Time for change in Saudi Arabia has come but the young crown prince must tread carefully
Saudi Arabia, the prototype for political and religious conservatism in the Middle East, is turning into an agent of change. The appointment of Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz as Saudi crown prince is not only a revolution in the traditional governing philosophy in the country but a historic milestone in a context in which a new vision is needed in the region.
The traditional impression of Saudi Arabia is forever gone. In the past, traditional Arab circles had a mixed and perplexed view of Saudi Arabia. The dominant impression was that it was time for this naturally rich country to change. It was time to end the stifling social reality imposed by extremely conservative religious scholars that was oppressing women and wasting an enormous amount of resources on lost causes.
With the appointment of a new crown prince, power is being handed to a younger generation at a time when there is no room for traditional thinking and slow change. Decisions to wean the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil, restrict the authority of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and reintroduce cinema, theatre, culture and art into Saudi society were overdue measures.
In a social context in which half the population is young people, Crown Prince Mohammed seems to be in a race against time to make up for lost opportunities. I belong to that youthful half and I perfectly sympathise with Crown Prince Mohammed’s efforts and enthusiasm. They will go a long way in lifting the spirits of Saudi youth.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s appointment was like throwing a stone in still waters. The ripples are shaking Saudi society and this is where caution is needed. We are dealing with a paradox that has, for a long time, characterised relations between Saudis and their rulers. Saudi society has always been more adherent to tradition and more conservative than the ruling family. It is important to consider this point before embarking on profound changes.
When Vision 2030 is implemented, Saudi society will have taken giant leaps forward but if this implementation is done in haste there is the risk of equally gigantic steps backward. This is where input from Crown Prince Mohammed’s inner circle of advisers becomes crucial. Issues related to family, women, entertainment and separation of the sexes are complex and thorny. Conservative religious figures who enjoy star status within Saudi society might force the government to revise its approach to these issues.
Take the question of women drivers. This issue has left a bitter memory in Saudi liberal intellectuals. The issue is not restricted to the question of whether to allow women to sit behind the wheel but has to do with women’s independence from men and their self-confirmation as an essential productive element in society.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s approach to this controversial question was rather intelligent. Instead of coming head first against the religious oligarchy, he opted for a roundabout way. He maintained the ban against women drivers but allowed Saudi females to head companies, institutions, ministries and national funds. In time, accepting women in leadership roles will chip away at denying them the right to drive cars.
Social change in Saudi Arabia must be given time to mature. To prevent damaging counter reactions, society must be given the time to accept and absorb the change. Otherwise, Crown Prince Mohammed risks finding Saudi society seriously behind in accepting his vision.
Crown Prince Mohammed belongs to my generation. Our generation has not seen the period of theatre and cinema houses in Saudi Arabia. We came in the 1980s, after the revolution in Iran. We are the generation of the cold war between Sunni political Islam and Shia political Islam.
There are two generations in Saudi society. One has witnessed the cultural openness of the 1970s but does not wish to see it return. The second generation has not lived any period of cultural openness and craves any form of this openness.
In this context, Crown Prince Mohammed’s mission boils down to avoid worsening this social rift. The late King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was aware of these risks when he started his modernisation programme in 2005 but Crown Prince Mohammed seems determined to pull Saudi society forward.
The real challenge facing the Saudi crown prince is restructuring the historic relationship between political power and the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. It must be done so the modernisation programme for Saudi society does not escalate into a serious confrontation, which risks killing the project altogether. It is going to be like walking in a minefield. Social and political stability in Saudi Arabia are of paramount importance to the Gulf region and to the Arab world.
In addition, the regional and international contexts legitimise measures taken by Crown Prince Mohammed. Escalation with Iran and dealing with terrorism will unite society behind the new leadership. Mohammed bin Salman’s appointment reflects, in and of itself, the wish of Saudi youth to eradicate extremist Islamists and their social project. The time for change in Saudi Arabia has arrived but the young prince must tread carefully.