By Mohammed Wajihuddin
September 6, 2018
In his seminal work Inside the Kingdom, British historian and biographer Robert Lacey records a tale that the sons of Saudi monarch King Faisal (1904-1975) thought was probably apocryphal, yet they relished relating. During the 1973 oil embargo, Henry Kissinger threatened Faisal that America might stop consuming Saudi oil. ‘’In that case, we shall go back to our tents and live on camels milk. But what will you do, Mr Kissinger, without any gas for your cars?,” Lacey writes as Faisal telling Kissinger.
Decades later, Faisal’s nephew, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS as many in the media prefers to call him) doesn’t need to turn to the quintessential desert symbols of ‘tents and camels’ to hammer home a stern message. Taking the kingdom as he is off oil economy, powering it by resources generated from Haj, Umrah, solar energy and investments, MBS is changing Saudi Arabia.
And it was evident during the recently-concluded Haj pilgrimage (2018). Banking heavily on the 1 plus billion global Muslim population’s growing piety and ability to pay for the expensive pilgrimage, the young Crown Prince knows why there is no such a thing as free lunch. “Nothing is free anymore here,” complains a Pakistani cabbie to me while driving from the port city of Jeddah to Mecca, one of the two centres housing Islam’s holiest shrines. Mecca and Medina together make Saudi Arabia the heart of the Arab and the Islamic worlds.
For someone who last visited Saudi Arabia a decade ago, I find it difficult to recognise the Mecca I knew Sky-high towers turned into costly hotels dwarf Mecca’s grand mosque and the cube-shaped Kaaba at the centre of the mosque’s courtyard. Many affluent pilgrims occupying the comfortable rooms at these plush hotels don’t need to jostle with the crowd below to find a foothold inside the holy Haram; they pray at their hotel rooms unless of course, they are performing Haj or Umrah.
The massive expansion to the Haram done in the last few years means more space for the pilgrims whose number, despite the cost of travel to and living in the holy city have gone skyrocketing, are increasing by the day. This year around 3 million people performed Haj.
What is salutary in the MBS’s vision for Saudi Arabia, called Vision 2030, is the emphasis it gives on changing the image of the country from a conservative, puritanical Islam-propagating land into a tolerant country. A crucial line that underscores MBS’s dream for his country as envisioned in the Document reads: “Our vision is a tolerant country with Islam as its Constitution and moderation as it method.”
Moderation is key to modernity and progress. The application of moderation in the Saudi way of life was amply demonstrated when this June Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving vehicles in public. Though I didn’t see many women driving cars on Saudi roads during my fortnight-long stay in the kingdom, the decision has been widely acclaimed and has far-reaching consequences. It empowers women and is a giant leap towards achieving gender equality in a society where the law has been loaded against the women.
Another step that is putting Saudi Arabia on the path of moderation is a negligible presence of Mutawwa or cops who would impose morality in public. “Earlier, you would see women in public fully covered from head to toe and they would not venture out without a male companion. Now many don’t don face veil and are visible everywhere,” says a cousin who works as a mechanic in Medina, the Prophet’s city. I accompany the same cousin to a mall in Medina. Men and women, in separate queues, line up outside the massive mall’s ground floor coffee shop. The women’s queue is longer than the men’s. The same cousin narrates how a decade or so ago one of his male colleagues was punished by a Mutawwa because he was found travelling in a car with a female colleague.
The change can be easily seen at the shops too. So, while looking for a vial of perfume at a duty-free shop at Jeddah airport, I come across saleswomen demonstrating the brand’s “good” quality to male customers with aplomb. Yes, she is in full hijab. So, what? A beginning has been made. Women are no longer invisible from the public spaces and the long-closed society is mercifully opening up.
Many may argue that the socially reform-minded Crown Prince has also jailed some activists, including those who fought for the rights of women in Saudi Arabia. And they also argue that this January bin Salman put as many as 11 Saudis, including some cousins and a billionaire businessman Alwaleed bin Talal, the richest man in the Middle East, under house arrest at the luxurious Riyadh Ritz-Carlton on charges of corruption. This anti-corruption purge also stems from a resolve the Crown Prince makes in his Vision Document. “We will immediately adopt wide-ranging transparency and accountability reforms and, through the body set up to measure the performance of government agencies, hold them accountable for any shortcomings,” reads the Vision Document.
Evidently, the 35-year-old Crown Prince is a man in hurry. Age decidedly is on his side. But he is moving against a mountain of odds and has made many enemies. And the enemies are more within than without. His anti-Houthi adventure in Yemen is bleeding Saudi Arabia economically.
But if Saudi Arabia withstood the storms that the Arab Spring caused in its neighbourhood, credit must also to the House of Saud which enjoys awe and respect among the civilians. Or are the citizens too afraid to raise a voice against the House of Saud? The same House of Saud concluded a pact in 1733 with Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the preacher whose dangerous ideology would be known as Saudi-funded Wahhabism. The good thing is that bin Salman acknowledges the mistakes the kingdom made in the past. In an interview to the Washington Post in June this year, bin Salman admitted that Saudi Arabia invested in mosques and madrasas overseas during the Cold War at the behest of its Western Allies. He added that successive Saudi governments lost track of the funding. And then he resolved: “we have to get it all back.” Not surprisingly, the funding for the project of Wahhabism has almost dried up.
The House of Saud commands approval of the Saudis also because of the way the royals conduct themselves. “There are thousands of princes. But, unlike the sons of Saddam Hussein who were rumoured to have kidnapped numerous women from the streets, one doesn’t hear Saudi princes terrorising its citizens. That helps project it as a benevolent kingdom,” explains Siraj Wahhab, a senior journalist at Jeddah-based Arab News.
The destiny’s child, Mohammed Bin Salman, may change Saudi Arabia’s course of history.
A senior assistant editor with the Times of India, Mohammed Wajihuddin writes about Muslims, their issues, hopes and aspirations. Committed to upholding inclusiveness, communal amity and freedom to dissent and debate, he endeavours to promote peaceful existence. A passionate reader of Islam, he endeavours to save the faith from the clutches of the jihadists.
DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are the author's own.