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Is a shift to a more moderate form of Islam possible for Saudi Arabia?

Will success in parts of the Vision 2030's agenda –like diversifying the economy– have a parallel  opening up to religious moderation?

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in a recent Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Chairs Cabinet's Session [Saudi Press Agency]

▲ King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in a recent Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Chairs Cabinet's Session [Saudi Press Agency]

ANALYSIS / Marina García Reina

Since King Salman first envisioned the need of a reform of Saudi Arabia towards a less dependent economy on petroleum, gradual changes have been done upon the aim of progress, and, in a more precise way, not to be left behind in the world race led by western countries and the booming Asian giants. The crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud has positioned himself as the leader of the shift towards a religiously moderate Saudi Arabia within the frame of the Vision 2030 initiative. Predictably, however, the reforms held in the country have been subject to numerous criticism and double readings.

A succinct contextualization

It is convenient to recall the year 1979, when Shiite militants overthrew the secular Shah of Iran and Sunni fundamentalists besieged the Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque) in Mecca. That same year, the country's Shiite minority started a revolt in Al-Hasa province, resulting in numerous deaths. The Saudi monarchy responded to those mishaps by moving closer to the Wahhabi (an extremely conservative conception of Islam) religious establishment and restoring many of its hardline stances. As a result, for instance, the government shut down the few cinemas that existed in the kingdom. It was not till 2015 (or 2014, depending on which reforms to base on) when King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud —along with Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as MBS), who he promoted to crown prince—, proclaimed reforms in Saudi Arabia towards a more moderate political scenario, opening up a new era of Saudi politics. The two expressed their will to limit the authority of the religious police to arrest citizens. They allowed the first cinemas and music concerts since decades of prohibitions, condemned religious incitement, and gradually granted women several rights.

Vision 2030

First conceived by King Salman, Vision 2030 is meant to be the decisive plan to transform the country by a sweep in economy and society, and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman himself has positioned as its spearhead. It is basically the headline upon which all the modernization changes are framed. The plan aims to face the three major challenges that Saudi Arabia has nowadays: unemployment, diversification, and privatization.

It is worth mentioning that in contrast to the great majority of western countries, Saudi Arabia has a growing youthful population. Approximately, 70% of Saudi population is under 30 and the 29% of Saudis between 16 and 29 are unemployed. Vision 2030 includes greater investments in education to train future Saudi leaders, which seems quite unnecessary when noticing that Saudi citizens pay no taxes and receive free education (making up 25% of the total budget), free health care and subsidies for most utilities.

Economy is something that has been worrying most Saudis, since the country’s economy is almost entirely based on petroleum and recently the price of a barrel of oil has ranged between about $46 and $64 in 2019, much lower that what it has ranked for years. Diversifying the economy is crucial for the progress of Saudi Arabia. All in all, Vision 2030 will rely on earnings coming from the Aramco’s IPO (initial public offering), which will be placed in a sovereign wealth fund  —also sourced by Saudi fiscal assets and the sale of state-owned real estate and other government assets—, expectedly resulting into an investment-driven economy rather than a petroleum-based one as it has been for decades. It has also cast serious doubts the nature of the measures that are being developing to modernize the country, especially because the social aspects have been left apart by, for instance, the construction of Neom, a planned futuristic city in the middle of the desert, which is meant to be the great achievement of the crown prince MBS.

Additionally, the initiative has been configured as the political rebirth of the crown prince in the eyes of the international sphere, since it means diminishing the role of government by selling Aramco’s 5% of shares to investors, even so, the enterprise still is under tight control of the royal family. Without going any further, Khaled Al-Falih, the chairman of Aramco, is also the new minister of Energy, Industry, and Natural Resources, which once again brings to light the relation between these two.

