In June the circus came to town. Nothing remarkable, you might think, except that the town was Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where until two years ago all forms of entertainment were banned. The previous week, the head of the General Entertainment Authority—sometimes called the Ministry of Fun—had been fired because a female performer in another circus had worn a tight-fitting, flesh-colored outfit that had sparked protests on Twitter (75 percent of Saudis use social media, about the same as Americans). The mutaween—the religious police—had carefully vetted the circus I attended, and the ankle-length black leggings and sparkly long sleeves of the lady with the dancing Dalmatians had passed muster, as had the body-hugging dark costumes worn by a group of androgynous flamenco-style dancers.
It was a particular joy to be in the audience, watching the delight of both children and adults, oohing and aahing at the tightrope walkers and convulsing with laughter at an act involving a large poodle leaping in and out of a garbage can. In the intermission I canvassed opinion. It was a few days after women had been permitted to drive legally for the first time, and spectators understood that this was about more than the right to go to the Big Top. “I hope that everybody benefits from change while respecting our religion first of all,” said a woman whose face was covered by a niqab, sitting with her husband and three kids who were munching popcorn. “It’s a big change here, with women driving and everything,” said a knowing ten-year-old girl. “I can’t believe I’m in Saudi Arabia!”
For middle-class urban Saudis the social changes brought in by King Salman and his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, generally known as MBS, are significant. A movie theater has been built where men and women may sit together—the first film shown was Black Panther, which proved very popular. Women have been permitted to attend sporting events, albeit in single-sex areas, but the most important decree, introduced in 2016, may have been the one curtailing the powers of the mutaween. No longer can the men tasked with “promoting virtue and preventing vice” arrest women on the streets and whip them for failing to cover themselves adequately. Their job must be carried out “in a gentle and humane way.” Robbed of the powers they used to exert with such arbitrary cruelty, they have melted away.
Jamal Beshri, a musician, told me how in the old days he feared walking on the street carrying his guitar, in case the mutaween or random zealots attacked him and broke it. “We would gather and play a jam session but not in public,” he said. “When I put my guitar in the car, I would try to make sure no one could see me.” Beshri has started a music company and is building a state-of-the-art recording studio to replace the makeshift one where we met. His friends strummed in the background as we talked. His dream of promoting Saudi musicians with their own takes on jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, and Saudi traditional songs may yet be realized. He knows he has the support of the authorities. “Give us three years,” he said, his voice rising with enthusiasm. “We have so much talent here!”
It would, however, be a mistake to assume that social change presages a political opening. In fact, those who question the authorities run an even greater risk of arbitrary arrest than before. In August, the Canadian foreign minister tweeted out a call for the release of civil society activists who had just been detained. She mentioned in particular Samar Badawi, the sister of the jailed blogger Raif Badawi. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, is a Canadian citizen. The Saudi response was extreme: the Canadian ambassador was expelled, bilateral trade frozen, and all Saudi students instructed to leave Canada without delay. As if trying to prove that they would ignore such criticism, two weeks later, prosecutors called for the death penalty for five imprisoned human rights campaigners, including, unusually, a woman: Israa al-Ghomgham, a Shi’a activist from the east of the country. Such repression causes a problem for Western governments like Britain, which would like to take advantage of new economic opportunities in Saudi Arabia without having to answer difficult questions from human rights campaigners.
A decade ago, James Mann’s The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression (2007) examined how Western politicians and businesspeople “foster an elaborate set of illusions about China, centered on the belief that commerce will lead inevitably to political change and democracy.” China’s continuing economic expansion coupled with its repression of those who challenge Communist Party rule has provided an object lesson to other governments: it is perfectly possible to allow certain changes that improve your citizens’ lives without letting loose pesky “Western” ideas like civil rights and free elections. In Saudi Arabia, change is designed precisely to curtail political upheaval or a demand for democracy. After the Arab Spring, which saw youth uprisings across the Middle East, King Salman understood that he had to do something for the two thirds of the population who are under thirty. Vision 2030, the ambitious economic and social plan designed by his thirty-three-year-old son, is designed to do just that.
