If recent news these past few months is anything to go by, Saudi Arabia, under the newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, is trying to change from a country rooted in Wahhabi Islam and oil wealth to one that is economically diversified and modernizing both law and practice. The most recent sign of this progressive sentiment is the upliftment of one of Saudi’s most controversial bans in existence since 1957: a law which prevented women from driving. This dramatic shift arrives shortly after a summer of internal and external shakeups following the initiation of an ambitious diplomatic boycott against Qatar, effectively placing the future of Gulf unity at risk.
However, like many other religiously governed countries, Saudi has been a top contender for cultural revolution, a change that has actively been endorsed by Salman. Described as the ‘man who is trying to overturn tradition’, the 32-year-old prince is deeply committed to carrying out major reforms. To his supporters, he is the embodiment of a newly envisioned Saudi Arabia – many are seeing this as a first attempt to break away from archaic traditions and customs that no longer pertain to the Saudis of the 21st century. The emphasis on tradition, however, rests heavily on Saudi’s place in Islamic theology, or rather Islamic theology’s place in Saudi Arabia and its Hijaz region; both the birthplace of Prophet Mohammed and the cradle of Islam.
However, now that women will find themselves behind the wheel, the public is asking what’s next for the Islamic Kingdom? Can the public relationsteams hired by the Kingdom in every major capital in the West sever the link in people’s minds between these positive internal reforms and the young royal’s hawkish foreign policy in the region – a reputation he gained from leading the intervention in Yemen, which has turned into a humanitarian and public relations disaster.
Preceding his ascension to the throne, Salman was known at home and abroad as the champion of an economic revival program known as ‘Vision 2030’, consisting of a plan to diversify Saudi’s economy from its heavy reliance on oil, stimulate the private sector and roll back public expenses. The Prince’s domestic endeavors have been accompanied by a determination to take on the role of leadership in the Sunni Arab world, which the aftermath of the Arab Spring forced Egypt to forfeit. Yet the question which has always concerned Saudi Arabia remains: how to reconcile a deeply conservative Islamic state apparatus with the mounting pressures of modernization and economic downturn?
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy whose identity is deeply tied to a puritanical Salafist tradition, and oil. Since its unification in 1932, the kings and princes who ruled Saudi Arabia combined their resources and religious authority, by virtue of their guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites Mecca and Medina, to mount their authority over the Kingdom and on the Sunni Arab world.
With a domestic population of more than 30 million that pays no tax, Saudi’s Treasury depends on oil sales for more than 90% of its revenue. However, sharp declines in global oil prices, from more than $100/barrel to $30/barrel in 2016, was largely contributed by Saudi’s ruinous policy of maintaining excessive levels of production. This left the oil giant in a precarious position with a budget deficit of $100 billion, and $390 billion in lost profits, in 2016 alone.
With the oil market in crisis back in 2016, Saudi rulers took to cutting subsidies, imposing taxes, laying off swaths of government employees, and putting public assets on the market, including privatizing parts of state oil giant, Aramco. But the transition to a more balanced economy is proving to be a challenge. The problem with Saudi oil is that it’s an addiction, and as with any addiction, it’s hard to create substitutes.
The Kingdom’s entire economy is built on a platform of massive state employment and reliance on low-wage foreign labor. In addition to Saudi’s public sector being funded by income from natural reserves, the nation’s wealth is expended generously on the military and across the region to maintain stability and undo uprisings.
As Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Washington Institute Fellow explains: “Oil income has been like the superglue between the Saudi government and Saudi citizens […] With this glue beginning to melt away, it opens up a whole situation that […] they’ve never been in before.”
Tampering with this adhesive presents a huge challenge for the Prince in his attempt to pull Saudi Arabia into a new age of radical economic reform and openness, because it creates a new social contract for Saudi citizens raised in a culture of ‘cradle-to-grave benefits’.
Another challenge with Saudi lies in its demographics. More than 60% of the Saudi population is under the age of 30, and many are unemployed and increasingly aggrieved by a social regime that imposes strict religious restrictions.
Like many of their Arab counterparts, young Saudis are no exceptions in taking their plight and frustrations to social media platforms. Unemployment found its Twitter hashtag when a Saudi doctor posted a video of himself burning his degree, prompting the #BurnYourDegree campaign. Compounding the situation are the hundreds of thousands of Saudis who return home to disillusionment after having spent years living in the West pursuing higher education. In the past, discontent could be subdued through the ‘cash-for-loyalty’ social contract where benefits and subsidies created an incentive to keep silent. However, there is circulating fear regarding the full consequence of Salman’s approach to scaling back on benefits and loyalties, which has mediated generations of Saudis and their state.
One difference between Saudi society and that of Egypt and Tunisia, and which became apparent during the Arab Spring, is that public displays of anger, street protest and social unrest are not tolerated. Most Saudis accept that “reforms are granted by the King, not won through agitation, organization and direct action”. But rather than wait for societal issues to be dealt with one by one, economic reforms are the platform for societal restructuring, which is not only implicit, but necessary.
“Their economic reform plans imply major changes in the economic basis of the relationship with citizens, and potentially also to the traditional partnership between ruling family and clerics,” says senior research fellow at Chatham House Jane Kinninmont.
With economic reform representing the basis of Salman’s vision, where new development and measures seek to encourage a more active citizenry, change happening in the economic and development sectors will inevitably widen the sphere of possibilities for Saudis, stimulating ‘independent thinking and a more entrepreneurial spirit. Both of these will have to overcome the obstacle of religious conservatism. A vision which advocates self-reliance, women entering the workforce, growth in entertainment and the private sector, and making the price of oil “irrelevant” to the Saudi economy, cannot be expected to materialize in isolation from societal norms and practice. In other words, the Crown Prince is using economic crises to bend conservative opposition towards a Saudi Arabia with greater opportunities for women and the youth.
However, it is not to say that modernizing one’s economy should necessarily come with a social liberalization that resembles that of Western societies – nor should it be the case. Kinninmont said, “While Saudi Arabia is never going to be Dubai, the UAE model of social liberalization without political liberalization is one that influences the debate across the region,”
But one should not forget the power of the religiously conservative in Saudi Arabia, the clerics who make policy based on their interpretation of Sharia Law. For instance, when the state-run General Entertainment Authority hosted the Kingdom’s first ever Comic Con in Jeddah, the former imam of Mecca’s Grand Mosque Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, called the Kingdom’s entertainment splurge a violation of human nature. The outrage was echoed by tens of thousands of social media users expressing disapproval, one such user @YusraRazan, lamenting: “Our heroes on the southern border are sacrificing their lives […] to protect the country and fools are dancing around and performing shameful acts”.
At the end of the day, “modernity is more than music and driving”. It’s one thing to lift a ban on women driving and stage a few pop shows, quite another to advance reforms that will usher in a new age for Saudi youth and transform society in the process.
It is not clear yet whether this new ruler, close in age to the majority of the Kingdom’s youthful citizens, will succeed in his ambitious project, particularly if “on the one hand he’s expanding social and economic freedoms that are popular among Saudi Youth, [and] on the other hand, he’s narrowing space for civil society […] to criticize his reforms.” Hence, the prince must pursue the path of modernization but avoid autocratic impulses to suppress and stifle his opponents. As Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute put it, “It’s essentially autocratic liberalization.”
Edited by Shivang Mahajan