On October 24 at an investment conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman announced NEOM, a high-tech, futuristic city with a $500 billion pricetag. It’s one of the most ambitious projects in the the country’s Vision 2030 program, which seeks to pivot Saudi Arabia from an oil-based banana republic into a leader of innovation and business. As he put it, he hopes that NEOM “will be a place for the dreamers of the world.”
Nearly three years after the global energy market crashed by nearly half, the oil giant has made increasingly aggressive steps to diversify. Some, like NEOM, are expectedly unexpected when it comes to the flashy gulf state’s development plans, but one aspect in particular of bin-Salman’s presentation shocked international viewers. As it turns out, his reform plan included social not just economic changes.
‘his reform plan included social not just economic changes.’
“We are simply reverting to what we followed,” bin-Salman said during the conference, “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.”
Bin Salman went on to make broad statements about religious tolerance and fewer religiously-minded regulations, something he stressed was becoming increasingly important to Saudi Arabia’s younger generation, five million of which will be entering the workforce in the next ten years. But a desire for a more moderate state isn’t the only thing driving this push. Saudi Arabia has long been under fire from human rights watchdogs and NGO’s the world over. Last year’s execution of 47 political prisoners, including Shia minority democratic activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and Ali al-Ribh, a legal minor who should have been exempt from the death penalty under Saudi law, were part of a final PR disaster that has since caused international investors to largely shy away.
‘Saudi Arabia has long been under fire from human rights watchdogs and NGO’s the world over.’
With the job market currently unable to handle the aforementioned five million young Saudis, many wonder whether bin-Salman’s vision for the future could bring the country into the present, or at least make for a kinder, more gentle authoritarian theocracy. This has already begun to take shape in the country, even before the much publicized overturning of the ban on women driving on September 26. On April 2016, King Abdulaziz and the Saudi Council of Ministers issued new regulations on Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or “mutaween,” that clearly stated that CPVPV officers are no longer able to detain suspects or ask for ID, and must report all potential crimes to regular police officers. Abdulaziz also took steps to lesson clerical influence on the educational system. There are even (mostly dismissed) rumors that the country will be lifting it’s ban on cinemas.
However, many see the vague language behind bin Salman’s reforms as a potential warning sign that change may be slow, and what change comes may be less than what many hoped for.
‘many see the vague language behind bin Salman’s reforms as a potential warning sign that change may be slow.’
“The religious establishment that has been the backbone of Saudi political system,” said Professor of Political science at Kuwait University Abdullah al-Shayji in an Al-Jazeera panel. “There has always been a marriage of the al-Saud family with the religious establishment. What will happen to that?”
Al-Shayji makes a good point. Bin-Salman stressed that Saudi Arabia’s de jure religious conservatism is the result of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and made the case that previous rulers wanted to do for Sunni Saudi Arabia what Khomeini did for Shia Iran. But in response to these claims, critics have claimed significant revisionism, and that though Saudi Arabia’s lands include the sights of the birthplace of Islam, the country’s track record with moderation is hardly stellar. In an email to the Washington Post, Professor Mudawi Al-Rasheed of the London School of Economics argued that Saudi Arabia presents a “unique case of radical religion becoming the official religion of the state and its legitimacy narrative.”
‘a unique case of radical religion becoming the official religion of the state and its legitimacy narrative.’
Since the partnership of the house of Saud with Muhammad ibn Abd-Wahhab (the founder of the literalist, conservative movement known as Wahhabism) during the formation of the Emirate of Dariyah — the first Saudi State — Wahhabist approaches to jurisprudence have been at the heart of the Saud family’s policies, and are an important part of their identity as a nation. Though the situation today is obviously not the same as in 1744, it’s still very difficult to tell whether bin-Salman will be sincere, let alone successful, in accomplishing his goal of moderation. While King Abdullah implemented measures to clip the wings of conservative clerics, they still hold a large amount of power and are an important pillar of Saudi society. As an absolute monarchy, the King of Saudi Arabia has the power to do whatever he wants. Yet, there’s no telling what reaction unchecked reform processes will have on the nation’s clerical factions, so the Saud’s may chose to take things very slowly, as even a hint of instability would scare away foreign investors, thus dashing bin-Salman’s NEOM dream.
‘As an absolute monarchy, the King of Saudi Arabia has the power to do whatever he wants.’
So what could reform look like? Despite what al-Shayji and al-Rasheed said, many, not least of all the Saudi citizenry, are cautiously optimistic about the proposed reform measures — especially since things already seem to be progressing rapidly. Just a few days after announcing their reform plans, the Saudi government announced that three stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam will support mixed-gender attendance starting in 2018. The decision to allow women at a traditionally male-dominated event was received positively, but many members of the Saudi public were surprised by the rapid changes occurring in their country.
“First women driving, now stadiums. What’s next? Night clubs?” said one Saudi Twitter user, which The Guardian cited as indicative of the nationwide surprise at the rapidly accelerating pace of the reforms. To many, the message seems clear: the Saudi government has the power and the willingness to push reform through.
As with many reform movements, however, critics have been quick to see the new concessions as diversionary tactics that ultimately detract from the humanitarian crimes the Saudi government has been accused of.
“By allowing women to drive, Saudi regime wants to divert attention from detaining more than 40 [people] since 9 Sept,” al-Rasheed said in a tweet. While freedom of movement and greater equality between men and women seem to be the primary targets, many bring up the war in Yemen, as well as anti-Shia tendencies, as more pressing areas for reform.
‘The regime has been accused of using Yemen as yet another staging ground for a proxy war against Iran.’
The regime has been accused of using Yemen as yet another staging ground for a proxy war against Iran, it’s largest geopolitical rival. As in Iraq, the Saudi government has been linked to Sunni militias, which sources say are being used to exert power in the area and fight against the Iranian-backed Shia militiamen. This has caused domestic tension betwen Saudi Sunni and Shia, with the former seeing protests by people like al-Nimr as possible Iranian puppet tactics. To this very day, Shia Saudis are only permitted to celebrate Ashura (the celebration of the saving of Moses and the Israelites) in the Shia-dominated city of Qatif, and many face discrimination in the workforce. Saudi Arabia, along with the other Gulf States, have also been accused by human rights watch groups of abusing non-Arab migrant workers.
More than anything, it seems that these reforms just bring up more questions. After all, can they really be called reforms if they only target a small subset of the population and ignore the politically disenfranchised? It seems that the only advisable action, at least for now, is to not stop pressuring the Saudi government to change, especially since the ones left out of the recent reforms are in the greatest danger.