Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s liberal reforms for a “modern” Saudi Arabia bears the hallmarks of a kingdom at the brink of self-implosion, writes Najm Al Din..
The shifting dynamics of Middle Eastern politics never ceases to amaze as its most distinguished sheikhdom, Saudi Arabia, embarks on a transition that’s poised to change the Kingdom beyond recognition.
Infamous for its repression of political freedoms and human rights abuses, the House of Al Saud is rebranding its global image as an authoritarian fiefdom by converting the country into a crucible for tourism and entertainment. This grand quest for social transformation is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) who’s wasted no time rejuvenating the Kingdom through a curated mix of arts, culture and sports offerings in his pursuit of modernisation.
From earmarking dozens of islands in the Red Sea as a sprawling, luxury beach resort to the much-anticipated overhaul for Qiddiyah, which is billed as the ‘Capital of Entertainment’, MbS is taking momentous strides towards economic regeneration as outlined in the ambitious Vision 2030 manifesto.
Plans to develop a multi-billion dollar city to free the Kingdom of dependence on oil exports are accompanied by a raft of contentious reforms paving the Saudi foundations for a Dubai-like makeover. In a country where social liberalisation is outpacing economic development, previously unimaginable freedoms are accelerating at an unprecedented scale, with seismic implications.
There’s far more to the self-vaunted march towards progression than opening cinemas and rescinding the ban on women driving. The weaponisation of women’s rights is now central to renegotiating the social contract, and has exposed a combustible fault line in the Kingdom’s politics.
The General Entertainment Authority has sought to break new grounds and bring the cabaret to the desert by hosting mixed gendered concerts, which have stoked much controversy. From classical Japanese orchestras and trapeze artists to hip-hop and house music bonanzas, Saudi men and women have emerged from their ultra-conservative straight-jacket to share the dance floor under the Kingdom’s pulsating lights.
In June, US rapper Nicki Minaj was invited to headline the Jeddah Season Cultural Festival. Despite cancelling, the invitation of an artist notorious for hyper sexualised performances and profanity-laced lyrics provoked a conservative backlash. In an interview with CBS last year, MbS also claimed that the traditional abaya was not mandatory in Islam, hinting a future where the female dress code will be relaxed and exposing the staunchly liberal direction in which the reforms are heading.
A collapsing kingdom
The timing of these reforms speaks volumes and appears to be a calculated strategy to appease a public reeling from austerity and mask a Kingdom engulfed in turmoil.
Existential threats to KSA are multiplying. Tensions between Emirati and Saudi objectives in Yemen recently surfaced after forces belonging to the Saudi backed government of President Hadi were ousted by the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a coalition of secessionist militia trained by the UAE. While MbS’s priority is to secure the southern border against the Houthis, the UAE seeks to consolidate economic and military presence in the Horn of Africa and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a vital link in global trade routes.
Unless the divergent Saudi-Emirati strategies in Yemen and Emirati pragmatism vis-à-vis Iran can be amicably negotiated, there are fears of a southern secession which will significantly hinder efforts to maintain a unified opposition to the Houthis and increase the likelihood of an Iranian sponsored insurrection on Saudi borders.
It’s also no secret that officials in the Kingdom are scrambling to reassure oil markets of sustainable production levels following a recent drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq processing facility. The past few years has seen oil prices fluctuate leading to a downgrading of credit ratings, prompting speculators to bet on the devaluation of the Riyal.
As the war in Yemen drags and sanctions on Iran bite deeper, Saudi energy assets and vital infrastructure are becoming increasingly vulnerable to attack, threatening to diminish the Kingdom’s output capacity. With the looming uncertainty over future oil prices and the unpredictable trajectory of its ongoing macroeconomic crisis, the days of chequebook diplomacy are slowly fading.
Furthermore, reforms coincide with an increasing level of despotism, widely documented by Human Rights Watch. While claiming to contest the monopolistic control of the clerical class, MbS is entrenching his own political absolutism at a time when vengeful royals are jostling for leadership. It’s been over a year since the murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but the crackdown on peaceful dissidents across the political spectrum and McCarthyist witch-hunt of religious scholars continues unabated.
The Prince’s shock therapy seems to be a smokescreen for the repression of any grassroots initiative seeking a reformation of the authoritarian order. Unable to manage his cultural transition delicately, it will likely morph into a springboard for the public’s demands for more transparent governance.
Like many Muslims, I despise the ossified institutions stemming from the clan-based tradition which have stymied the intellectual progress of ordinary Saudis, contributing towards the Kingdom’s arrested development. Thus, I endorse initiatives for fostering innovation and nurturing a home-grown diversified knowledge economy, even if it means overhauling some traditional bases of power.
However, the suggestion that MbS will upend the suffocating autocracy is illusory. Instead of presaging a political opening, the international pressure to redress an ailing economy combined with the demands for youth empowerment and civic participation is prompting the Crown Prince to pursue a reformist agenda which conflates modernisation with westernisation. In the process, normative Islamic values are being fatally compromised and subordinated to a dangerous brand of liberal authoritarianism. Undeterred in his quest to spearhead an “Arab renaissance”, MbS is riding roughshod over the time-honoured religious heritage of millions of Muslims.
Having absorbed the religious police into the interior ministry, he has vowed to revise the national curriculum by co-opting schools to enforce laissez-faire social values antithetical to the Islamic tradition as the basis for a new Saudi nationalism.
Desperate to see KSA develop into a global hub for commercial investment, he will continue to curry favour with the international community by enabling the propagation of liberal voices to serve as the impetus for shifting the cultural paradigm. This will function as a Trojan horse for the infiltration of feminist and secular influences to ultimately frame the national discourse on gender, education and public policy.
Judging by the pace in which these reforms are being foisted on the masses, the piecemeal assimilation of liberal values will eventually culminate in the desecration of sacred spaces and radical rethinking of core Islamic tenets under the guise of restoring a moderate Islam. For a country long associated with puritanical Salafism, the heir to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is ripping up the script by opening the floodgates to the liberal zeitgeist, reminiscent of Kemal Ataturk’s aggressive secularisation of Turkey.
I sincerely appeal on the esteemed scholars and students of knowledge to resist this pernicious onslaught and demand for any countercultural endeavour to be anchored in normative Islamic values. Those who identify as “Salafi” must acknowledge that the spiritual foundations of the Arabian Peninsula is now on the edge of a precipice and decry the cost of such conformism. One can no longer maintain the pretence of defending an unadulterated faith tradition while keeping mum as the mores championed by MbS usher the heresification of the Holy Land.