Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Saudi Arabia in Transition

Forewarned is forearmed, the old saying tells. To that I would add that being well-informed is the best antidote to extremist and fantasist narratives.

Just the facts, Ma’am, said Sgt. Joe Friday. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the facts are encouraging. Considering that Saudi money has been instrumental in promoting terrorism around the world, the Saudi move toward increased liberalization must count as one of the major fronts in the war on terrorism. 

From the Saudi-led Sunni Arab confab against terrorism, attended by President Trump, to the more recent Saudi-led Sunni Arab confab regarding the reputation of Islam in the world, the Muslim world has been moving toward modernity, toward tolerance, toward getting along with its neighbors. Recently, as reported on this blog the Saudis have been pressuring the Palestinian Authority to make a deal with Israel, on terms congenial to the Israelis.

The Wall Street Journal reports on what has been happening. For those who do not subscribe, I quote sections at length.

Now that religious control is coming under its sharpest challenge in modern times. Saudi leaders, spurred by the need to diversify the oil-dependent economy, are moving faster than any of their predecessors to unravel the legacy of Islamic conservatism that had taken hold of the country four decades ago and shaped the education of generations.

Spearheading the transformation is 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who sees social liberalization as a vital part of his radical economic modernization plan and has vowed to return his country to a more tolerant form of Islam.

Not all religious leaders are entirely comfortable with the liberalization efforts:

Sheikh Saleh al Fozan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s top religious body, reiterated a common argument against women driving. “If women are allowed to drive,” he said in a statement published on his website, “they will be able to go and come as they please day and night, and will easily have access to temptation, because as we know, women are weak and easily tempted.”

Strangely enough, in the West it seems that men are weak and easily tempted.

Saudi Arabia was not always a epicenter of religious reaction. It shifted in that direction in 1979:

After 1979, religious conservatives gained an upper hand when two events challenged Saudi Arabia’s role as the cradle of Islam: the Islamic revolution in Iran and the weekslong siege by armed extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

Saudi leaders took steps to appease the kingdom’s ultraconservative fringe, which they perceived as the biggest threat to their rule.

In so doing, the monarchy gave the kingdom’s clerics free rein to enforce a strict moral code in public, to reshape the education system and to export their intolerant views abroad. The country’s newfound oil wealth meant the government could afford to prioritize religion over productivity.

The government funded religious causes at home and abroad and it didn’t desperately need foreign investors, who were put off by harsh rules like the ban on men and women mixing in the workplace. It could also afford to neglect industries like tourism and entertainment, opposed by religious hardliners.

Most important to us was the kingdom’s promoting radical and extremist causes around the world. Textbooks taught young people to hate:

In public, women were forced to wear face-covering veils, which in parts of the country such as Asir had been virtually nonexistent. The religious police, formally known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, was given the job of enforcing the new order.

Radical Islamists infused the school curriculum with the teachings of Wahhabi scholars. Textbooks instructed students to hate Christians and Jews and denigrated Shiite Muslims. Some of the more extreme views often came from teachers, who sometimes recruited students to extremist causes.


Saudi charities linked to the government helped spread that interpretation of Islam beyond the kingdom’s borders, inspiring generations of jihadists.

Asir proved a fertile ground for extremism. Of the 17 Saudi citizens who participated in al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, five were from Asir, more than from any other region.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led the fight against reactionary religious authorities. It is, the Journal reports, an economic imperative:

In an era of cheap crude, loosening Saudi Arabia’s social rules has become an economic and political imperative for Prince Mohammed, the driving force behind an ambitious plan to end the kingdom’s dependence on oil. Saudi Arabia, where the majority is under 30 years old and 12.8% of the population is unemployed, is trying to become more attractive to foreign investors and to the country’s own youth. It wants to bring more women into the workforce. Failure puts at risk the country’s next generation, which could be lost either to opportunities overseas or to underground extremist groups at home.

