told me, “as if there were new announcements about the upcoming news and it was very exciting.”
Since then she has worked with female executives and sees no limits to what women can achieve.
“We have a young crown prince and the country is young – like 70% of the population is under the age of 30 – so I felt the reforms were made on our side, so there’s no way we’re going to go back.”
One of the main causes of social unrest in Saudi Arabia is Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to challenge the clerics who spawned generations of Orthodoxy and spawned Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and nearly all of the hijackers of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Muhammad bin Salman’s father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is the latest in a long and fossilized chain of leadership that has passed from the founder of the state, King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, to his increasingly old sons.
It took Abdulaziz 30 years to conquer the country’s four geographically distinct regions – Asir in the south, Al-Ahsa in the east, and Hejaz in the west, and Najd in the center – and establish the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on September 23, 1932.
It took Mohammed bin Salman less than five years to change conditions in the kingdom in a way his predecessors did not dare, along the way to arrest and detain more than 200 princes and businessmen whom he accused of corruption.
His vision to transform Saudi Arabia by 2030 requires a diversified economy and youth empowerment.
Masmak Citadel: Where It All began for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Rabih Mughrabi / AFP via Getty Images
Ministers describe him as a tough man who listens but will not tolerate dissent once a decision is made, or any failure to implement the reforms he wants.
In the Masmak Citadel in the old quarter of Riyadh, where Abdul Aziz began his campaign in 1902 to build a kingdom under his control, with a metal spear head protruding from the old wooden gates, evidence of the strength of his historical actions.
Mohammed bin Salman’s vision is no less powerful. Human rights activists have been imprisoned, and opponents including journalist Jamal Khashoggi have been brutally murdered, but Mohammed bin Salman has such support for what he has done so far that young people seem to agree with.
But Al-Ajwi added: “The government previously said what it had, and it was a clear answer for us, the people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So it was the mistake of a few people. This is all for us.”
From Masmak Citadel, a busy six-lane highway now runs to the Digital City and Financial District, where attractive new buildings appear all the time. When I first came to the Kingdom in 2003, Riyadh only had two towers. Now there are dozens.
Leave the city, however, and in the harsh deserts of the surrounding Najd region, you can still find Saudi Arabia in the past.
White royal camels are grazed on old farms. Beautiful grassy oases add intense doses of color. In the rocky outcrops, ancient and vital natural water tanks of generations of pastoralists are still in use.
I’ve been lucky to see all of this thanks to my job, but it’s about to get easier for everyone.
Last year, as part of his vision to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy by 2030, Mohammed bin Salman announced the kingdom’s opening of the doors to tourism.
Unexpectedly, it experienced a noticeable boom this year.
When the kingdom closed its borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Saudis went on vacation in their backyard. The regions of the country are very diverse, and the country is so large, that it is even possible for locals to feel that they are taking a long break from home.
An ancient marvel
Away from Najd is the coastal region of the Hejaz, home to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, which was already cosmopolitan and relieved by the influx of pilgrims for centuries.
Here, windows on the upper floors of old houses protrude into the street, allowing cool sea breezes to circulate through internal rooms and courtyards, spreading over the cool, refreshing pools.
Sitting inside one of these humble homes is a pleasure I will never forget, an opportunity to relax, away from the worries and troubles of the outside.
To the south, it snows on the peaks of the Asir Mountains in winter, giving it a feel of the Alps. In the summer they still provide some relief from the scorching deserts.
In the east, where the flat desert meets the Persian Gulf, date groves dot the most valuable commodity, the kingdom’s oil.
But the best remedy for attracting tourists is one I have not yet seen – Hegra.
The site, sometimes known as Mada’in Salih, or Al Hajar, was settled in the western Hijaz region in the 1st century AD by the Nabataeans who carved large buildings into the rocks and left rock inscriptions. It is a site to rival Petra in neighboring Jordan, which was also built by the Nabataeans.
While Petra attracts thousands and thousands of tourists annually, immigration is still not crowded.
That could all change soon.
And if Mohammed bin Salman’s promises last longer than the shimmering desert mirage, as the kingdom’s youth fervently believe, then the world will find much worth discovering.