Saudi Arabia’s Wary Social Revolution

The first celebration of Valentine’s Day and the first appointments of women bankers marked ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia’s first tentative steps towards a social revolution. This tiny breakthrough, deeply frowned on by the kingdom’s clerics, is part of the Vision 2013 program launched by the king’s son to stimulate economic diversity away from oil, alleviate the mass unemployment afflicting Saudi youth and raise standards of living across the kingdom.
The program drawn up by King Salman’s dynamic young son, 30-year old Mohammed Bin Salman – Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince – hinges on the sale of 5 percent of the stock in the national oil company of Aramco. The sale is to yield an estimated $2 trillion for a sovereign investment fund that will finance economic development and jobs.
After the young prince successfully touted his program in the United States, domestic opposition raised its head in two quarters: from inside the royal house and the rigid clerical establishment. The antagonists included first-generation and conservative princely factions, some with an axe to grind, princes who were passed over in the line of succession and resent young Mohammed’s race to the top, and rivals like Prince Miteb Bin Abdullah, commander of the powerful National Guard,
King Salman took steps to cool the objections to Vision 2013 and restore equilibrium in the royal house. He dimmed the high profile of his son, MBS, and empowered Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef (MBN) to act as peacemaker and quell the infighting in the House of Saud.
The ultra-conservative clerical establishment, on which the Saudi royal house depends for its legitimacy, warns that the reforms will bring in a flood of western influence and culture that will quickly swamp the stringent national norms.
The Supreme Council of Senior Clerics is still smarting over the king’s son’s step to transfer the morality police’s authority to arrest and interrogate offenders against the strict religious laws to the regular police and drug squad. The religious police was left only with powers to enforce segregation of the genders in public, the ban on female car drivers and the sale of alcohol.
While Vision 2013 has weathered the opposition thus far, the sale of Aramco stock was delayed from 2017 to 2018, on the argument that the delay would capitalize on the future price hike generated by the oil cartel OPEC’s decision to cut production from early 2017.
This decision was achieved through a deal negotiated between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
In the meantime, the government in Riyadh has slashed subsidies, raised taxes, is set to introduce VAT in mid-2017 and has started selling off national assets. A major effort is underway to encourage the private sector to bring more young Saudis, especially out-of-work graduates, into the job market.
They are also being offered their first taste of light entertainment in the hidebound cities.
Valentine’s Day was marked for the first time this year without drawing the usual forbidding fatwas. The King’s son Mohammed has promised public music concerts and movie theaters with mixed audiences, hoping to evade the frowns of the stern clerics.
In early February, three females were catapulted into high-ranking financial posts: Sara al-Suhaimi was appointed head of the Saudi Stock Exchange and two other women were given senior executive jobs in the Financial Group and the Arab National Bank. Women were handed responsible jobs in other sectors too.
But the clergy continues to cling jealously to its guardianship code for Saudi women, which confers on male relatives the right to forbid their womenfolk to take outside employment, dictate their choice of spouse, ban foreign travel and exclude them from driving cars.
Innovative social processes are chipping away at the once unshakably ultra-conservative royal regime and religious control of every facet of life in the kingdom. It is still slow, but picking up speed in some fields:

  • High-ranking positions are no longer confined to the current monarch’s offspring and kinsmen but distributed more widely among the sprawling royal family’s various branches, according to skills and qualifications, rather than right of birth or seniority. Princes passed over for plum jobs are suitably compensated.
  • While the clerics are increasingly sidelined from economic and social decision-making, this process can’t go too far since the rulers of the kingdom founded by Ibn Saud will not willingly relinquish the cherished royal title of Guardian of the Holy Mosques of Islam, which is predicated on the religious establishment’s endorsement.
  • More measures are ahead for a more liberal society, especially with regard to women’s rights and better opportunities for the young generation, which is more receptive to western culture and modern ways than its forbears.
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