The stated target is to increase the private sector’s contribution to GDP from 40% today to 65% by 2030. Much of this private sector growth will come through public-private partnerships, as said before, high-positioned Saudis will have been direct or indirectly pressured to invest in the IPO. The Saudi government has been criticized on several occasions for being corrupted and showing a lack of transparency over its acts. In this area, Vision 2030 hopes to ensure the law and the obligation of honestly reporting every business activities. Under proposal of MBS a follow-up department, headed by a ministerial rank official, has been set up to follow the implementation by government ministries of projects that have been approved.

Anti-terrorist positioning and extremist ideologies

Mohammed bin Salman has severely expressed his aim of not only dealing with extremist ideologies, but also of destroying them. As part of this determination, some clerics, which are meant to form part of the extremist ideology that the leader seems to condemn, have been targeted.

Nevertheless, organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have demonstrated that these presumed extremist clerics have long records of advocating the type of reform and religious moderation MBS asserts to support. For instance, in September 2017, numerous clerics, journalists and scholars known for their reluctance to MBS policy, which they consider as half-measured and not going straight to the point, were arrested by Saudi security forces. On the other hand, certain state clerics continue unpunished despite publicly criticizing the reforms and inciting hatred against the Shia minority. In particular, two members of the Council of Senior Scholars —the highest religious body in the country, whose role is to advise the King on religious matters by issuing fatwas (judicial advice provided by a religious specialist)— have been in the spotlight for years. These are Saleh al-Fawzan and Samm leh al-Lohaidan, both close to bin Salman. These two scholars are owners of broadcasting channels funded and promoted by the Saudi government from which they divulge their ultra-conservative view of Islam and condemn with the death penalty whatever they consider as violations of religious and moral rules contrary to Islam. An example of such are the declarations made saying that Shiites are not Muslims or that Muslims are not allowed to protest or even publicly criticize rulers as this would lead to rebellion that would in turn justify rulers’ violent response, like those held in 2017.

Together with these personalities, there are others who also hold high-rank positions in the country’s politics and government. Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, for example, is the grand mufti (muslim religious who has the authority to interpret Sharia) of Saudi Arabia. In that capacity, he has issued numerous fatwas and statements preaching the virtues of obedience to existing authorities and submitting to their policies without question. This, once again, raises the question of whether or not Saudi Arabia is actually cleansing extremist ideologies. Some, as Abdullah Almalki —a religious academic—, argue that the sovereignty and free choice of the people must have precedence over any desire to implement Sharia and that justice and free choice must be the pillars of any political community.

Almalki’s father, Salman Alodah, like himself, advocates religious tolerance against calls of jihad in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, calling for a democratic change, supporting the empowerment of women, fighting against discrimination, and respecting the religious minorities who are marginalized in the Kingdom. Both Almalki and Alodah were also arrested in the 2017 detentions and referred the following year to court for a secret trial —something that has become common when the accused are moderate voices, feminists and intellectuals—, facing death penalty for their extra-progressive views. Besides these cases, probably the best known one was that of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

In contrast to some of these powerful men characterized by their severe religious stances, the Saudi society as a whole holds a somewhat more nuanced view of Islam and does not completely identify with them. On this, it is worth recalling the attack on the Shia mosques carried out by Daesh in May 2015. The event was followed by mass funerals in the Saudi streets, which exposed the unity of the Saudi people above sectarian lines.

Al Qaida was apparently eradicated from the country and, as a result of that, it moved its operations to Yemen, where Saudi Arabia’s military force together partnered with the UAE —with limited US support, it must be said— and the Yemeni government forces have been doing efforts to combat it, achieving, for instance, the liberation of Mukalla. Specifically, Saudi Arabia blames the failing states of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen as the reason why Al Qaida has not yet been definitively eradicated.

The Iraqi government broke down after the US invasion in 2003, which led to a sectarian  and corrupt government. In Syria, Bashar al Assad led the military uprising and breakdown of authority, providing al Qaida refuge, although he continuously expressed he was combating terrorists, actually al Qaida freely operated in both sides of the border. Saudi Arabia claims that further efforts must be made to remove Assad as an essential part of the battle against terrorism in the region. It also advocates efforts at the international level to stop with the use by terrorists of pro-Palestine propaganda to recruit young members.  