Many more Saudis have studied abroad and are aware of what is happening in the world outside of the kingdom. This has reduced the power of religious conservatives:

Religious conservatives are far less powerful than they were a decade ago. Thanks to satellite television and the internet, Saudis have been exposed to different ways of thinking. More than a hundred thousand Saudi men and women returned to the kingdom over the past decade after studying in Western universities on government-funded scholarships.

Last year, the government also began sending teachers abroad to see how Western schools function, a step partly aimed at tackling extremism among educators.

“We are moving in a new direction for education and a new direction for the country,” said Saudi Education Minister Ahmed al-Eissa. He added that new textbooks, scrubbed of vitriol, will be rolled out in the next academic year.

It should matter to all of us that the Saudi government is replacing the old hate-filled school textbooks with a new set that teaches more openness and tolerance. Also, the government has been weakening the power of the religious police.

In 2016, the Saudi government stripped the religious police of its power to arrest, the most consequential result of the eroding alliance between the monarchy and the clerical establishment.

The government of Mohammed bin Salman is attacking extremism directly, and on all fronts:

“In 1979 our religion was hijacked,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, a former minister of justice, who in a gesture of tolerance routinely encourages the non-Muslim women he meets to remove their headscarves, “Now we are eradicating the roots of extremism.”

During a trip to Europe earlier this year, he became the first head of the Muslim League to meet the pope and visit a synagogue.

Among those who were arrested in September’s crackdown on princes were clerics who had been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood:

In September, authorities arrested dozens of clerics as part of a broad crackdown against dissent. Among them are former members of the so-called Islamic Awakening, a once-powerful Islamist movement linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that in the past has challenged the monarchy’s authority. Most of its members have since publicly embraced more moderate views.

The government has also targeted princes who have been funding international terrorism with their own funds:

Royals have also been targeted. Last month, authorities detained a senior prince, Khaled bin Talal, for opposing the government’s reforms such as the decision to curb the power of the religious police, according to people familiar with the matter.

“He was complaining about the reforms. He thought that would give him [political] credibility,” said a person briefed on the event. The prince, who has limited political clout, is kept at the high-security prison of al-Ha’ir.

What is happening on the ground? How is life changing for the average Saudi citizen:

In major cities like Riyadh, more Saudi women are choosing colorful robes, known as abayas, instead of the all-black ones they typically wear. Many are allowing headscarves to slip to their shoulders. In the more liberal city of Jeddah, all-female jogging groups run on the waterfront wearing leggings under their tunics.

Alia al-Azmi, a 24-year-old lab technician based in Riyadh, says she hopes to soon be able to discard the face-covering niqab she always wears. “In the future, we’ll look more like Dubai,” she said, as she scrolled through pictures with no covering during a trip abroad. “But here, I have to wear a niqab. I don’t want any of my colleagues to see me.”


Anonymous said...

Anonymous Lennie cautions

One caveat. The Sa'udis aren't just a giant ruling clan that has to deal with a difficult religious authority as has been the case at times with the English kings and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Sa'udis in the 1700s finalized their links with Abdul Wahhab by marrying a bride from the Wahhab clan. And there would have been extensive intermarriage ever since. So the Sa'udis are Wahhabs and vice versa.

Also, never underestimate the reactionary impulse in Islam, if things proceed too far in a liberal direction. Wahhabism is the prime modern example, but see also the the Al Moravi and Al Mohand movements that arose in North Africa and Spain in the 13th century. Allah, in a sense, is akin to Yahweh of the Old Testament, a wrathful deity who could end the world in the next five minutes if he so will it. There is no New Testament, no Torah and Talmud to take the edge off this problem, They have all been condemned as blasphemies by Islam

Anonymous Lennie

Sam L. said...

Studying our schools. Hmmmmmmmmmmm. Should they study that DC school where every student flunked and still got promoted/diplomaed? Or not? Can't decide; just can't decide.