Tuesday 20 February 2018

Saudis gamble on change

Mohammad bin Salman must watch his step as he reforms the desert kingdom, writes Shona Murray

Oil is still power: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Oil is still power: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Shona Murray

They say change happens at the speed of trust. And before he has officially assumed control as king, the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman - known colloquially as MBS - has hitched his future to a considerable reform agenda.

He's asked Saudi Arabians to trust they'll all benefit from the changes he's making, through liberalising the oil-reliant economy and allowing society to move, albeit slowly, with the times.

Madeha al-Ajroush who led the first protests for women to drive in 1990. Photo: Axelle de Russé
Madeha al-Ajroush who led the first protests for women to drive in 1990. Photo: Axelle de Russé

There is an argument to be cynical and a case to welcome the changes he's headlined so far.

When Bashar al-Assad took over from his father Hafez as president of Syria he promised to grant greater freedoms and more openness. Disappointingly for hopeful Syrians, none was forthcoming.

And so in 2011, the Syrian uprising began. It was primarily about pushing the government to deal with income inequality, basic human rights and the justice system.

Perhaps the carnage today could have been avoided if Bashar al-Assad, who'd been living the good life in London with his wife Asma, had agreed that a small trade-off was quite easily attainable. Especially when his young, educated citizenry could see what they were missing out on.

In an interview with Vogue circa 2011, Asma had said she wanted to give Syria "brand-essence".

On the face of it, MBS's new social contract, officially titled 'Vision for 2030', recognises that among the 32 million Saudis, 70pc are younger than 30.

They are some of the most avid users of social media and recognise the contrasts between their lives and those of their peers living elsewhere.

There have long been calls to address social and economic inequalities in Saudi Arabia.

Now appears to be the right time, given that unemployment is 12pc and growing - unusually high for an oil-rich state.

But how does one make fundamental changes deemed fast enough for a frustrated population, credible to the outside world, and acceptable to a community that pursues some of the strictest interpretations of Islam?

Last September MBS issued a decree allowing women to drive.

It seemed like a minor concession motivated by the need to draw more women into economic activity at a time of sluggishness and rising poverty.

But to the Saudi women who've sacrificed their careers, suffered abuse and been imprisoned for their fight, it was a triumph.

The car is a "symbol for women to express their need for jobs, transportation, independence", said Madeha Al-Ajroush who led the first protests for women to drive in 1990.

"I was really scared when we decided to drive back then. There were 47 women with 14 cars. We drove in front of a supermarket that had a big parking lot and through to King Abdulaziz Street.

"We also decided to drive between prayers so we didn't face men coming back from the mosque. But we wanted to be caught by the police."

Afterwards, the group was castigated by most mosques. "They called us bad, evil women and prostitutes," says Al-Ajroush.

"Women who were working in schools were fired from their jobs; and to this day they can never get promoted.

"I was a photographer back then and the officials came and took all my negatives and burned them; it was 15 years' work.

"If burning my photography was the price I had to pay, then that was fine. I was grateful for that because I summoned up all my energy and went out and photographed again and again."

She had a supportive, "liberal" husband. "We were young and had the energy to fight the backlash."

She did it again in 2013. "I was detained and my name went in to Twitter. Immediately I lost my job as a consultant psychologist," she tells the Sunday Independent in her living room at her home in Riyadh.

Another chief social reform by the kingdom is the curtailment of the authority of the religious police or 'Hai'a', formally called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue.

For a long time they've had free rein to humiliate and punish any woman or man deemed to be acting 'un-Islamically'.

Their heavy-handedness has led to severe punishments like flogging and even death.

Execution is by be-heading in Saudi Arabia, and it conjures up the type of barbarity associated with groups like Isil. "The West has a fascination of how we execute people," says Al-Ajroush.

"Killing a human being is killing a human being, but Westerners are obsessed with the Saudi policy of cutting off heads, even though it's been proven once you cut off their heads there's no more pain; it's more ethical.

"I'm not in favour of cutting people's heads off, but the US does similar and worse," she adds, referring to America's capital punishment system which is frequently condemned as cruel and unnecessary.

