On April 4, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the end of a 35-year ban on cinema performances. This decision underscored Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to liberalizing Saudi Arabia, and the screening of the film “Black Panther” in Riyadh on April 18 received widespread international attention. As the cinema re-opening decision occurred just six months after Mohammed bin Salman gave women the right to drive, many international observers have speculated that Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of a social revolution.
Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘Saudi Arabia 2030 Plan’ is the blueprint for this much-anticipated social revolution. This plan seeks to transform Saudi Arabia’s image from being an austere Wahhabi state to a cosmopolitan hub of Arab culture and global tourism. Mohammed bin Salman’s calls for radical social change enjoy broad support among young Saudis. A recent poll revealed that over 90 percent of Saudis between 18-24 support Mohammed bin Salman’s reform agenda and believe that he is taking Saudi Arabia in the right direction.
Despite this widespread optimism, social change in Saudi Arabia is likely to be much more gradual than Mohammed bin Salman’s rhetoric and the Saudi Arabia 2030 strategy would imply. As conservative clerics and members of the Saudi royal family continue to wield considerable political influence, there are many obstacles to Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to separate Saudi society from its Wahhabi ideology, improve women’s rights, and create a more cosmopolitan Saudi Arabia.
Since his appointment as Saudi Crown Prince in June 2017, Mohammed bin Salman has emphasized the need to detach Saudi society from Wahhabi ideology. In order to weaken the popular support for Wahhabism, Mohammed bin Salman has argued that the current hegemony of Wahhabi ideology over Saudi society is a historical aberration triggered by the insecurities of Saudi elites after the 1979 Grand Mosque attack.
While the absence of institutionalized female education in Saudi Arabia before the 1960s and legality of slavery in Saudi Arabia until 1962 undercut the credibility of Mohammed bin Salman’s assertions, the Saudi Crown Prince has continued to use this historical explanation to justify social change. In addition to the highly publicized cinema re-opening, Saudi Arabia opened its first Comic Con in February 2017, and held its first ever concert by a female performer in December 2017.
Despite these reforms, Mohammed bin Salman has been widely criticized for his failure to challenge Wahhabism’s dominance over the criminal justice system. In March 2018, Britain’s shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry stridently criticized Saudi Arabia for doubling its execution rate over the preceding eight months. Mohammed bin Salman’s unwillingness to suspend the widespread use of public beheading for non-violent crimes or moderate Wahhabism’s corporal punishment prescriptions underscore the limits of his commitment to reform.
The continued dominance of Wahhabism over the Saudi criminal justice system reflects a broader institutional challenge for genuine liberalization in Saudi Arabia. In order to detach Wahhabism from the Saudi legal system, Mohammed bin Salman will need to codify laws in a constitutional framework and restrict the ability of Wahhabi judges to interpret Islamic law in ways that reinforce the status quo. This revolutionary change would undoubtedly provoke severe backlash from conservative Islamists in Saudi Arabia. The prospect of prolonged internal discord has deterred Mohammed bin Salman from implementing the institutional reforms that are needed to extend his reform agenda to the Saudi legal system.
A similar discrepancy between Mohammed bin Salman’s rhetoric and willingness to challenge Wahhabi elites has undercut prospects for major improvements in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. On March 18, Mohammed bin Salman told an American audience on 60 Minutes that he unequivocally supported gender equality. To substantiate this statement, Mohammed bin Salman vowed to increase female participation in Saudi Arabia’s growing private sector, and repeal restrictive legislation that prevents women from travelling outside the country without male guardians.
In spite of this egalitarian rhetoric, a marked improvement in women’s rights is unlikely to occur in the short-term. In spite of increased state support for female employment, a June 2017 study on female workforce participation in Saudi Arabia revealed that only 17.3 percent of the women worked. This is only a slight increase from the 14.4 percent registered in 2011. Although the Saudi government has attempted to create a working environment that allows women to balance their professional and family responsibilities, increasing the percentage of women in the Saudi workforce to 30 percent, as outlined by the Saudi Arabia 2030 strategy, is viewed by many analysts to be an overly optimistic target.
The argument that the Saudi Arabia 2030 plan sets unjustifiably optimistic targets for women’s rights is strengthened further by institutional impediments to social reform. These impediments threaten to dilute the impact of Mohammed bin Salman’s September 2017 decree granting women the right to drive. While Saudi women are still on track to gain the right to drive on June 24, the availability of this right has been restricted by excessively high costs for training programs.
On May 8, Saudi women launched a Twitter campaign protesting the unfairness of being charged up to 5,000 Saudi Riyals for driving lessons, while men typically pay only 450 Saudi Riyals. This cost imbalance demonstrates that there is still substantial built-in discrimination against women that cuts across the Saudi society, which Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia 2030 plan fails to address.
Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to open up Saudi Arabia to international tourism and create a cosmopolitan society could also result in unmet expectations. The Saudi Arabia 2030 vision was inspired by Dubai’s dramatic transformation into a cosmopolitan hub of regional tourism. To emulate Dubai’s success, Saudi Arabia plans to use its Islamic heritage sites and monuments to entice tourists, develop an Entertainment City southwest of Riyadh, and loosen visa restrictions that inhibit travel to the kingdom.
In spite of these measures, there is widespread consternation within Saudi Arabia that the country’s international reputation as an ultra-conservative country will restrict the flow of tourists into the country. To counter this stereotype, the Saudi monarchy could be pressured into emulating Dubai’s embrace of drastic social changes, like loosening dress restrictions on Saudi women and legalizing forms of entertainment that are frowned upon by Wahhabi conservatives.
Although Mohammed bin Salman has publicly supported these reforms, and reduced the power of muttawa religious police, social pressure from traditional Wahhabis could prevent the Saudi public from converting the Saudi Crown Prince’s decrees into visible social change. If this social transformation does not take place, Saudi Arabia will struggle to shake off negative stereotypes, and Mohammed bin Salman’s desire to create a cosmopolitan Saudi Arabia could fail to come to fruition.
Although Mohammed bin Salman’s rhetoric suggests that Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of radical social change, the Saudi Crown Prince has been reluctant to confront institutional challenges and built-in societal resistance to the implementation of radical social reforms. The ongoing ideological influence of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia could result in a social revolution in Saudi Arabia that is superficial rather than substantive, and ensure that Saudi Arabia lags behind the ambitious targets set by the Saudi Arabia 2030 plan.
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