Saudi Arabia’s renowned English-speaking daily newspaper Arab News published a special Christmas edition on December 24—a first in a country well-known for its fundamental interpretation of Islam. Editor-in-chief Faisal J. Abbas credited the issue to the “remarkable reforms” the Kingdom has pursued under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Celebrating Christmas is not the first reform that MBS has encouraged. Women have been granted the right to drive and obtain passports without a male guardian. The Saudi leadership has also raised the ban on public cinemas and eased the rules restricting mixed-gender activities.
Undermining Dual Rule
Under the crown prince, Saudi Arabia has undertaken a massive rebranding to shed its conservative image. In other words, unlike his predecessors, Bin Salman seeks to modernize Saudi Arabia by embracing certain aspects of Western culture. Observers can expect more social reforms that liberalize the country, as long as MBS’ personal rule over the Kingdom remains unchallenged.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia is still playing catch-up. Riyadh recognizes that its social situation lags behind comparable Gulf states. Though Saudis have long referred to sharia law to establish the strict rules that provide pretext for restriction of civil liberties, such measures have nothing to do with religion. For example, nowhere in Islamic jurisprudence are women banned from driving a car or separated from social life. Saudi law operates with the objective of social control, not religious adherence.
The crown prince blames the clerical class for social restrictions, which explains why he has imposed a crackdown on this powerful segment of Saudi society. Besides the House of Saud, Prince Salman has exerted control over Wahhabist clerics—a power he will be loath to relinquish. If MBS continues to insist on a top-down transformation, the established governance paradigm may collapse. There is a risk that the co-ruling of the country by the Saud family and the clergy may end in favor of the former.
A Controversial Charm Offensive
For the stability of the kingdom, it is highly important that the ruling family does not underestimate the power of ulama (clergy) in Saudi society. Clerics are quite influential among the Saudi population, and they maintain significant sway over the opinions of the citizenry. Therefore, if MBS’ crackdown against the clergy intensifies, the ulama may jostle for power by encouraging radicalism or enabling dissidents. Thus, reforming Saudi society in the face of such staunch opposition may prove more difficult than the crown prince imagines.
In the political sphere, any further attempts to liberalize Saudi society must remain apolitical, from Bin Salman’s perspective. For the crown prince, westernization must not be allowed to affect the political structure of the Saudi state. Saudi Arabia is, of course, a monarchy, and Prince Salman owes his power to this system. Since the future of his reign depends on the continuation of this hierarchical, autocratic system, the strong Prince will likely ignore or silence any attempts to introduce popular participation in political life. Thus, one leg of liberalizing reforms will always remain lame. Indeed, MBS has initiated a massive crackdown against his own family members, major business figures, and government ministers who may be sympathetic to a more liberal governance model. Thus, while promoting religious tolerance toward non-Muslims and preaching co-existence within a rapidly changing society, Prince Salman will tolerate domestic opposition.
Also, the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul will cast doubt on the social reforms implemented in Saudi Arabia. In many ways the press still recalls the Khashoggi case whenever a Saudi reform is covered by the media.
As of November 18, 2022, the Saudi judiciary had executed 139 people. Though data is unavailable, the number was expected to rise to 200 by the end of the year. Thus, citizens may question the government’s commitment to human rights, despite the official headlines promising greater liberties for Saudi citizens. Rather than an emancipatory campaign, some may view the initiated reform package as a distraction from the state’s activities or an attempt to garner praise from an international audience. It is likely that MBS will continue to expend resources to restore his reputation, but how effectual these efforts will be is a matter of question.
Whether MBS’ reforms seek to improve the crown prince’s image or appease international powers, they do result in tangible benefits for the Saudi people. Therefore, regardless of the intention, liberalizing policies should be welcomed by Saudis and foreigners alike.