The guardianship system remains in place, although it too has been dramatically diminished.

Guardianship "treats a woman as a child", says Al-Ajroush. "She can't leave the country, the house, can't work or even be operated on in times of emergency unless the guardian gives permission."

The first guardian is always the father, then the brother if the father passes away. "After that it is her husband but if her husband passes away, it will fall to her son," adds Al-Ajroush. "So you're talking about the child that she's raising, he could be her guardian at age 12.

"The contradiction was appalling. Women had to be prisoners in their own confinement. When the 'Vision for 2030' came in there was a strategy to eventually phase it out."

"It is slow, but for people who want to have a secular democracy what they don't understand is that they're asking for a war," says Saudi-born analyst Aimen Dean.

Saudi Arabia is a cross between "conservatives who are deeply religious and moderates who are moving towards the 21st Century at a fast pace, and tribalists who are fundamentalist under tribal convictions", he adds.

A sudden jolt toward democracy would bring the rise of "a federation of warring parties coming to power" which would divide the kingdom, he tells the Sunday Independent.

"Democracy is a culture; people need to be ready for it and Saudi Arabia is not ready.

"Anyone who is demanding democracy now is demanding civil war in Saudi Arabia."

Not to mention Saudi is suffering from a high percentage of young people associated with and supportive of groups like Isil and Al-Qa'ida and others.

The number of Saudis that left to fight with Isil is around 5,000, or 145 per million of the country's population.

"Making it so liberal so quickly could be counterproductive and put the security of the kingdom in jeopardy," adds Dean.

The reforms "are not a facade" but the crown prince has to tread carefully, he says.

Moreover, MBS's new agenda is not about promoting Western democracy. "We are modernising not Westernising," a senior minister tells the Sunday Independent. "The laws will be based on Islam; that is our religion."

Although in most Muslim-majority or Islamic countries women dress conservatively - either in a headscarf or a niqab (a full face covering with a slit for the eyes) - in Saudi Arabia it is mandatory for all women to wear an abaya, a long-sleeved flowing overdress that covers the ankles.

They must wear a headscarf too, although foreign women don't have to cover their heads. Nonetheless most women in Riyadh go a step further and cover their face; some in fact cover their eyes with a scarf as well, rendering them at a huge disadvantage with limited sight.

"Women are told that if you don't cover up you're basically going to hell," says Al-Ajroush.

"When a woman tells me 'it's my choice' I have a hard time dealing with it mainly because she was still told through the interpretation of religion what she needed to wear. And she believes it because I know she wants to be a good Muslim and she wants to go to heaven but these are the things she was told by a male interpretation."

However, in European countries like France that ban the niqab, she says this is not based on any support for the women in question but on "racism and oppression".

"The Muslim woman is attacked from everywhere," she says.

"You can't use the language that I use about women in Riyadh as the women in the West because they use Muslim women to prove a point about their own prejudices about Islam."

Government staff and ministers are genuinely immensely enthusiastic about Vision for 2030.

"We are sick of the West accusing us of treating people harshly and stereotyping Saudi Arabia," the senior government minister - who doesn't wish to be directly quoted - tells me from the top floor of his ministry.

"The women know how to drive already; they should have been allowed years ago but it wouldn't have happened without this great leader.

"We are opening theatres and letting people watch movies, it's really something. We are now going to fund some of these movies too.

"We want to unlock culture and art in Saudi Arabia, but the West won't see it for what it is.

"Look around, it's Thursday night, it's our weekend and we are sitting here planning how to implement all of these new measures.

"We are doing it for Saudis so that we can all take advantage of the country we have," he says sitting at his desk at 10pm with three senior staff, two of whom are women.

MBS is visiting London, Paris and Washington later this month. Undoubtedly he will be met with considerable protest over Saudi Arabia's role in the vicious onslaught against civilians in Yemen.

But behind closed doors the battle for post-Brexit financial services will be centre stage.

The UK in particular is eager to support MBS's 2030 vision, not least as part of it includes the flotation of the state oil company Aramco.

At a time when the City of London's position as the world leader in finance markets could be damaged, winning this flotation would bring a serious boon.

Sunday Independent

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