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Reforming Saudi Arabia: Easier Said Than Done

What to make of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent disavowal of the kingdom’s founding religious ideology?

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Takeaways


  • Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken steps to roll back the influence of the kingdom’s conservative religious establishment.
  • The Saudi Crown Prince’s definition of “moderate Islam” is primarily apolitical and emphasizes unconditional obedience to the ruler.
  • Saudi Arabia has taken steps to remove bigoted and violent content from school textbooks. But it still has a long way to go.
  • In a recent survey, young Saudi men opted social change -- but pulled back when realizing liberties would also apply to women.

Since emerging almost three years ago as Saudi Arabia’s strongman, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken several steps to roll back the influence of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment and relax its strict moral codes.

These steps, include reducing the power of the religious police, lifting the ban on women’s driving and allowing forms of entertainment like music, film and dance that were long banned.

However, viewed in proper perspective, they seem more designed to upgrade rather than abolish autocracy and enable badly needed economic reform and diversification.

No real liberalizer

Recent arrests of some of Saudi Arabia’s most popular Islamic scholars as well as human rights activists suggest that Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s definition of “moderate Islam” is one that is primarily apolitical, quietist and adheres to a religious school of thought that teaches [emphasizes] unconditional obedience to the ruler.

Moreover, these reforms will take time. They basically require changing deeply engrained attitudes that have been embedded in the kingdom’s education and social system since it was founded in the first half of the 20th century, if not pre-state life in what is now Saudi Arabia.

While Saudi Arabia has in recent years taken steps to alter its school curriculum and remove bigoted and violent content from textbooks, it still has a long way to go.

According to a 2013 study by a U.S. State Department contractor, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, disclosed by The New York Times, pointed out the problems.

Insidious textbook references

Questionable textbook references include passages where seventh graders are being taught that “fighting the infidels to elevate the words of Allah” is among the deeds Allah loved the most.

Tenth graders learn that Muslims who abandon Islam should be jailed for three days and, if they do not change their minds, “killed for walking away from their true religion.”

Fourth graders read that non-Muslims had been “shown the truth but abandoned it, like the Jews,” or had replaced truth with “ignorance and delusion, like the Christians.”

Some of the books, prepared and distributed by the government, propagate views that were hostile to science, modernity and women’s rights.

The books advocate execution for sorcerers and warn against the dangers of networking groups focused on humanitarian issues like Rotary Club and the Lions Club that allegedly had been created “to achieve the goals of the Zionist movement.”

Saudi youth: Ambivalent ally

Even if all the questionable references were removed, changing those attitudes could be a generational task.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s proposed reforms have largely been welcomed by Saudi youth, who constitute a majority of the kingdom’s population.

While they should be a natural ally of the Crown Prince, they are likely to show mixed responses. This is largely a result of deep-seated attitudes that have been cultivated for decades.

An unpublished survey of aspirations of 100 male Saudi 20-year olds indicated the problems Prince Mohammed is likely to encounter beyond opposition from ultra-conservatives to moderating the kingdom’s adopted interpretation of Islam.

The men surveyed “wanted social change, but they pull back when they realize this has consequences for their sisters. Their analytical ability and critical thinking is limited,” said Abdul Al Lily, a Saudi scholar who conducted the survey and authored a book on rules that govern Saudi culture.

Liberating only the men?

Some 50% of those surveyed said they wanted to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely and be able to drive fast cars, Mr. Al Lily said. He said issues of political violence, racism, international interests or the dragged out Saudi war in neighboring Yemen did not figure in their answers.

However, Mr. Al Lily’s interviewees bolted when confronted with the notion that liberties they wanted would also apply to women. “People ended up not doing anything when confronted with the idea that someone might want to go on a date with their sister. They pulled back when they realized the consequences,” Mr. Al Lily said.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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