By Nesrine Malik
25 October 2017
Something is definitely afoot in Saudi Arabia this time. For decades, the Saud ruling family has followed a policy of promise but never deliver. They make the right noises in an attempt to polish the country’s much-tarnished global image – and yet when it comes down to it, they rarely come up with the goods.
But perhaps this time is different. In an interview with the Guardian, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman made statements that would make even the most hardened cynic take note. He directly addressed “what happened”, saying that the Iranian revolution triggered copycat religious regimes across the region, and that now it was time to “get rid of it” in Saudi Arabia.
“We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. Seventy per cent of Saudis are younger than 30. Honestly, we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”
The crown prince is a masterful marketer, beloved of the western media. So familiar are journalists with him now that he is often referred to as MBS. He has presented himself as the pivot around which the country’s long-awaited transformation would take place. For a while, it seemed that he had become just that, an expectation – good fodder for those long, glossy state of the kingdom exposés but not much else.
But these recent comments, combined with the lifting of the ban on women driving – a move about which I was initially cynical but does appear to have been carried out – suggest that Prince Mohammed, and a number of the royal establishment whom he has managed to recruit, are serious. His public position is being echoed by senior figures: this is not a one-man initiative.
It is not only the apparent millennial sincerity of the young prince that is the driving force. Crucially, there is an economic underpinning to this as well. An era of low oil prices in an undiversified economy has taught the ruling family that the state’s general coffers can no longer sustain the current system. There is no better instinct than preservation to kill off old habits. The regime’s mistake in the past has always been to think only in terms of preserving its own power in the short term, extending generous subsidies to citizens and protecting itself from the wrath of the religious establishment by giving it extensive freedoms.
During the years I lived in the country in the late 1990s and 2000s, terrorist activity on Saudi soil was reaching its peak. It was always frustrating to see the religious police harass and intimidate the public, enforcing the strictest of religious laws while the government scrambled to combat the rise of extremism, failing to make or address the link between the two. But the hand of the powerful public order vigilantes who dragged men to prayer and yelled at women to cover their faces has been weakened since then.
Perhaps the most astonishing of the latest statements from the House of Saud was in reference to the boredom and inertia of Saudi youth, noting that the country’s hinterlands do not understand their asphyxiating effect. Prince Mohammed has always been big on social transformation, insisting that without striking a new deal between citizen and state, economic rehabilitation would fail.
“This is about giving kids a social life,” said a senior Saudi royal figure. “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 we are all doomed. Everyone knows that – except the people in small towns. But they will learn.”
Such a public suggestion of a schism between Saudis “in the small towns” and the ruling regime is unheard of. It indicates the government is beginning to get over its fear of alienating religious traditionalists in their old feud with the royal family and elite – who the hardliners see as under the influence of the corrupt, ungodly west.
Inevitably, there is still some denial at play. The history of extremism in Saudi Arabia does not start with the Iranian revolution. It was the result of a cynical use of religion that meant hardline clerics had a free hand to run everything from the school curriculum to public order laws. For the royal family, this appeased a religious establishment that, if alienated, could foment serious discord (such as the siege of Mecca by religious extremists in 1979); and it also helped to establish an authoritarianism that could not be questioned.
Yet there is still no honest reckoning over what lies at the heart of the Saudi malaise. It’s not anything as trite as a lack of democracy; it is the failure to confront the fact that expropriating religion for political purposes will always backfire. Things look promising, but only once that lesson is learned will there be real hope.
• Nesrine Malik is a writer who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia