The crown prince is liberalising social norms and the economy, but clamping down on political dissent
SOURCE: THE ECONOMIST
YEAR AFTER YEAR Arwa Alneami’s pictures of women at an amusement park captured the obsessions of Saudi Arabia’s killjoy religious police. On “the ship”, a wild-swinging ride, black-clad women and white-robed men were made to sit at opposite ends. When they started throwing telephone numbers to each other, men and women had to take turns (pictured). The ship then sprouted opaque plastic sides to prevent men from looking at the women, and bright lights to dazzle the gawpers.
Then suddenly last year the mutawaeen disappeared. The Committee for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, to give them their formal title, no longer have the power to enforce public morality. These days the Saudi state is all about promoting fun: concerts, fashion, art, sport. The ratchet of social rules has gone into reverse. Along with the muezzin’s call to prayer the unfamiliar sound of laughter can be heard.
Ms Alneami’s pictures also capture the pathos, humour and defiance of women riding bumper-cars at funfairs, the closest most could come to driving real cars. But on June 24th they will, at last, be allowed to take the wheel on Saudi roads. The artist says she and her four sisters are torn. One thinks it is too dangerous to drive. Another will dispense with a driver and pick up her children from school herself. Ms Alneami and the others will be patient. She has driven in the desert but will wait until the rush of women applying for driving lessons slows and the cost falls.
Saudi women have a long way to go—they are still subject to legal guardianship by husbands or male relatives who must, for instance, give them permission to travel. But Saudi Arabia is becoming less exceptional. The quest for normality is part of a remarkable revolution; an attempt to refashion Saudi society away from ultra-strict Islamic codes and diversify its economy away from dependence on oil. The kingdom is the world’s biggest oil exporter and home to Islam’s two holiest places, so the success or failure of the reforms will affect the rest of the world, starting with the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), a regional body that also includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. As one Saudi official put it: “Where Saudi Arabia goes, the GCC follows. Where the GCC goes, the Arab world follows. Where the Arab world goes, the Muslim world follows.”
The country’s first new public cinema since 1979 opened in April to enthusiastic audiences in a never-opened metro station in Riyadh, designed by the late Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born architect. The initial screenings were of superhero spectaculars: “Black Panther” and “The Avengers: Infinity War”. But the most eye-popping aspect was the fact that men and women were allowed to sit together.
Saudis might think they are in a fantasy film of their own. The superhero is Muhammad bin Salman, the powerful crown prince, still just 32. “He has astonished people by breaking the rules of religious extremism and pushing for moderate Islam,” says Ms Alneami. Many people worry God will be angry because so much is haram (forbidden), she says. “Some ladies struggle to breathe when they talk about the changes. I tell them ‘You go to the cinema in Dubai. Is God only in Saudi Arabia and not in Dubai?’ ”
Most young Saudi men are delighted, too. A group of friends in their 20s, sitting at a coffee-shop in a mall, stand out in their T-shirts and baseball caps. A year ago, they say, the mutawaeen would not have let them in. “They treated us as though we might be wolves,” says Fahad. His friend, Ahmad, chips in: “Previously, minds were closed. Now they are open.” But, for some in this group, not so open as to allow their own sisters to work in mixed offices. As one put it: “Our families and tribes would ask us: ‘Are you not men?’ ”
Two years ago, when he set out his reforms, known as “Vision 2030”, Prince Muhammad’s focus was almost entirely on reviving the economy, as oil prices were dropping sharply. Women’s right to drive would be left for society to decide, he declared. These days, social habits are changing so fast that some wonder whether the prince is, in fact, pursuing a social and religious transformation under the guise of an economic one.
Unlike many of his peers, the crown prince has not been educated in the West. He sees himself as the champion of the young (under-30s form a majority of the population). His changes amount to a youth revolution directed from the top down, by a prince in his palace, rather than from the bottom up, by angry demonstrators on the streets. The GCC states mostly avoided the uprisings of the Arab spring in 2011, and the chaos that ensued (unrest was quelled in Bahrain). Gulf leaders have long known that they could not rely on oil forever, but feared change. The motto of the late King Abdullah was yawash, yawash (slowly, slowly). Prince Muhammad, by contrast, “is flying high and fast”, says Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a columnist. “I have not yet recovered from shock after shock after shock.”
