Image credit: the Guardian.
On the streets of Riyadh, in its shopping malls and public spaces, Saudi Arabia’s religious police had long been a foreboding presence. They could reach into private lives at will, with powers that few could challenge, enforcing an ultra-conservative brand of Islam as a dogma for society.
For people who had lived in fear of the force, one late winter evening earlier this year came as a watershed. On the side of one of their headquarters in the city’s suburbs, a 10-metre wide emblem of the country’s reform programme – Vision 2030 – had been projected. And no one inside the building dared to block it.
“That was the government saying we are more powerful than you,” said an influential Riyadh businessman. “That was when the people knew that they [the religious police] didn’t matter any more. They had lost the powers to arrest a year earlier. And now they had lost face.”
The sudden fall from grace of one of the influential pillars of the state had taken place as a new and ambitious face of the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, continued an ascendancy unparalleled in Saudi Arabia’s modern history.
The 31-year-old prince’s rise was consolidated on Wednesday when his father anointed him as heir to the throne, ousting his nephew in the process and giving the newcomer unfettered powers as a change agent. The new crown prince’s mandate is formidable; overhaul an ailing economy, open up a closed society, and project the influence of a usually cautious country in new and robust ways.
In announcing the move, the king has literally banked his kingdom on the world’s most powerful thirtysomething, adding to his already full list of duties a cluster of roles that are not intended to distract from the most crucial of all – a 15-year reform programme, which many in Riyadh see as the only viable solution to an existential threat.
Private enterprise is being courted, cinemas are in the pipeline, concerts have been held – though only for men – and the touchstone issue of women being allowed to drive is again on the table, senior officials say.
Though Riyadh residents who spoke to the Guardian say they will suspend judgment on the reforms until they are delivered, talk of change is starting to resonate. “Something is definitely happening here,” said Sumaya Fayad, a shop assistant in one of Riyadh’s most popular malls. “It feels different. I don’t feel as limited anymore. There has been progress in personal freedoms, because we don’t fear as much anymore.”
Two years into the process of reinvention, the country has opened a war in Yemen, tried to steer another in Syria, opened its economy to foreigners, exposed its biggest asset – the state-owned oil company Aramco – to global markets, spoken out strongly against its regional foe, Iran, and blockaded a former ally, Qatar. Mohammed bin Salman has been given a lead stake in it all, positioning him against powerful figures within the royal family and elsewhere, in a country where disgruntled citizens have been quick to oppose cutbacks in welfare spending and pensions.
The changes have exposed the limits of state authority and highlighted the will of a combustible population, much of which has yet to be convinced that change of this scale is in their interests.
“The problem for them is that the base has always been significantly more conservative than the leadership,” said one western official in Riyadh. “Some of the senior officials are describing what is taking place as cultural revolution disguised as economic reform, but there is a danger that they’ll get ahead of themselves.”
Regardless of the warnings, citadels that had long been seen as too difficult are now being targeted. The accommodation between the hardline clergy, which has defined the national character, and the House of Saud, which has run affairs of state, has been central to the modern kingdom, with both sides relying on the other to retain power.
Mohammed bin Salman has told several global leaders that the arrangement needs to change for the modern state to survive.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics’ Middle East centre, says: “This has been going on since King Abdullah became king in 2005. Since Salman came to power, we see signs that they are trying to redefine Wahhabism [an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam] as a limited religious tradition responsible for personal piety, but having no business whatsoever on the way the kingdom is run.
“But the problem for them [the ruling family] is that it is an accurate assessment to say that Wahhabism is a doctrine that has underpinned the actions of the Islamic State. Saudi religious fatwas and opinions have been used to encourage people to join terror groups.
“What we are seeing is not a reform programme at all. It is cosmopolitan liberalisation. The Wahhabi traditions are deeply embedded in a system that is repressing its own people. They are doing what other dictators do, in allowing certain personal freedoms to make people forget about the big picture.”
Senior Saudi officials acknowledge the need to sideline, even disavow, traditions and practices that gravely limit personal freedoms and human rights, especially among women and minorities.
“We are no longer averse to change,” said one ministerial aide. “We embrace it and we know that we can no longer rely on the developed world to lead the way.”
Some Saudis say small measures are already signalling a new openness to other interpretations of the faith.
“During the recent Riyadh summit, two of the world’s most influential Islamic scholars addressed a social media conference comprised of largely Saudi young men and women,” said Talal Malik, the Saudi-based CEO of conglomerate Alpha1Corp. “The new crown prince … was effectively patronising a global and dynamic vision of Sunni Islam in the kingdom, and showcasing it for Saudi youth as representing their future.
“He has made significant inroads in winning the support of one, if not the, key demographic in the kingdom – its youth, who wish to contribute to building a modern and dynamic G20 country.”
Not all Riyadh youth agree. “You know that the top 11 Twitter handles here are Salafi clerics, right?”, asked a 24-year-old student speaking perfect American English. “We are talking more than 20 million people who hang on their every words. They will not accept this sort of change. Never.”