Saudi Arabia is set to witness the biggest image reset in modern times as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prioritizes diversifying the oil-reliant economy.
In a pursuit to liberalize and appear ‘less-intimidating’, the economic reforms in Saudi Arabia will soon take precedence over religion. The attempt began with the government ordering the mosques to limit the usage and volume of loudspeakers.
While the move faced a severe online backlash, the authorities are unlikely to budge in their new reforms. Aziz Alghashian, a politics lecturer at the University of Essex, in a statement to AFP, said, “The country is re-establishing its foundations.”
“It’s becoming an economically driven country that is investing substantial effort in trying to appear more appealing — or less intimidating — to investors and tourists,” he added.
Reforms proposed by Saudi Arabia
The ongoing transformations are directed towards diversifying the economy, reducing unemployment and increasing women’s participation in the workforce, raising government effectiveness, and increasing non-oil government revenue.
One of the most significant changes brought in was before the rise of Prince Mohammed, when Saudi Arabia got away with its once-feared religious police, who chased people out of malls sending them to pray and reprimanded the ones seen mingling with the opposite sex.
Additionally, some shops and restaurants now remain open during the five daily Muslim prayers which was once an unthinkable act. In sync with the government reforms, preachers now support the decision of allowing women to drive, the reopening of cinemas and outreach to Jews- the same resolutions they once opposed.
The current government is also revising school textbooks to scrap the well-known references referring to non-Muslims as “swines” and “apes”.
While the ban to practice non-Muslim religions remains in the kingdom, the government advisor Ali Shihabi has now announced that allowing a church was on “the to-do list of the leadership”.
Multiple sources including a Gulf-based diplomat quoted Saudi officials discussing in closed-door meetings that a blanket ban on alcohol will gradually be lifted. However, authorities have publicly ruled this out.
“Saudi Arabia entering a post-Wahhabi era”
Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told AFP, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Saudi Arabia has entered a post-Wahhabi era, though the exact religious contours of the state are still in flux.”
“Religion no longer has veto power over the economy, social life and foreign policy,” he added.
Prince Mohammed- the champion of ‘moderate Islam’
In a vow to initiate a crackdown on radical clerics, Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia has positioned himself as a champion of “moderate” Islam. In 2017, the crown prince had announced that 70% of the Saudi population was under 30 and that they wanted a “life in which our religion translates to tolerance”.
Promising to “eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon”, the crown prince in 2016 had unveiled a wide-ranging plan to bring social and economic change to the oil-dependent kingdom known as Vision 2030. Ending the ban on women drivers and investing in the entertainment sector was on the cards since 2017.
Diplomats and locals resist the liberalization
Saudi Arabia is home to the holiest Muslim sites and the practice of Wahhabism triggered generations of global extremists and left the oil-rich kingdom steeped in conservatism. The recent ban on loudspeakers led to an intense online campaign with the hashtag “We demand the return of mosque speakers.”
On the other hand, diplomats feel betrayed as it appears that Saudi Arabia is turning its back on global Muslims weakening the country’s image as the leader of the Islamic world. “In the past, its foreign policy was driven by the Islamic doctrine that Muslims are like one body — when one limb suffers the whole body responds to it,” remarked a Gulf-based diplomat.