A Kingdom in Flux Amid Social Reform

 /  March 1, 2018, 8:18 p.m.


Yarra_MBS

For decades, Saudi Arabia’s law and society have been defined by highly conservative clerics, sheikhs, and religious police. But since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) in 2015, social and religious reform has started to take form in the kingdom. In part of his attempts to centralize power, MBS is pushing the kingdom towards a more open and modern version of Islam, one that is a stark contrast to Wahhabism.


Wahhabism was founded by Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century and stresses the absolute sovereignty of God. al-Wahhab rejected any intermediaries between a Muslim and God, and viewed Shia’s as non-Muslims. In 1925, Wahhabists seized Mecca, but allowed all Muslims to perform their rights during the Hajj.

The modern state of Saudi was formed in 1930 by Abdulaziz Al Saud, of whom all princes and princesses of Saudi Arabia are descendants. In the 1970s, Saudi charities supported by petroleum and other export firms began to fund Wahhabi schools and mosques around the world, which led to the spread of the strict form of Islam. Wahhabism demands strict adherence to the Qur'an, and states that those who do not practice Wahhabism are heathens and enemies.

In 1979, dozens of insurgents seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud. The Grand Mosque is one of Islam’s holiest mosques and was a battleground for two weeks until the insurgents were either killed or captured, and subsequently beheaded. A few months earlier, the Iranian revolution resulted in a referendum and Iran declared itself an Islamic Republic. Both of these events paved the way for King Khaled, the king at the time, to implement a stricter form of Islamic law. Critics and analysts say that the rigidity in Wahhabism led to misinterpretations and distortions of Islam, and the rise of extremists such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In July 2013, the European Parliament in Strasbourg classified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism. Additionally, the US State Department has estimated that, over the past four decades, the kingdom has invested more than $10 billion into charities that spread Wahhabism.

Ahmed El Shamsy, an Associate Professor of Islamic Thought in the college, explains that the beginning of Wahhabism was similar to other religious reform movements that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries. “Wahhabism was different in arguing that the various popular religious practices that they rejected actually placed their practitioners outside the fold of Islam,” El Shamsy said. “This tendency for takfir/anathematizing other Muslims was characteristic of Wahhabism, and is still characteristic of its radical offspring today.”

The stricter adherence to Islamic law in the kingdom gave Islamic clerics considerable power over law-making within the government. This helped shape society and social norms, with the strict separation of men and women in public spaces enforced by a heavy-handed religious police unit. The religious police, officially called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (and commonly referred to as the Hai’a), was formed in 1940 and has been criticised for excess force for many years. The religious police prohibit the sale of alcohol and tobacco, the closure of shops during prayer times, and the segregation of the sexes in public. Much of the stricter implementation of Islamic law manifests itself in social customs and mentalities, ones that specifically surround how women are viewed and treated in society. Strict enforcement of rules regarding women’s clothing in public is carried out by the religious police. While out in public, women in Saudi Arabia must wear the abaya, a long black robe, accompanied by a hijab, niqab, or burqa. Women who do not do so are frequently reprimanded by the religious police. In 2017 a video of a woman walking through a Saudi city wearing a miniskirt and t-shirt went viral on social media, and the woman in the video was subsequently detained.

In 2005, the Hai’a refused to allow girls to escape a burning building because they were ‘inappropriately dressed’, which resulted in the death of fifteen girls. More recently, in 2012, a woman recorded herself refusing to leave a shopping mall and telling the Hai’a that it was none of their business that she was wearing nail polish. Incidents like these have stirred up discontent with the power and role of the Hai’a, especially among the very large youth population in the kingdom. MBS’s decision to curtail their power, therefore, has been described by some as playing to a younger, more liberal Saudi Arabia.

The mindset that of women’s position has manifested itself most notably through the formal guardianship program. The guardianship program requires every woman to have a formal guardian, whether he be a father, husband, brother, or son. Consent from the male guardian is required for a multitude of things, ranging from travel, marriage, access to healthcare, renting an apartment, and even court filings. The impact of the guardianship program on women varies depending on the relationship and good will of the guardian. Regardless, the guardianship programme is one that human rights organisations and activists are continuing to fight against and call for its removal.


A variety of social changes have occured in the kingdom over the past few years that stand in stark contrast to the social norms that have governed the kingdom for decades. Part of the most recent social reforms that have occurred in the kingdom have been ones to limit the powers of the the once feared Hai’a. Previously, the Hai’a were able to arrest and detain citizens who do not act in accordance with Islamic law regarding morality and piety. In 2016 the kingdom announced that the religious police would no longer be able to detain and arrest people, and instead were required to report violations to the civil police. Additionally, they are now only allowed to work during office hours, which will curb their ability to pursue civilians who they suspect are not adhering to Islamic law.

