Over three years have passed since Mohammed bin Salman became the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The challenges he has faced throughout this time have been too colossal for a 35-year-old leader to accommodate. Yet the prince has sought to give the impression of a strong social reformer. Indeed, some of the changes he has introduced will significantly transform the public image of Saudi Arabia and global attitudes toward the kingdom, at least in the long term.
Where Is Mohammed bin Salman Taking the Saudi Kingdom?
Under Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has repealed a longstanding ban on women driving, allowed female singers to perform publicly, relaxed male guardianship laws on women, implemented employment discrimination protection and allowed women into sports stadiums. These are some of the most notable steps the crown prince has taken to socially liberalize a conservative country. Add to the list the curbing of the religious police’s powers and efforts to appeal to international tourists by introducing an e-visa system and you could say that Saudi Arabia is changing.
The crown prince has also faced his fair share of criticism. The assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Riyadh’s deadly and costly war in Yemen, a diplomatic spat with Qatar, deteriorating relations with Syria and tensions with rival Iran are only some of the issues that have caused critics to rail on Mohammed bin Salman.
MBS Is Popular in Saudi Arabia
Despite this, the future Saudi king has undoubtedly scored significant gains both domestically and internationally. MBS, as the crown prince is commonly known, is popular among young Saudis, and he has a favorable public image in the eyes of Western political and business elites.
In 2018, the Arab Youth Survey found that more than 90% of young people in Saudi Arabia between the ages of 18 and 24 endorse the crown prince’s leadership, believing that he is moving the country in the right direction. The Economist has dubbed the reforms spearheaded by MBS as a “social revolution,” and The New York Times has described the measures he introduced as “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring.”
What is important is that MBS has admitted that Saudi Arabia has enforced a rigid reading of Islam for a long period of time. This is reflected in the restricted level of civil liberties and social freedoms granted to its citizens over the years, as well as the stringency of Saudi Arabia’s bureaucratic and judicial processes. The prince thinks it’s time for a change.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2017, MBS said Saudi Arabia has been “not normal” for three decades. “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East,” he added. The prince promised that Saudi Arabia will be pivoting to “moderate Islam” in preparation for changing the kingdom for the better. He echoed the same sentiments in a 2018 interview with Time magazine: “We believe the practice today in a few countries, among them Saudi Arabia, is not the practice of Islam.”
And he was right. In a country labeled as the “most profoundly gender-segregated nation on Earth,” carrying the accolade of one of the most conservative cultures in the world, change was and is still needed. To abandon an unprogressive reading of Islam as a government-prescribed lifestyle is the first step.
MBS has embraced those changes and introduced reforms that are meaningful and important in a troubled region riddled with conflict and the absence of democracy. It was only on April 24 that Saudi Arabia’s supreme court announced it had abolished flogging as a form of punishment, which will be replaced by imprisonment or fines. Moreover, the kingdom has rescinded the death penalty for juvenile offenders and minors who commit serious crimes, and the maximum sentence that can be handed down to them is a 10-year prison term.
Saudi Arabia is still far from becoming a democratic state. However, the prince’s boldness in busting dogmas that were so entrenched in Saudi society that they couldn’t even be debated publicly should serve as an example for other Muslim countries that continue to curtail their citizens’ civil liberties and human rights. Iran, another religiously conservative nation, is a case in point.
Meanwhile, in Iran…
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional rivals and have barely maintained cordial relations in recent decades. In denominational terms, they are on the two extremes of the spectrum. Iran is a Shia-majority nation at the helm of which is a Shia jurist who is the ultimate authority on all matters. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-majority country founded on the puritanical doctrine of Wahhabism — an ultraconservative branch of Islam — that is deeply at odds with Shia Islam.
Yet the two rivals are socially similar. In Iran, like Saudi Arabia, a conservative interpretation of Islam is practiced. Public celebrations that are not based on religion are rare. Some degree of male guardianship is enforced. For example, women need the consent of a male relative to apply for a passport. Iran’s compulsory hijab rules are highly strict, and religious police penalize non-Islamic, non-pious public behavior, including drinking and eating during Ramadan and dressing styles that violate governmental edicts. Foreign visitors are also subject to restrictions, including being required to follow the mandatory Islamic dress code of the state. Other than a few occasions since 1979, female spectators have not been allowed into sports stadiums. And the list goes on.
Although the revolutionary zeal of the early 1980s has subsided and civil liberties have grown to some extent, Iran is still a conservative country, and the government sees the orthodox enactment of Islamic decrees as its top priority.
Characterized by tens of executions per year, a strict dress code for women and constant intrusion into people’s lives, Iran has not yet woken up to the threat of extremism pitting the public against the ruling elite and tarnishing its global image. The Islamic Republic’s religious and political authorities have not been willing to adjust their reading of Islam with life in the 21st century.
This is particularly troubling because, in Iran, daily life is closely tied to religion and how it is construed. As Iranian leaders stringently proselytize the idea that Islam and politics cannot be separated, an “Islamic” prefix or suffix accompanies the name of most public bodies, the school curriculum has religious undertones and 80% of state TV programs have religious motifs.
What Iran Can Learn
Iran needs reform. To survive and thrive in a globalized world, attract foreign investment, put an end to decades of hostility with the US and the West, draw international visitors to nourish its tourism sector, decrease its debilitating reliance on oil revenues and diversify its economy, Iran must take bold steps and opt for change. Opening up to the world and reducing restrictions on social and political freedoms of its citizens are essentials that will help the country come out from the cold and have warm relations with the international community.
Saudi Arabia’s reform bonanza on social life is perhaps the benchmark that Iran can build on to implement reforms of its own. Saudi Arabia is a member of the G20. This shows its economic prosperity and global standing. Iran is not short of resources for it to be in a similar situation. What it lacks is the courage to accept that it needs change. When Iran makes that admission, there will be better days for its citizens.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.