Projects of national reconstruction are always a costly affair whose path is laid with deep dilemmas and questions of existential importance. In the history of such grand projects of national reconstruction, the most fundamental element essential to throttle project through the people’s traditions and conservatism is the element of leadership and the vision guiding it. The more powerful and resonating with the zeitgeist this vision of national reconstruction is, the more it will have influence.
As it disturbs previous modes of behavior in economics, culture, and politics in society. It perturbs established institutions whose survival depends on the continuity of the prevalent norms, values, and traditions. Still, concurrently, this vision also has its own set of advocates and supporters, particularly in the young, exuberant youth in the population, therefore setting society toward a delicate polarizing trajectory.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one such nation undergoing a dramatic transformation in a period of great volatility and uncertainty. A nation which is highly sensitive regarding its traditions and values in economics, culture, and politics, KSA is setting itself up for a litmus test of how a nation with such deep, traditionally embedded notions of authority, hierarchy, economic production, and cultural values, is seeking to reconstruct itself in consonance with the changing times.
Behind the drive of modernization in Saudi Arabia is the guiding vision of its youthful, charismatic, but rash crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). Having his father as the King, the crown prince before attaining his position as heir-apparent led a concerted cutthroat effort, deploying cunning schemes, outsmart his competitors within the royal family and eventually achieve the position of the crown prince of KSA. In his position, he outlined Vision 2030 for the remarkable transformation of Saudi Arabia. At the core of the vision is the pursuit of shifting the dependency of the Kingdom from an oil-intensive economy to a more robust modern economy, preparing KSA for a future without oil as its primary currency in geopolitics.
Vision 2030 has in its inventory a whole range of a dynamic set of reforms for the Saudi society fundamentally to the nature of its economy and culture. It is the latter nature of the vision, which we shall discuss in this article. Since oil became the primary mode of economic activity in the Kingdom, KSA has been a pivotal player in geopolitics due to the quality of its oil and its geography. However, with the 1979 Iranian revolution, the wave of religious radicalism spread across the Middle East, forcing the hand of the Saudi state to deeply infuse religion with the way of life in the nation. It had a radical impact on Saudi society’s culture, ranging from women’s rights to education.
Following MBS ascend to the heir-apparent of the Saudi throne, the young prince is inclined to transform the Kingdom’s face and have modernity in culture take place in full velocity. To achieve this, MBS embarked upon a range of initiatives to entice Saudi society’s youthful population while ensuring the soft power it will give to him to deploy as a charm offensive in the western societies.
Within the Kingdom, MBS is upending long traditions in the Saudi state. Soon after ascending to the crown prince’s throne, he stripped religious police of its power to arrest police for ‘public indecency.’ The much-feared religious police are one of the key pillars in the Saudi state security apparatus to keep in check people’s political temperature and regulate their social conduct. They often dwell on moral policing of the people. The fear, thus, earned a strong distaste of them in the people’s minds. It was one of the primary actions in the long chain of actions that seeks to undermine religious institutions’ power to interfere in the state affairs.
Concurrently, to establish new norms and values for a modern economy, MBS also lifted the long-held ban of women driving, giving them mobility and freedom in an otherwise socially conservative society. Though, he is criticized for the dual nature of those freedoms when while he lifts the ban on women driving to prepare them for the new economy, MBS also arrests women rights activists seeking political liberties in KSA. Besides the women’s rights, Saudi reforms in the education sector, particularly concerning the curriculum, are proceeding in a cautionary manner. At this pace, it will take at least a decade or two to bring up a generation that is not rooted in the conservative values and norms of the Kingdom’s past.
However, two of the most visible MBS reforms are not in rights and education but also in the entertainment and criminal justice system. In the latter, the Saudi system recently shattered its continuity with the traditions as it announced in April 2020 that the internationally-controversial sentences of flogging and death penalty for the crimes which are committed by minors are to be abandoned. This reform is part of King Salman’s initiative for a broader judicial reform project in KSA.
In entertainment, MBS has been visibly popular with the youth for his forward-looking youth initiatives in opening up the country culturally. Restrictions on cinema, parks, and other associated leisure activities, particularly concerning the intermingling of the opposite genders, were all called off and new entertainment avenues are planned for Saudi youth’s leisure. In more recent times, Saudi Arabia held an open-air music concert called MDL Beast in which even electronic dance musician David Guetta appeared to a great reception. Saudis also attracted Korean pop music (K-pop) for a concert. Youth is so central to MBS initiatives that music concerts were held even in September 2020 in the post-COVID environment, all the while the clerical establishment has been strangely quiet over these dramatic, modernizing changes to the Saudi society. Such initiatives earned MBS mass popularity among the youth.
One of the most horrifying episodes in the modern political history of Saudi Arabia is the attack on the Grand Mosque in the late 90s. The attack was organized and led by a group of radicals within Saudi society who thought modernizing trends are not compatible with the religious values and traditions. Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of MBS, may be wary of such individuals and groups within the Kingdom who are very likely not satiated with the way things are going.
Under the guiding vision of 2030, KSA is radically changing in so many ways in a small matter of time that it confounds its advocates and detractors alike. This transformation from a socially conservative society to a modernizing one does have its own set of consequences. MBS leadership will matter significantly in how the Kingdom travel delicate balances among different actors in society without enraging anyone to the point of mass protest or group violence.