Saudi Arabia: A Closed Society or a Stronghold of Progress?

The question of Saudi Arabia’s future came to the fore after King Salman assumed power in Saudi Arabia in 2015 and his son Crown Prince Mohammad launched large-scale reforms in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has been closed to the world, and the international community knew very little about life there.

This major question can be split into a series of smaller but no less important questions, such as the nature and depth of Prince Mohammad’s reforms, the stability of power at the time of the change, as well as the risk these reforms might pose to the royal family the country is named after.

It is obvious to anyone who has lived in Saudi Arabia for at least several years (the author has worked there for seven years) that the reforms have never stopped there. The country started changing and moving forward long before Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became the king of Saudi Arabia.

However, it became clear by the end of King Abdullah’s rule that his tactic of slow and gradual reforms coordinated with the religious leadership had become less effective.

First, when Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder and the first monarch of the kingdom who ruled that succession to the throne be based on agnatic seniority under which the monarch’s younger brother was given precedence over the monarch’s own sons, died in 1953, his own children were either dead, or too old, not hungry for power or unwilling to shoulder the burden of ruling the country.

Second, the country itself had changed in the aftermath of the population explosion of the 1980s and 1990s. By 2010, when the so-called Arab Spring was already in the making, young people under 30 constituted 69 percent of the kingdom’s population, which numbered 20 million. Thanks to previous reforms, they received a good education (150,000 Saudis studied abroad under King Abdullah’s program) and logically expected to find skilled jobs.

Saudi society has changed dramatically over the past 15 to 20 years. Despite the strict public behavior rules imposed by Islam’s ultraconservatives, Salafism (also known as Wahhabism), including the ban on theaters, movie houses, entertainment centers and alcohol, large groups of the population have unlimited access to satellite television channels, the internet and mobile communication. Many restaurants that served world cuisines opened around the country in the early 2010s. Taken together, this started changing young Saudis’ attitudes even though they spent 70 percent of their school time studying the Quran and prayed five times a day. Moreover, the entry of foreigners was strictly regulated, and the majority of foreign visitors were the Muslims who came for Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca), or migrant workers under temporary contract. But the Saudis themselves were free to travel abroad, and hence they could get a clear view of the Western way of life.

The Arab revolutions of 2011-2015 have shown that the choice is between a social explosion and radical reform. This is why the royal family of Saudi Arabia has initiated radical reforms, which could be described as a king-led revolution that will affect everyone in the kingdom. Some politicians profess that the reforms will abate as soon as the struggle for power ends, but their predictions are unlikely to be realized because a comprehensive and radical renewal of the country is unavoidable.

In 2016, the young, ambitious and hardworking Crown Prince Mohammad proposed a plan for such renewal, Vision 2030. The plan has more challenging goals than getting rid of the country’s dependence on oil, diversifying revenues, creating new industries, and launching import substitution, privatization or new taxes. The plan is more challenging than industrialization and the construction of ultramodern and innovative cities. In fact, Vision 2030 is designed to reform all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, including society, culture and religion.

Actually, Saudi Arabia wants to become a modern 21st century country without abandoning its Islamic principles but by creating a new state and society that is free from the fetters of paternalism and obsolete dogmas, a society capable of stimulating millions of men and women to work, by offering them and by liberating them from the numerous limitations imposed on them by tradition and the accepted ways.

Nearly all analysts praise this ambitions program but wonder if it will work. Many young people seek jobs in state administration or banking, but only a few appear interested in working in heavy industry such as steel mills or auto assembly plants. The country’s bureaucratic corps is huge, partly corrupt and often incompetent. So, what encouraged King Salman and his young and energetic son, Mohammad, who is preparing to succeed his father, to launch Vision 2030?

It appears that they draw inspiration from the successful reforms in the United Arab Emirates, which has not lost Arab or Islamic identity on the way to the next century but have defeated backwardness and made their country one of the world’s most advanced countries without social upheaval and without renouncing the monarchy.

However, Saudi Arabia is much larger than the UAE, its population is not homogeneous, and its territory still lacks a coherent network of communications. The tribes of Saudi Arabia profess different forms of Islam (Saudi Arabia’s Shiites live predominantly in the Eastern Province), while the customs of many tribes in the southern provinces are similar to those of Yemen and the tribes living in the north are closer to the Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians, including in speech. But the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia has no option but to carry on with the reforms.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.