Aramco and the oil crisis

Petroleum prices have dropped considerably in recent years, exacerbating the need of a side Saudi economy which does not revolve around oil. This has become a rough task, taking into account that the petroleum sector employs around the 70% of the population in Saudi Arabia. Aramco’s IPO, which promises to sell shares to investors, has become the center of the Vision 2030 initiative for Mohammed bin Salman.

The reasons behind the IPO are two: money —Saudi Arabia needs greater money inputs in order to accomplish the reform plans and finance the war in Yemen— and the political rehabilitation of the crown prince (MBS) under the consent of the international sphere, portraying, in a way, that the IPO may not be motivated that much because of an economic interest (which of course it is) but more deeply because of a political benefit of claiming that Saudis are opened to the world by selling part of Aramco to foreigners.

The tremendous expectation raised around the IPO can be interpreted as a way of starting attention of the incidents of 2017 and Khashoggi’s murder mentioned before. Aramco’s initial public offering, which started this last December in Tadawul (Saudi Arabia’s domestic stock market), went resoundingly bad after the US attack in Bagdad resulting in the death of the Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani as well as the Iraqi-Iranian deputy chief of the armed organization Popular Mobilization Committee. Shares of the State petroleum company have dropped in a 1.7%. However, in spite of this event, Aramco’s IPO went reasonably well and the company managed to be valued in $2 billion, which is not surprising considering that the Saudi government has actively encouraged Saudis to invest, meaning that there are investors (people within the orbit of the royal court and big business) who have no choice in the matter because their livelihoods and stature are dependent on proving they support Mohammed bin Salman’s program and retail investors who will invest because of all the hoopla and nationalist sentiment whipped up around the offering.

Women and the guardianship rule

Undoubtedly, changes have been done within the Saudi State to overcome the lack of involvement of women in everyday life. As an example of it, the permission to drive automobiles extended to women has found a significant echo globally. Women make up half of the population in Saudi Arabia. As part of the Saudi transformation of its economy plan, there is a need beyond the sole fact of integrating women in society, namely that of integrating this half of the Saudi population into the labor force.

Women conform nowadays just the 7% of the work force. After the implementation of the Vision 2030 plan, the number is expected to rise up to a 30% by that year. Following a worldwide tendency, more women than men graduate from universities in all disciplines. Furthermore, thanks to efforts attributed to the crown prince and to King Abdullah before him, women can be members of the Consultative Assembly since 2014. Currently, they occupy 20% of its seats. In September 2011, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote, a right they exercised in 2015 for the first time.

Further changes have been done within the country in favor of integrating women, which have gone unnoticed by the public eye. Princess Reema bin Bandar al Saud is an example of that. As president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sport, she has developed different initiatives, together with other ministries, to promote women; for instance, by creating football leagues. Moreover, opening women access to the armed forces has also been a huge step forward considering the impact in the shift of gender perspective. It cannot be omitted that Saudi Arabia has been for decades an extremely conservative country and that what may be seen as basic things for westerners in the 21st century, supposes a top-down reform within their principles, especially considering that they are being introduced in a considerably short time.

Conclusion

Saudi Arabia is facing —and will face in the following years— great challenges to redirect the country’s economy into one less dependent on oil, and to reeducate a youth that has been raised up with almost everything being granted by the government. Finally, there is also the challenge of making bin Salman’s vision more translatable to the western public, which, as said, see the reforms with some skepticism, notwithstanding official energetic and ambitious proclamations. As a summary, society, diversification of economy and governance and bylaws are crucial for the Saudi progress. What is true is that, regardless the reticence of westerners, MBS has gained huge support among his compatriots and is thought to be the reformer he repeatedly self-proclaims to be. This may lead us, Westerners, to consider whether an Islamic conception of renovation of Islam in appliance to govern is similar, and if so, to which extent, to our own conception of it.