CAIRO, Dec. 13 (Xinhua) -- Boasting the world's largest oil reserve and Muslim world's two holiest cites, Saudi Arabia is long labeled as a "rich" and "religious" nation defying changes, haunted by outside criticism over corruption, seclusion and human rights violation.
But the stereotype started changing in 2017, when the Sunni-dominant Gulf power unveiled a series of drastic reforms. It seemingly aims to become a new and modern country, though challenges lie ahead and results remain to be seen.
UNEXPECTED CHANGES COME WITH NEW CROWN PRINCE
When Saudis woke up early on the morning of June 21, they had a new and much younger crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, appointed by his father, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, to replace the king's nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, widely known as Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism "czar."
This marked a real change in the generations-old tradition of passing power between the sons of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, as all previous Saudi kings did.
Although the king's decision was unexpected, the logic in changing the heir to the throne is considered by many as reasonable. The 31-year-old new crown prince is viewed as an appropriate leader for introducing reforms in the kingdom.
Mohammed bin Salman, a world-renown economic reformist, was chosen to lead his country's economic reforms and get his people ready to deal with the post-oil era.
The Saudi cabinet approved in April, 2016 the "2030 Vision" to prepare the oil-rich country for the end of the oil-dependency era by cutting oil output, attracting investment, and launching profit-earning business projects in non-oil sectors like technology, tourism and services.
Mohammed bin Salman has also been actively involved in the defense affairs of Saudi Arabia as defense minister.
He pursued a war in Yemen, leading forces from a coalition of other Arab states to fight the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Analysts predicted that the rise of Mohammed bin Salman will have direct influence on Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, as he takes a more confrontational stance, especially on Iran, Saudi's arch rival.
THUNDERING ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGN
About five months after being chosen as the heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman was appointed on Nov. 4 as head of a newly-formed High Commission Against Corruption.
One day later, 11 princes were arrested, including Prince Waleed bin Talal, dubbed as "the richest man in Mideast," who runs businesses all over the world.
The committee has detained more than 200 people in the thundering anti-corruption crusade, including princes, sitting and former ministers, and owners of top regional TV channels and networks.
The charges vary from signing illegal arms deals, money laundering, embezzlement, accepting or giving bribes, and abuse of power.
Saudi Attorney-General Sheikh Saud Al Moaajeb said the decades-long corrupt practices led to a very large amount of misappropriated and unutilized public funds, which could exceed 100 billion U.S. dollars.
Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed al-Jadaan said the tough anti-corruption move will help improve the kingdom's investment environment and enhance the public's trust in the social order.
"Fighting corruption will promote the trust of businessmen and just competition between investors," he said.
LIFTING BAN ON WOMEN DRIVERS
Saudi Arabia was the only country forbidding women from driving, a fact itself enough to incur endless strong criticism.
But on Sept. 26, the king issued a royal decree granting driving licenses for women in the kingdom, lifting a decades-old ban on Saudi women from driving.
The decree was welcomed by Saudi women, who hail it as "a great victory."
The move is part of a series of social and religious reforms introduced to lift restrictions on Saudis, especially youths and women, in social activities and public entertainment.
The kingdom has established a state-level institution to bring in foreign entertainment shows; women are now allowed to enter stadiums to watch football games with men.
Since May 4, women in Saudi are allowed to apply for services without the approval of their guardians, who could be their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons or any other male relatives.
And on Monday, Saudi Arabia announced its plan to grant licenses to open cinemas early next year, also as part of the "2030 Vision" to create job opportunities and promote tourism.
GULF CRISIS AND DILEMMA IN YEMEN
The Qatari crisis and Yemen war dominated the headlines of Saudi diplomatic stories in 2017.
Cementing alliance with the United States and boosting ties with other world powers like China and Russia, Saudi Arabia has been exerting efforts to increase its influence outside the Middle East.
The kingdom is also trying to prove its leadership in the Middle East and the Muslim world, as shown in its feud with Qatar.
Saudi Arabia, supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June and cut off sea, land and air links with the tiny rich Gulf neighbor.
The Saudi-led bloc accuses Doha of supporting terrorism, interfering in their internal affairs and seeking closer ties with Iran. Qatar strongly denies the charges, while rejecting a list of 13 demands put forward by the bloc for resuming diplomatic ties.
The crisis has harmed the Gulf stability and the Gulf states' solidarity in dealing with regional rifts. No real progress in resolving the standoff so far has been achieved despite the mediation efforts made by Kuwait, the United States and European states.
Meanwhile, Saudi is still bogged down in the dilemma of Yemen war, which is to some extent a hand wrestling with its Shiite rival Iran.
Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Iran-backed Houthis allied and seized power in late 2014, triggering a civil war in Yemen. Saudi later formed a coalition to intervene militarily in the war to support the exiled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
But the Saleh-Houthi alliance broke down with the two sides fighting each other, which led to the killing of Saleh by the Houthis in early December.
This has opened the door for a broader conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, analysts said.
They believed the murder of Saleh signaled that Iran has won in Yemen so far, and in response, Saudi Arabia could mobilize and support all forces and political groups opposing the Houthis.
But a war can never solve problems in humane ways. A proxy war in Yemen between the two regional powers has created, and will only further deepen the humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country.