Since 1979, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, widely recognized for its ultraconservative approach, is now gradually transforming towards liberalism. Since Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) took charge as the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has encountered notable modifications in its socio-economic and cultural outlines. The kingdom, once under the influence of orthodox clergy, treated women as the last segment of the society and put them under many restrictions. Now, the current scenario has dramatically altered.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a long time has been regarded for two things: oil and Islam. The rich oil resources play a significant role in the kingdom’s economy that puts the country’s future on a prosperous path. At the same time, the official Islam of Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative and intolerant interpretation that is woven into the kingdom’s history. Earlier, the traditionalist ideology of Wahhabism taught the follower to be careful of non-Muslim ‘infidels,’ saw murderers and drug dealers punished publicly, and women were deprived of fundamental rights. Saudi Arabia was more conservative compared to other Islamic societies. Still, its role as the guardian of Islam’s sacred sanctuaries in Mecca and Medina provides distinguished leverage among the Muslim inhabitants.
Before discussing the contemporary era and the transformation in a conservative society in Saudi Arabia, it is of utmost importance to seek the reasons that threw Saudi Arabia into tribalism.
The region of the Middle East in history has encountered some events that are of immense significance and will be remembered for centuries. Hence, there are several important events, but the 1979 conservative revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in 2009 had a domino effect that brought upheaval in the Arab world. The 1979 revolution in Iran affected the Arab world that also led to the attack from some insurgents that took over the holiest place of Muslims, Mecca. It took Saudi Arabia far from modernity to desert tribalism. Saudi Arabia took a giant leap towards Islamism as the fear amplified from the Shia revolution in Iran. The house of Saud felt threatened by the siege of Mecca. Therefore, they decided to cement its authority in the Islamic world and portray itself as the protector of the faith. It resulted in the emergence of Wahhabism, a conservative sect within Islam’s Sunni branch. It is extensively practised in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi ruler renewed their ties with Wahhabi clerics and appointed them to key positions. The appointment of clerics in judiciary, governance, and education resulted in the rollback of social reforms, strict dress codes were enforced, and liberal policies were discouraged. Today, the Crown Prince, MBS, wants to end extremism that took root in 1979 and return to the pre-1979 era.
In an interview with the Guardian, MBS said, “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East.” The post-Iranian revolution era established circumstances through which the model of Iran was forced to be adopted across the region, including Saudi Arabia. And for that cause, individuals all over the regions have made successful and abortive attempts to challenge the status quo and alter the traditionalist approach of the ruling. He added further that the problem spread all over the world. It is high time to get rid of extremism and intolerance which are deep incorporated in our societies, he mentioned.
The man behind such phenomenal transformation is Crown Prince, MBS. He is serving as the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Following the year 2012, MBS became the head of the Crown Prince Court and was later given the charge of the Defense Ministry. He is widely known for his liberal policies that presented a country’s positive image on national and international platforms. His policies are more of an amalgam nature. For example, the Crown Prince’s ideology is seen as nationalist and populist, with a conservative approach towards national politics and economic and social issues being dealt with more liberally.
In 2016, MBS presented a road map for the country, known as vision 2030. The plan aims to bring social reforms with liberal means and enhance government services. He said, “We seek to be proud of our country, and allow the latter to contribute to the development of the world, whether on the economic, environmental, civilizational, or intellectual level.” The kingdom has goals to transform the capital Riyadh into an economic, social, and cultural hub by 2030 at the cost of $800bn. Furthermore, the planning of a new city, NEOM, a planned city in the Tabuk province of northern-western Saudi Arabia at the cost of worth $500bn. Moreover, the line city based on 170kms is one of the significant projects of the futuristic project of the NEOM. The idea is unique and aims to diversify the country’s economy.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is coming with some unexpected changes that were inconceivable just a few years ago. In a recent giant rave party, held in the desert of Riyadh with the blessings of the kingdom’s authorities, artists from all over the world performed at the four-day music festival. A Saudi woman who attended the festival said that the capital of Saudi Arabia has never experienced anything like what happened in Riyadh, where women were allowed in unconventional clothing.
The Crown Prince aims to bring foreign investment and backed the kingdom’s tourism and entertainment sectors, which appears to be in stiff competition with Saudi Arabia’s permissive neighbours such as the United Arab Emirates. The declining power of the religious establishments has been evident in Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and in greater contrast, the regional adversary Iran is heading towards more conservative practices of Shia Islam on the other hand. Since Muhammad Bin Salman has been in power, there is the proclivity of Saudi Arabia to become more welcoming to the modern interpretation of Islam and leave behind the harsh expounding of Wahhabism. “We cannot grow, we cannot attract capital, we cannot have tourism, we cannot progress with such extremist thinking in Saudi Arabia,” Prince Muhammad said. He also promises to reform the education sector and revise the textbook to tackle intolerance. The Crown Prince appointed his cousin as the first Saudi woman to head a sports federation, further encouraging women to contribute to progressive Saudi Arabia.
However, some issues regarding the freedom of media have exposed the actual image of his style of governance and came under criticism. For instance, the death of Jamal Khashoggi raises serious questions regarding his attitude towards press freedom and his handling of dissidents. On the contrary, the MBS’s economic, social, and cultural reforms have been widely praised by the kingdom’s populace.
*M. Adil Khan is a retired senior policy manager of the United Nations and Professor of Development Practice, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia