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A sea change in Saudi Arabia?

Monday 15 January 2018, by siawi3


A sea change in Saudi Arabia?

Irfan Husain

January 15, 2018

A RECENT photo in the newspapers caught the ongoing changes taking place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: a group of women watching a football match in a state of high excitement. By itself, this is hardly extraordinary, but these ladies were in Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its repressive policies towards women. Before the recent revolutionary changes brought about by the virtual ruler, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS, as he likes to be called, women were subject to many restrictions, including a ban on driving. The moral police, now muzzled, would whip any exposed bit of visible skin.

As a sign of changing times, a car showroom has opened for women, and young couples are thronging to cafes. Cinemas, long banned, are set to reopen after years. Had these regressive and misogynist attitudes been restricted to Saudi Arabia, we would have hardly noticed. But with its petro-dollars, and its role as guardian of Makkah and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest sites, the kingdom has punched well above its weight.

Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, the royal family was terrified of a similar movement in the kingdom. To counter this danger, the Saudi establishment set about removing all signs of modernity that had crept in over the years. All forms of dissent were crushed, women were forced into their homes, and the most backward, literal interpretation of Islam was imposed. This Wahabi doctrine was energetically exported to the rest of the Muslim world, backed by the country’s vast wealth.

1979 also happens to be the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and the liberation of this poor, landlocked soon became a cause celebre for Muslims everywhere. With the CIA, Saudi intelligence and our ISI recruiting volunteers from across the Muslim world. In training camps, jihad was preached as a religious duty, and while this rag-tag army achieved little on the battlefield, their indoctrination turned them into hardened jihadists. When the war ended with a Soviet defeat, and the Americans left the arena, the home countries of these volunteers refused to allow them back, and thus began Pakistan’s blowback: the genie we had helped create was out of the bottle, and now threatens to devour us.

In large part, much of the extremism and violence we see in the Muslim world today can be traced back to 1979. In an article in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman calls on the Iranian and Saudi youth to get past this seminal year and demand change. The title says it all: “To hell with 1979.” If it were only that easy. The shadows cast by the events of nearly 40 years ago are long and deep. A second generation of Muslims is growing up knowing little of the humanist aspects of Islam, while being taught only a list of do’s and don’ts.

Saudi-funded madressahs across the Muslim world have churned out millions of graduates with little knowledge of the world. Fed on an exclusive diet of religious instruction, they are ill-suited to find jobs in today’s global economy. Many become foot soldiers for the jihad, while others turn to crime. Saudi Arabia has also funded chairs of Islamic studies at Western universities where the Wahabi doctrine acquires the stamp of academic legitimacy. Mosques from London to Lisbon dot the skyline, while no religion is allowed to function openly in the kingdom.

In a recent interview, MBS spoke about his intention to reverse the regressive changes his country had brought about since 1979. If he follows up on this promise, it could have a profound impact on the rest of the Islamic world that has seen a sea change in attitudes over the last four decades. From Lahore to Liverpool, younger Muslims tend to be far more conservative than their parents were. Cutting off Saudi funding to madressahs would be a huge start, as would a more selective financing of Islamic charities as many of them serve as a cover for militant outfits.

Given the kingdom’s paranoia about Iran, and the latter’s drive to carve out a Shia zone of influence arcing from Yemen to Lebanon, it is hard to see a quick end to the proxy wars that have plagued the Muslim world for decades. The Saudi-led war in Yemen is just the latest example of the lengths the kingdom will go to in order to halt what it sees as an expansion of Iranian influence.

But even a reduction in the financing of the Islamic world’s most regressive institutions, political parties and clerics could well lead to a return to sanity. Given the example Saudi Arabia sets for Sunni Muslims around the world, a more relaxed kingdom could set in motion changes that affect the next generation.

For instance, Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire, recently announced that in partnership with the Saudis, he was considering a billion-pound investment in spas and holiday resorts along the kingdom’s Red Sea coast. Given that few Europeans would go to a dry country on a holiday, we can safely guess that liquor laws would be relaxed to attract tourists. What impact this would have in Saudi Arabia and much of the Muslim world remains to be seen.

With oil prices rising, the kingdom is well placed to pull in investments and manage change. MBS, with all his ruthless ways and disregard for the rule of law, is a young man in a hurry. Although he has cracked down on possible opposition, he has made many enemies in the ruling family by his arrests and cuts in subsidies to other royals. How he deals with them will determine the success of the reforms he has unleashed.