Another shift towards creating a more open society is the decision to lift the driving ban on women, scheduled to happen in June 2018. The kingdom announced in September 2017 that women will now be allowed to drive. Despite guardianship laws, women will be able to obtain driver’s license without the consent of any male guardian.

This shift is a long time coming. Protests against the driving ban first started in 1990, when forty-seven women drove around Riyadh, the kingdom’s capital. The women were subsequently arrested, many lost their jobs because of it, and there was social uproar at the protest. Many Saudi officials and clerics have attempted to explain the purpose of the ban in a variety of ways. Some have claimed that it is inappropriate for women to drive and that men would not know how to deal with women driving next to them. Others have claimed that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity in Saudi culture, and some have claimed that driving harms women’s ovaries. For years, rights activists and women campaigners have advocated for the ban to be lifted. Many of them, such as Loujain Hathloul, have been detained for defying the ban as a form of protest. Hathloul attempted to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia in 2014, and was subsequently detained for seventy-three days for doing so.

As expected, activists, both within the kingdom and internationally, have celebrated the removal of the ban. Since the announcement, car advertisements targeting Saudi women have been launched, as have plans for the creation of a driving school at a women’s university. However, whether the new policy will face any resistance domestically remains to be seen. Prince Khalid Bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the US and a son of the King, says that Saudi society is ready. But many top clerics, who are paid by the government, are very conservative and have reinforced the ban for years.

Social reform push intensified in October 2017 when the kingdom announced that women would now be allowed to enter sports stadiums. A soccer match in early January 2018 marked the first time that women were allowed to attend a soccer match with men. The Saudi government also announced that the stadiums will include separate cafes and prayer rooms for women. In addition to allowing women into stadiums, the government lifted a thirty-five-year-old ban on cinemas. The ban was implemented in the 1980s as a way to minimise mixing of men and women in public, as well as a way to discourage public entertainment.


As part of his Vision 2030 plan, MBS plans to move Saudi Arabia away from an oil-dependent economy, to develop public service sectors, and to open the kingdom up. The recent social changes in Saudi, and the multitude of them in a short time frame, have taken many, both domestically and internationally, by surprise. At a recent conference in Riyadh, MBS said that the kingdom needs a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.” In attempting to do so, MBS is relaxing social norms within the kingdom, and in doing so has promised to return the kingdom to “what we were before —a country of moderate Islam that is tolerant of all religions and to the world.”

Paul Poast, an associate professor of International Relations in the college, anticipates the recent social reforms will impact Saudi foreign policy. “I have heard from some individuals involved in foreign policy that a line commonly used against Saudi Arabia is ‘well, what do you expect from a country that doesn’t even let women drive,’” Poast said. “Obviously that’s no longer the case. It might seem small, but such actions will help Saudi diplomats have more credibility when negotiating with Western powers.”

In late February, the kingdom announced an investment of $64 billion into the development of its entertainment industry over the next ten years. The General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced an unprecedented number of cultural events for the 2018 calendar year, with more than five thousand live entertainment and cultural events are scheduled to take place in the coming calendar year, which are targeted to all ages and demographics of Saudi society. This increase in entertainment and cultural events is also part of the Vision 2030 and its goal to create greater contributions to the kingdom’s GDP through sectors other than oil.

Most recently, a top Saudi cleric—Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq—said that women should dress modestly, but should not be required to wear an abaya. “More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” the Sheikh said. “So we should not force people to wear abayas.” It is reported that he is the first cleric to say statements like these, and because of his position, it could be the basis for the formation of future law. As it stands currently, women must wear an abaya while in public. However, the way in which she does has started to change in recent years, with some women choosing to wear coloured abayas, or ones that are open in the front and reveal a long skirt or jeans. Whether any change in laws regarding the abaya happens remains to be seen, but if recent events are any indicator of where Saudi is heading, it seems like the country could possibly follow the Sheikh’s declaration.

It is not clear yet what long term impact the recent social reforms will have within the kingdom, and what kind of impact this will have on foreign affairs. However, it is clear that despite the recent reforms, human rights activists are still continuing to push for further social and religious change within the kingdom. Whether the recent social reforms, and any potential future ones, will contribute to making the kingdom a more moderate and tolerant one, like MBS hopes, remains to be seen.

The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons, the original image can be found here. Yarra Elmasry is a Senior Writer with The Gate; views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Gate.


Yarra Elmasry

Yarra Elmasry is second year prospective Political Science major and Near Eastern Language and Civilizations minor, interested in international relations, psychology, and photojournalism. Over the summer she interned at the Independent in London. On campus, she is part of the marketing team for the Major Activities Board, a photographer and designer for the culinary magazine Bite, and a member of the competitive club tennis team.


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