In Salman’s Legacy, a series of academics examine the meaning and impact of the new policies, looking at the function of the state, regional and foreign policy, economics, and religion. As with all essay collections, the quality varies, but the range highlights just how many aspects of Saudi society are in transition—although it’s hard to predict to what, exactly. Change is happening at an extraordinary rate. The chapter about the mystique of the monarchy by the volume’s editor, Madawi Al-Rasheed, comes to an abrupt end because the publisher’s deadline was upon her before she knew what happened to the eleven senior princes and dozens of ministers and businessmen who were detained in the gilded prison of Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in November 2017, allegedly for corruption and seemingly on the orders of MBS. (Most were eventually released after paying undisclosed millions of their fortunes to the Saudi state coffers. Some may face trial.)
I use words like “allegedly,” “seemingly,” and “may” because I don’t really know anything beyond the basic facts, nor, frankly, does anyone else. “The mystical monarch pushes citizens to turn to rumours to anticipate the future and decode the quasi-magical awe of royalty,” writes Al-Rasheed. “All this adds to the mystique and power of the Saudi monarch and enhances conspicuous submission.”
Her chapter is primarily about the succession—the king promoted MBS from deputy crown prince to crown prince in a palace coup, putting many royal noses out of joint—but she points out that rumors, often spread by social media, are a prime source of information in a kingdom where journalists are more like praise-singers than investigators. According to Al-Rasheed, political discussions always start with a yaqulun, an anonymous saying, which gets parsed and spread. Dissidents use satirical poetry and mocking video clips, and there are rumors about rumors—Could this possibly have originated with Prince X who is rumored to be unhappy about being sidelined to make way for Prince Y? As a result it is very hard to know how firm MBS’s grip on power is; contacts I met suggested that he has about six months to consolidate his social changes before conservatives or rival royals push back, but their analysis was, of course, based on rumor.
One concrete change that the whole world has noticed is the decree allowing Saudi women to drive. No other country on earth still barred women from driving, and no other issue, including mass executions, has attracted more negative attention to the kingdom. When it was announced that the ban would be lifted on June 24, Western PR consultants—which the government retains in large numbers at great expense—encouraged the Ministry of Information to invite foreign journalists for what they like to call “a good news story.”
Imagine, then, their distress when, less than six weeks before the lifting of the ban, a group of women’s rights activists was arrested. One of them, Aisha al-Manae, who had taken part in the first women’s driving protest back in 1990, was seventy years old. More arrests followed, while a few women were released. On the day itself, pictures of happy women driving off, brandishing their licenses to the camera, were broadcast around the world, while reporters struggled to explain why the women who had campaigned for twenty-eight years for this very moment were behind bars.
By the logic of a Saudi Arabia rather than a China fantasy, however, there is no contradiction. MBS knows that if the kingdom is to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil, women must become more productive, so they need to drive and not waste their earnings on a driver. He wanted everyone to understand that women were being allowed to drive not because they had campaigned for it, but because their rulers had issued a decree. The point was clear: civil disobedience will not bring results; changes will come only from submission to a benign monarch who will decide what is best.
While the arrest of civil society activists has garnered a lot of Western attention, less notice has been paid to the clerics who have been silenced or imprisoned, mainly because they tend to be ones who have previously advocated curbing human rights and frequently promoted jihadism. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State always opposed the House of Saud, but the roots of their ideology are found in the schools and mosques of Saudi Arabia. One reason that Western governments hold back on criticizing MBS is that he has ordered a reform of the educational curriculum and curbed the power of radical clerics.
Adil al-Kalbani, a former imam at the Mecca Grand Mosque and one of a few conservative clerics who still speaks publicly, chooses his words with care. “Definitely there is a little tension and the state faces some risk,” he told me, sitting in his cavernous library. “It’s like a war between old ways and new ideas. If they’re going to finish what they started, it would probably be better if certain people remained silent for a while.” He did not define who “certain people” were, but the implication was that his fellow clerics needed to understand that they could not fight the tide of reform, so it was better to swim with it, at least for the moment.
