First News
Volume:7, Number:46
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Around The World 1

The Tensions of Change

Economic survival and the need for entertaining the citizens are straining the relations between Saudi rulers and clerics as a powerful prince is bent upon cultural reforms

| Muhtasim Billah |

A bid to shake-up the Saudi cultural scene has exposed strains in the ruling family's alliance with conservative clerics as a reformist and powerful prince works to diversify the economy away from oil and permit new freedoms among Saudis steeped in cleric-imposed puritanism. The entertainment events aimed at creating more jobs were allowed by deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, head of the royal court, defense minister, and son of King Salman.

The prince is addressing two important issues in Saudi life. One is economic survival and another is entertainment for Saudi citizens, who have been dependent for decades on welfare state benefits. The changes are also intended to capture up to a quarter of the USD20 billion currently spent overseas by Saudis, who are accustomed to travelling abroad to see shows and visit amusement parks in nearby tourist hub Dubai or further afield. But the price for the Al Saud and for a powerful business class that supports modernization and a greater role for women has been tensions with traditionalist clerics upon whose support the ruling family relies for its legitimacy.

The Wahhabi religious establishment has had a symbiotic relationship with the Al Saud dynasty since the mid-18th century, offering its rule Islamic legitimacy in return for influence over important chunks of the state such as education and the judiciary, and a network of mosques and universities. The clergy suspect bold initiatives conceived by the prince in leisure and tourism presage sweeping reforms in education, a bastion of conservatism where clerical control is believed by Western nations to have encouraged Islamist radicals - not just in Saudi Arabia but across the Muslim and Arab worlds. As a result, resistance to reforms like women's employment and the encouragement of teaching on technical subjects persists in many corners of Saudi Arabia, propelled by clerics with vast social media followings. Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, expected the "overwhelmingly powerful" Saudi state could drive its social and economic reforms through despite conservative unease, using the argument they were vital for economic survival.

Haykel suggested there was a risk that any future popular economic discontent might be manipulated or mobilized by disaffected religious conservatives or opponents of MbS, as the 31-year-old deputy crown prince, is known. But so far MbS, Middle East analysts say, has shown an ability to change course to head off any buildup of steam, citing a recent decision to restore financial allowances to civil servants cut last year under an austerity program. Historically, tensions have arisen between the Saudi royal family and the ultra-austere religious establishment. Throughout the modern history of the kingdom, clerics have objected to what they regard as corrupting, for example women's education and permission for them to drive. Clerics lost the battle to stop the introduction of television in the 1960s, and for years were hostile to satellite TV. But MbS can depend on his father King Salman, who is highly respected among conservative and senior cler-ics, to help him to implement his "Vision 2030" designed to prepare the kingdom's economy and its society for a future less dependent on oil.

On the ground in Saudi Arabia, reform and social change are tangible. Whereas Saudis once dined in silence, with music deemed offensive to conservative ears, restaurants around Riyadh now play jazz and lounge music. And radical economic reforms, announced last year to protect Saudi Arabia from low oil prices, have been successful so far, with spending cuts that have sharply shrunk a USD98 billion budget deficit, according to Mohammed bin Salman. MbS's most significant social change to date has been to strip the feared mutawa religious police of the power to arrest or question people, a major development in the state's relations with clerics, and which met no mobilized opposition. Insiders recount how MbS reminisces about what he sees as a more liberal, tolerant, and open-minded Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, which shut down in 1979 after the Iranian revolution and the seizure of the great mosque at Mecca by Islamist millenarian radicals. His aim, they say, is to try to restore that era. According to some polls most Saudis, a majority of whom are under 30 and widely connected to the world via social media, are hungry to catch up with a world that has been passing them by.

The kingdom had some cinemas in the 1970s but the clerics persuaded authorities to close them, reflecting rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time. Cinemas are still banned. While concerts started to be held this year, concerts and music in general are frowned on by clerics. But the most prominent members of the religious authority, including many who previously criticized the entertainment push, have been silent on the cinema issue. The Grand Mufti said in January that cinemas could open the door to "atheistic or rotten" foreign films and encourage the mixing of the sexes, but did not say anything more.

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