Experts say one of the reasons which recently triggered social changes in Saudi Arabia was the country’s willingness to break with tradition.
A few days ago, one of the headlines of a newspaper about the designation of several female ministers in the United Arab Emirates drew extensive reactions. The headline compared women assuming ministerial posts with burying girls alive. The controversial headline raised a hue and cry from media and social networking sites. Some described the headline as an example of racism, and some did not. Still there are individuals in society who regard Arabs as clear examples of prejudice and reactionarism. Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia were not authorized to drive. But all of a sudden, changes took place in the country which seemed rather peculiar to us.
In the meantime, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper that he wants to do away with extremist thoughts. He said his country was associated with moderate Islam.
But what do these remarks and the cultural changes in Saudi Arabia all mean? To answer the question, two experts on international issues have had an interview with the Persian-language Fararu website.
Why Did Saudi Arabia Agree to Changes?
University professor and political commentator Davoud Hermidas-Bavand said the reason why Saudi Arabia agreed to introduce some changes in society was that the country had been questioned on human rights issues.
“That is why Saudi Arabia tries to open itself up. Moreover, educated people have joined the Saudi dynasty, prompting the country to move forward based on the requirements of the time. Bin Salman is among the educated people of this family. He tries to rethink the country’s foreign policy as Syria and Iraq did in order to reclaim Riyadh’s previous status in the region. So, Saudi Arabia has adopted a wise approach in accordance with its interests,” Hermidas-Bavand says.
Asked whether the changes are real or are just a show, he says: “That makes no difference.”
“In your private lives, you may imitate behaviour which will become second nature after some time. Accordingly, even if the changes which took place in Saudi Arabia such as women being authorized to drive have been a show, a taboo has been broken in the country and this is irreversible. Even if the changes are a show, they will turn into a social norm because they have been accepted in society,” he says.
The analyst has also touched upon bin Salman’s comments about a return to moderate Islam.
“This country regards Shiites as extremist Muslims as well. Therefore, by saying this sentence (return to moderate Islam) it seems that Saudi Arabia wants to give itself some leeway to counter both al-Hasa Shiites and Salafis,” he says.
With this sentence, he says, the accusations levelled against Riyadh will be reduced.
“But it’s not that groups such as Boko Haram or ISIS will be dismantled. Terrorist groups will continue to pursue their objectives after some time. In other words, if they have been formed for a particular purpose, they won’t stop even after achieving it,” he says.
Change of Ruling Generation: Source of Change in Saudi Arabia
Ali Bigdeli, an expert on foreign affairs, also told Fararu that Saudi King Salman is the last child of Ibn Saud and the last generation that has survived from the time when Saudi Arabia was established. Nevertheless, Saudi heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman belongs to a generation that is educated abroad. This generation has arrived at the conclusion that it will not be possible for Saudi Arabia to continue its political life in a good atmosphere using tribal structures. So, this generation seeks to change the kind of political, social and economic approach that Riyadh has adopted.
“Saudi Arabia is moving toward weaning the country off oil revenues. It wants to open political doors and make investments in the tourism sector. Saudi Arabia also has to make changes to the structure of its government to rid the system of the family rule. In today’s modern world, there is no room for past behaviour. So, they have given women some freedoms,” Bigdeli says.
“Currently, Saudi King Salman is not in full possession of his faculties, and almost everything is done by Mohammed bin Salman, who wants to bring about sea changes in the country. Speaking in a speech in Australia during his last months of presidency, former US President Barack Obama took a swipe at Riyadh and told it not to put the blame on Iran for all of its problems because Saudi Arabia has problems both ideologically and structurally,” the analyst says.
The commentator also refers to recent comments by the Saudi Crown prince who said the country would return to moderate Islam.
“In the past, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, had formed a group that were more extremist than Wahhabis. Bin Baz considered himself the descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. However, the group, which has biased approaches vis-à-vis religion and society in Saudi Arabia, has been proscribed. Still, Mohammed bin Salman has a tough task ahead and cannot make these changes at one go,” he says.
Bigdeli predicts that bin Salman will succeed in the path he has set foot in.
Given bin Salman’s comments, the commentator also says he expects to see Saudi Arabia sever its relations with terrorist groups.
Another reason why Riyadh accepted to introduce the changes is the class divisions in the Saudi society, says Bigdeli.
“There are class differences in the Saudi society. A handful of people live with gold-handled Cadillacs, and the rest are poor. This has triggered fear among Saudi authorities. They are concerned that conflicts may break out in the country. Now, Saudi Arabia wants to move to a modern world where it can assume the leadership of the Arab community, the same thing that Gamal Abdel Nasser did.”
The commentator also believes the recent changes which have taken place in Saudi Arabia will not be conducive to the amelioration of Tehran-Riyadh ties.
“Saudi Arabia is more dangerous for Iran than Israel is,” he says.
“Contrary to our expectation, the new generation has a very violent viewpoint about Iran. Maybe one of the reasons behind the conclusion of Riyadh’s agreement with the US was to increase enmity toward Iran. So, I don’t predict any improvement in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”