The recent flurry of social and economic reform coming out of Saudi Arabia has left some Saudis ecstatic, others more circumspect, and a few conservatives bewildered or even angry.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told a crowd of investors at a conference in late October that he was merely attempting to “return Saudi Arabia to the moderate Islam that once prevailed” before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. He stressed that 70 percent of Saudis are younger than 30 and vowed “not to spend another 30 years of our lives living under extremist ideas.”

The young crown prince also proposed an ambitious plan for a new economic zone on the Red Sea near Jordan and Egypt. In April, he put forward an economic road map for the kingdom, called Vision 2030. Part of the plan calls for privatizing 5 percent of the country’s flagship petroleum company Aramco, in addition to attracting foreign investment capital.

​Too much change too fast

Clarence Rodriguez, who spent 12 years as a French foreign correspondent in Riyadh and recently wrote a book called Saudi Arabia 3.0 on the aspirations of Saudi women and young people, tells VOA that she believes Saudi Arabia “is in crisis, due to the drop in the price of petroleum,” and that it has found itself under pressure to “diversify its economy, which necessitates societal reform involving women and young people, as well.”

Rodriguez points out that the late King Abdallah, who died in 2014, started the reform movement by allowing Saudi women to run for the country’s consultative “Shoura” council and to enter the work force, becoming lawyers, bankers and salespeople.

She worries, however, that some recent moves to change the status of women have angered parts of the kingdom’s mostly conservative population. Traditionalists, she says, are “not used to such quick change” and many “are afraid, because things are moving too fast for them.”

On a recent talk show on an Arabic-language news channel, a conservative Saudi caller told the show’s host that he thinks Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman are “violating (Islamic) sharia law” with some of their recent reforms “and should go to jail.”

Saudi commentator Jamal Kashoggi tells VOA that he’s “not optimistic about the reforms,” but that he would “still like to be optimistic … since everyone will suffer if they fail.” Kashoggi worries that the reforms are “not engaging Saudi society, enough.” 

“We wish Mohammed Bin Salman well, and we need economic (and social) reform,” he said, “but, we also need to discuss (these issues). The change,” he said, “is being done in very narrow circles. (Ordinary) people are not feeling engaged.” 

Was Saudi society more moderate?

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, is not convinced that Saudi society was more moderate before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. He thinks that parts of Saudi society have always had a conservative streak to them, pointing out that Wahabi conservatives killed many moderate Muslims, including the Shafa’i mufti of Mecca when they overran the city and the nearby resort city of Ta’ef in 1924.

A handful of prominent Saudi conservative clerics have been arrested since Mohammed Bin Salman replaced his cousin, Mohammed Bin Nayef, as crown prince, in June. 

“By weakening the clerical establishment and making clerics simple government workers,” Khashan said, “(Mohammed Bin Salman) will be able to give women more rights, as he is proposing.” Saudi women were allowed to drive, starting in September, and this week were given permission to attend sports matches with their families.

Khashan believes that economic considerations are a key factor in the decision to allow Saudi women to drive. 

“If 10 million women are given the right to drive in Saudi Arabia,” he said, “and if just a fraction of those women buy cars, take driving lessons or buy insurance, that would contribute to stimulating Saudi Arabia’s stagnant economy.” Allowing women to drive will also curtail the expensive practice of hiring foreign chauffeurs to drive women around.

Both Kashoggi and Khashan believe that the Saudi government will eventually prevail in its efforts to reform society. 

“Conservatives,” Kashoggi said, “have already lashed out. They’ve been lashing out since 2003. Al-Qaida, or ISIS, or the radical Wahabis … these are the extremists in Saudi Arabia … and they don’t want change. They have resisted, and will continue to resist. … The only thing stopping them is (government) security.”

Clashes with clerics

Khashan points out that in clashes with conservative clerics back in the 1960s, after King Faisal opened a school for girls in Riyadh, and when the king opened the first TV station in Riyadh in 1965, the government prevailed. 

“Whenever the state clashes with the (conservative) clerical establishment, the state emerges victorious,” he said, “and there’s no reason to believe that things will not be the same, this time.”

Jordanian analyst Shehab Makahleh is less certain about who will come out on top, however. 

“There is a kind of opposition among royal family members who are not happy (about the reforms),” he said, “and they have had a number of meetings to clarify where the country is heading in the coming five to 10 years.”

Makahleh believes that King Salman may soon abdicate in favor of Mohammed Bin Salman “in order to gain more support from the international community” for his ambitious reform program and to promote a more secular model of society.

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