Quest for normalcy

Prince Salman seeks to remake Saudi Arabia's national identity, but that needs smarter engagement with his people.

Quest for normalcy

Even in an era of political earthquakes, one world leader stands out. In an interview with CBS News' 60 Minutes ahead of his visit to the United States this March, Saudi Arabia's powerful young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went about ripping into his country's troubles with religious fundamentalism. Among other things, the Prince opposed Saudi Arabia's forcible imposition of the black abaya, or robe-like cloak, on women. He also called out the "extremists" in his country who forbid contact between unmarried men and women, while pledging to purge the country's education system of the radical elements who he says have invaded it.

Prince Salman's vocal rebuke of Saudi conservatives is not all talk. In recent months, he has overseen a slew of social reforms in the country. He has curbed the powers of the so-called 'religious police', who were previously able to arrest individuals whom they deemed to be engaged in unholy activities. He removed a long-standing ban on women driving, got rid of multiple restrictions that barred them from participating in the economy, and allowed them for the first time into sports stadiums across the country.

All this might not seem like much to people in most other parts of the world, but in Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative society, these announcements are bold and revolutionary. For generations dating back nearly three centuries, the Saudi State has been based on an informal arrangement between the reigning House of Sauds and conservative clerics known as Wahhabis.

While the Kingdom provided patronage to the Wahhabi clerics, the clerics in return granted moral authority and legitimacy to the Saud dynasty by approving their religious credentials.

Yet, by the 1970s, that understanding had turned tenuous. As Saudi Arabia allied with America during the Cold War in harnessing its oil economy, minor signs of liberalisation began to appear in Saudi society: women appeared in public without headscarves, for instance, and movie theatres became commonplace.

These, however, did not go down well with some Saudi conservatives and soon, tensions began. In November 1979, months after Iran's own political revolution, militants stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held it hostage for a fortnight. In the aftermath of the attack, the old political pact was re-established more forcefully. Social reforms were rolled back, many means of entertainment were outlawed, and ideological propaganda was outsourced to the clerics.

Now, nearly four decades later, driven in part by a personal desire for modernity and in part by a need for economic diversification away from oil, Prince Salman is seeking to redefine the ideological underpinnings of the Saudi State. His first target: gender norms.

This is no mean task, and the ideological forces of 1979 are still deeply entrenched. In many ways, Saudi society is today far more conservative than most other Gulf countries -– and certainly far more conservative than Iran's more globalised middle class.

Take a look, for instance, at the implementation of reforms to the Saudi guardianship laws: a system which requires women to take the approval of their husbands, fathers or other legal male guardians to engage in several activities. While the law no longer requires women to take the permission of their male guardian in order to work, reports from Human Rights Watch say that some firms continue to ask them for it. Women are also still being subject to several constraints at home that make them subordinate to their male relatives. In result, despite policy reform in the last three years, the rate of women's participation in the economy has remained rather flat (17.6% in 2014, 17.8% in 2017).

Prince Salman's solution to the problem has been to crack down on potential opponents. Last September, dozens of people, including prominent clerics, were arrested. One of those was a vocal critic of the decision to lift the ban on driving. Yet, in a society that remains inherently conservative in the face of dizzying change, violent crackdowns will only lead to an increased danger of backlash and radicalisation. Last June, Saudi security forces discovered and foiled an imminent attack on the Grand Mosque, in an eerie throwback to1979.

Political engagement

The key to a successful rollout of reform in any country is not a shutdown of dissent, but rather more engagement with it. For reform to gain acceptability, opponents must have access to platforms where they can voice concerns, and the government must have channels through which it can inform and influence that public discussion.

Unelected regimes are generally devoid of such mechanisms, but even by those standards, Saudi Arabia stands out. There are few reliable channels of communication between ministries and the common public. There are even fewer avenues for the kind of dialogue and discussion that would prove effective in winning public approval for change. Even State propaganda –- the staple of most authoritarian regimes -– has been traditionally controlled by conservative clerics. Clerics also dominate the Kingdom's institutions of judiciary –- another important means of civic engagement.

For his ambitious reform agenda to succeed, Prince Salman will need to reform all these political institutions and establish means and mechanisms by which to engage more directly with the Saudi population. Think of Deng Xiaoping's tours across China, as he sought to solidify his economic reforms. The prince seems alive to this challenge: asked what his biggest challenge is, he said it is to understand "[if] the people believe in what we are doing."

To the rest of the world, and to India in particular, social reforms in Saudi Arabia are particularly significant, given its place in the Muslim world. In recent years, radicalisation around the world has been linked in some form or the other to ideological support from within the Kingdom. If Saudi Arabia reforms its society and practice of Islam, there would be widespread implications for the battle against Islamist terror. The world should find ways to support that movement.

(The writer currently advises a Saudi Arabian think-tank on social and economic reforms)

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