Friday, March 2, 2018

The News from Saudi Arabia

No one seems to be paying any attention any more, but recent events in Saudi Arabia must count as momentous. We do not know if the liberalization policies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will ultimately succeed, but we all encourage his important steps in the right direction.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently traveled to Saudi Arabia to see for himself, to interview officials and people on the street. He concludes that it looks good. It looks as though the Crown Prince is for real. Other journalists have reported similarly.

Ignatius began by speaking with an important cleric:

Whether MBS, as he’s known, can succeed with his transformational agenda is still an open question. But he has a key ally in Sheikh Mohammad al-Issa, since 2016 the head of the Saudi-backed Muslim World League. Speaking through a translator, Issa endorsed a series of recent moves by the crown prince that he said are backed by his colleagues among the ulema, or senior religious leadership.

Asked about predictions from some analysts that there will be a religious backlash against these changes, Issa said this view was “absolutely incorrect.” He explained that his colleagues among the ulema accept that “these reforms will assist in better understanding and in developing the society in general.”

Among the important changes in Saudi school curricula have been an erasure of anti-Semitism. To make the gesture meaningful, Sheikh Issa wrote a public letter to our Holocaust Museum. We should read it as outreach to Israel, a nation with whom Saudi Arabia has been quietly establishing positive diplomatic ties:

Issa attracted attention in the West in January when he wrote a letter to the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington that described the Nazi campaign of extermination as “among the worst human atrocities ever.”

We recall, and commented extensively on it last year, President Trump's visit to Riyadh last May. Not only was Trump accorded far more respect than his hapless predecessor, but the kingdom announced a new initiative against Islamist terrorism:

The new Saudi stance against radical Islam has an operational side, too, which I saw in a visit Monday to a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, known as ETIDAL, or moderation. Under a giant dome, several hundred analysts sit at computer screens watching Arabic social media traffic for signs of support for extremist groups. There’s a slightly ominous “Big Brother” quality to the oversight, but it answers Western demands that the Saudis get tougher about combating extremism in their midst.

If we are going to win the war against Islamist terrorism without having to fight it out in the trenches, this initiative is an enormously positive development.

Then, Ignatius stopped to question a random grouping of young men he saw on the street. He summarizes their attitude:

To be sure, this was hardly a scientific survey. But every one of the young men voiced spontaneous enthusiasm for changing the old ways. Especially popular was MBS’s anti-corruption crackdown, in which 381 wealthy Saudis, including some prominent princes, were rounded up at the Ritz-Carlton here last November and required to pay about $100 billion in restitution before most were released.

“This is the beginning of justice. The prince is the same as any other citizen. That’s something!” said Rakan al-Dossery, 26, a counselor at a local high school, of the anti-corruption drive. “The entire world is changing. It’s not a surprise for the kingdom to be changing,” said Abdul-Aziz al-Faraj, 29, a bank teller.

One young man named Moab said that in addition to his bank job, he has just opened a shop selling mobile-phone accessories, a business once dominated by Yemeni expatriates. Explained Faraj: “A while ago, the average Saudi wouldn’t think of starting a business. All he wanted was a government job.”

This is the door that seems to be opening in the kingdom — toward a more modern, more entrepreneurial, less-hidebound and more youth-oriented society. It’s a top-down, authoritarian process, for now. But it seems to be gaining momentum.

All previous reports have noted that MBS has strong popular support for his reform movement. He might be using authoritarian means, but who among us is to say that he could have accomplished it otherwise.

[Addendum: More news from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is now opening itself up to increased tourism. From the London Telegraph: link here.]


Sam L. said...

This seems encouraging.

Anonymous said...

Cautionary note: Never underestimate the potential in Islam for extreme and violent reaction, even if everything seems to bode well on the surface. It's happened time and time again throughout Muslim history: Iran, the Wahabbis themselves, the terror networks, the Mahdi in Sudan, The Almoravi and the Almohand in North Africa

Sam L. said...

I've been wondering how the Wahabists are going to take this.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Perhaps we will see merciful beheadings.