By David Ignatius
March 1 2018
Hearing the emphatic modernization message of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a visitor can’t help wondering: Is this for real? Are the young leader’s proposals for change supported by the religious leadership and the public in this traditionally very conservative country?
Making reliable forecasts about Saudi Arabia is impossible for an outsider. But I can offer some data points gathered during a trip here, where I heard strong support for reforms from young Saudis interviewed on the street as well as a senior Muslim cleric.
Whether MBS, as he’s known, can succeed with his transformational agenda is still an open question. But he has a key ally in Sheikh Mohammad al-Issa, since 2016 the head of the Saudi-backed Muslim World League. Speaking through a translator, Issa endorsed a series of recent moves by the crown prince that he said are backed by his colleagues among the Ulema, or senior religious leadership.
Issa began with the symbolic issue of women driving cars, which will be allowed beginning in June. “Women driving was never a religious issue. It was about habits and culture,” Issa said. “Extremists wanted to connect it to religion,” but many members of the Ulema “welcomed the decision.” Similarly, he said the religious scholars backed MBS’s move to curtail power of the religious police. “The religious police took authority that did not belong to them. . . . Nobody has rejected this. It was a wise decision.”
Issa also voiced tolerant views on women’s dress. He said that whether women wear the black cloak, known as an Abayah, or face-covering Niqab “is not something important.” But he said that woman in all Muslim countries should continue to cover their hair.
Asked about predictions from some analysts that there will be a religious backlash against these changes, Issa said this view was “absolutely incorrect.” He explained that his colleagues among the Ulema accept that “these reforms will assist in better understanding and in developing the society in general.”
When I pressed him on why Saudi Arabia had backed such a conservative brand of Islam for so long, seeming to offer support to religious fundamentalists, he answered: “We should not escape from the fact that there were mistakes, and then they were corrected. . . . It is our duty to face this extremism.”
Issa attracted attention in the West in January when he wrote a letter to the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington that described the Nazi campaign of extermination as “among the worst human atrocities ever.”
The new Saudi stance against radical Islam has an operational side, too, which I saw in a visit Monday to a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, known as ETIDAL, or moderation. Under a giant dome, several hundred analysts sit at computer screens watching Arabic social media traffic for signs of support for extremist groups. There’s a slightly ominous “Big Brother” quality to the oversight, but it answers Western demands that the Saudis get tougher about combating extremism in their midst.
What do ordinary Saudis think about these changes? Official statements and polls are controlled, and there’s limited private polling in Saudi Arabia. The best alternative I found during a short visit was simply to walk up to a half-dozen young Saudi men in a public area and ask them what they think. The venue was an outdoor cafe in the Thager Plaza in northwest Riyadh.
To be sure, this was hardly a scientific survey. But every one of the young men voiced spontaneous enthusiasm for changing the old ways. Especially popular was MBS’s anti-corruption crackdown, in which 381 wealthy Saudis, including some prominent princes, were rounded up at the Ritz-Carlton here last November and required to pay about $100 billion in restitution before most were released.
“This is the beginning of justice. The prince is the same as any other citizen. That’s something!” said Rakan al-Dossery, 26, a counsellor at a local high school, of the anti-corruption drive. “The entire world is changing. It’s not a surprise for the kingdom to be changing,” said Abdul-Aziz al-Faraj, 29, a bank teller.
One young man named Moab said that in addition to his bank job, he has just opened a shop selling mobile-phone accessories, a business once dominated by Yemeni expatriates. Explained Faraj: “A while ago, the average Saudi wouldn’t think of starting a business. All he wanted was a government job.”
This is the door that seems to be opening in the kingdom — toward a more modern, more entrepreneurial, less-hidebound and more youth-oriented society. It’s a top-down, authoritarian process, for now. But it seems to be gaining momentum.