Although he is seen as the superhero, the crown prince also has much of the villain about him. The country has become more authoritarian. Critics of all stripes have been jailed; several women’s-rights activists were arrested in May. The number of executions has risen sharply. Hundreds of princes, officials and businessmen were hauled into the Ritz-Carlton hotel last year and made to hand over part of their wealth in a surreal “anti-corruption campaign”. “We have the right to dance,” notes one Saudi businessman. “But we do not have the right to speak.”
Still, there is new energy in the Gulf. For Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the UAE, the Arab world is living what he calls “the Gulf moment”. The oil monarchies of the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf have moved to the centre of the Arab world. In an audio recording leaked in 2015, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and his advisers are heard to dismiss the monarchies as mere “half-states” with so much money that they treat it “like rice”. But for all of their contempt, Egyptian rulers have become mendicants at the feet of the kings, emirs and sultans of the Gulf. Never before have Gulf states wielded such power. “The smallest Gulf state has more influence than the biggest Arab state,” declares Mr Abdulla. The GCC accounts for about 60% of the Arab world’s GDP but only 12% of its population (or half that, excluding foreign workers). It produces 24% of the world’s crude oil. Dubai in the UAE has become a global city.
Riyadh is the centre of regional diplomacy. Donald Trump’s first trip as America’s president was to an Islamic-world summit hosted by King Salman. Gulf states have become even bigger buyers of weapons, and have been more willing to use them—most controversially in Yemen. Culture is blossoming, too. Gulf states have bought up much of the Arabic-language media, and launched several satellite-news channels, the most famous and controversial of which is Al Jazeera, based in Qatar. A branch of the Louvre museum is housed in a sumptuously latticed dome on Abu Dhabi’s seafront; and Doha boasts one of the finest museums of Islamic art. Some of the world’s best-known universities are establishing outposts in the region.
This special report will examine how Gulf monarchies achieved all this, and the consequences of their new prominence. In part, they stand tall because so many of the old bastions of Arab power have toppled. Cairo is stagnant after the uprising of 2011 that ejected Egypt’s strongman, Hosni Mubarak, and the coup of 2013 that brought another, Mr Sisi, to power. Damascus is contending with Syria’s appalling civil war. Baghdad is only just recovering from Iraq’s succession of conflicts. Beirut never regained its place after the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90.
Yet Gulf states can boast achievements of their own. In many countries there was poverty in living memory. “The water was yellow and my father used to filter it with his headscarf,” says Sara al-Amiri, a minister in the United Arab Emirates. Now the UAE is a model of success. According to the annual Arab Youth Survey, issued by ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations firm, the UAE is the country where 18- to 24-year-old Arabs would most like to live, ranking well ahead of countries such as America, Germany or Canada.
Yet there is much uncertainty. Social transformation requires Saudi Arabia, in particular, to grapple with Islamic ultra-puritanism. In abandoning its past caution, it has waded into an unwinnable war in Yemen and split the GCC in a feud with Qatar. It hopes America will do more to push back Iran. Above all, Gulf states have to overcome their dependence on volatile oil and coax their pampered people into productive work. They must do all this without a destabilising backlash.
Much will depend on the impulses of three headstrong young men: Muhammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia; Muhammad bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the real power of the UAE; and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, the emir of Qatar.These royals are less constrained by the traditions and obsessions of the past, notably the question of Palestine. Neither Qatar nor the UAE existed as independent states when Israel humiliated Arab armies in 1967. Given the fear of Iran, many Gulf leaders these days regard Israel as an ally rather than a foe.
Rich, ambitious, unconstrained by democratic institutions and too often untempered by experience, the three royals have the daring to lead their countries to a post-oil future, and to promote more moderate forms of Islam. But they also betray a rashness, especially in foreign policy, that could just as easily lead to the next round of chaos and war in the Arab world.