Naveed Aman Khan
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is of the view that ultra- conservative State of Saudi Arabia has not been normal for last 30 years. He has vowed to return the country to moderate Islam and ask for global support to transform the hardline Kingdom into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors. He blames rigid doctrines that have governed society in a reaction to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which successive leaders didn’t know how to deal with. Saudi Arabia is G-20 country. One of the biggest world economies Saudi is in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi for the better means helping the region and changing the world. So this is what Saudis are trying to do. They are hopeful of getting support from everyone.
What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. Saudis didn’t know how to deal with it and the problem spread all over the country. Saudis believe that now is the time to get rid of it. Saudis are simply reverting to what they followed a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. Honestly they would not have wasted 30 years of their lives combating extremist thoughts.
They will destroy deep rooted conservativeness and rigidity from Saudi society now. The Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s comments are the most emphatic he has made during six months reform programme that has tabled cultural reforms and economic incentives unimaginable during recent decades, during which the Kingdom has been accused of promoting a brand of Islam that underwrote extremism. Heir of the incumbent monarch moves to consolidate his authority, sidelining clerics whom he believes have failed to support him and demanding unquestioning loyalty from senior officials whom he has entrusted to drive a 15-year reform programme that aims to overhaul most aspects of life in Saudi Arabia.
Central to the reforms has been the breaking of an alliance between hardline clerics who have long defined the national character and the House of Saud, which has run affairs of the State. The changes have tackled head-on societal taboos such as the recently-rescinded ban on women driving as well as scaling back guardianship laws that restrict women’s role and establishing an Islamic Centre tasked with certifying the sayings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
The scale and scope of the reforms have been unprecedented in the country’s modern history and concerns remain that a deeply conservative base will oppose what is effectively a cultural revolution and that the Kingdom lacks the capacity to follow through on its economic ambitions. The new economic zone is to be established on 470kms of the Red Sea coast, in a tourist area that has already been earmarked as a liberal hub akin to Dubai, where male and female bathers are free to mingle. It has been unveiled as the centerpiece of efforts to turn the Kingdom away from a total dependence on oil and into a diverse open economy. Obstacles remain an entrenched poor work ethic, a crippling regulatory environment and a general reluctance to change.
Economic transformation is important but equally essential is social transformation. None can achieve one without the other. The speed of social transformation is key. It has to be manageable. Alcohol, cinemas and theatres are still banned in the Kingdom and mingling between unrelated men and women remains frowned upon. However, Saudi Arabia an absolute monarchy has crippled the wings once feared religious police who no longer have powers to arrest and are seen to be falling in line with the new regime.
Economically Saudi Arabia will need huge resources if it is to succeed in putting its economy on a new footing and its leadership believes it will fail to generate strategic investments if it does not also table broad social reforms. Socio economic reforms are taking place . No more foreigners are required in Makkah Mukarma and Madinah Munawra for transportation. Now only Saudis will provide transportation services to Pilgrims as bus and taxi drivers. Such progressive moves will make Saudis vigilante and economically more prosperous.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman had repeatedly insisted that without establishing a new social contract between citizen and state, economic rehabilitation would fail. This is about giving kids a social life. Entertainment needs to be an option for them. They are bored and resentful. A woman needs to be able to drive herself to work. Without that all are doomed. In the next decade, at least five million Saudis will likely to enter country’s work force, posing a huge problem for officials who currently do not have jobs to offer them or tangible plans to generate employment.
The economic zone will be completed by 2025, five years before the current cap on the reform programme and is to be powered by wind and solar energy, according to its founders. The country’s enormous sovereign wealth fund is intended to be a key backer of the independent zone. It currently has $230bn under management. The sale of 5% of the world’s largest company, ARAMCO, is expected to raise several hundred billion dollars more. Transformation of Saudi socio economic system will be widely welcomed elsewhere. These visionary reforms of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will make Saudi Arabia stronger than ever before and turn him very popular not only within the country but also on international level.
— The writer is an author, columnist and veteran political analyst based in Islamabad.
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Naveed Aman Khan