I would have liked to talk to Dr. Ali Badahdah, a teacher of Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, who told me in an interview in 2006 that it would be a bad idea for women to drive because “it will lead to adultery and kidnap.” It was, however, not possible, as he was among a group of conservative clerics, some of whom had become very popular on social media, who were arrested last September after failing to endorse the crown prince’s social reform agenda. No reason for the arrests has been given, but MBS sees threats from both those agitating for more freedom and those who resent any change from the restrictive interpretation of Islam that has characterized Saudi Arabia in the past.
Manal al-Sharif avoided the latest round of arrests by moving to Australia: as she explains in her memoir Daring to Drive, she spent nine days in prison in 2011 for doing just that. Her account of herself as a radical Islamist teenager is in some ways more interesting than the now familiar tale of defiantly taking the wheel. Brought up in a poor family in Mecca and attending a school where 60 percent of the lessons were devoted to religion, she became obsessed with the idea that she not only had to be the purest of the pure but convince others as well.
“This story is in no way unique to me,” she writes. “It’s the story of an entire generation brainwashed with extremist discourse and hate speech, an entire generation who grew up being imprisoned, first by the constraints of our society and its religious leaders, and then by our own actions—by our own thoughts and minds.” After she betrayed her sister, Muna, by informing her father about a secret relationship Muna was conducting with a boy, he not only beat Muna but cut the telephone line, banned visitors, and allowed the girls and their brother to leave the house only to go to school (even then they had to be accompanied by him or their mother).
Eventually, al-Sharif persuaded her mother that she needed the Internet to do her homework, so contact with the outside world was restored. “I began reading articles and postings that criticised extremist Salafi ideology,” she writes. “Gradually I realized that the ideas I had embraced and defended blindly all my life represented a singular, and highly radical, point of view. I began to question everything.” By the time she graduated from university and went to work for Saudi Aramco, al-Sharif was a feminist, and in 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring, she decided to challenge the driving ban by driving in the city of Dammam.
In her chapter in Salman’s Legacy, Nora Doaiji dates “the start of the Saudi feminist movement beyond the state” to al-Sharif’s release from prison. According to her analysis, Saudi women realized that they would never achieve the right to drive, let alone any relaxation in the guardianship system that defines women as minors, through “patriarchal bargaining with the state.” The Women2Drive and Right2Dignity activists insisted that the state was accountable and that the driving ban could no longer be justified by vague statements saying the time was not right because there was no “societal consensus.” Their single-issue campaign merged into a wider movement demanding the right to protest and freedom for imprisoned human rights campaigners.
However, by the end of 2014, some women had changed their position. Doaiji quotes a female journalist, Haifa al-Zahrani, who had previously been involved in the women’s driving movement: “The best feminist efforts are in accordance with government laws and the worst is thinking they can force the government by outside organizations to grant their wishes,” she says. This approach was fueled by nationalism, expressed by support for the war in Yemen. Saudi forces intervened in Yemen in 2015, when MBS was defense minister. Shortly afterward, breaking new ground for female Saudi journalists, al-Zahrani covered the war from the front line. She posed in military fatigues in a tank and argued that “she did not want to be ‘treated as a girl.’” Feminism was no longer a way of countering state authority, but of “fulfilling a duty to the nation.”
The war in Yemen has provided many such opportunities for the state to co-opt and neutralize both modernizers and traditionalists. It is not the first time Saudi Arabia has intervened in its impoverished neighbor, but now there is an added sectarian dimension: the Houthis, who seized control of the capital, Sanaa, in early 2015 were to some extent sponsored by Shia Iran, the regional rival to Sunni Saudi Arabia. “This new military interventionism immediately became popular among many Saudi constituences, from Islamists to liberals,” writes Al-Rasheed. “By amplifying the undoubtedly genuine Iranian threat, the Saudi regime invoked both nationalism and sectarianism.”
Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s, feminist or human rights campaigners might be accused of betraying their religion, now they’re accused of betraying their country. Instead of labeling the detained campaigners “apostates” or “heretics,” news websites have published their pictures with the word “traitor” across their faces. They have been accused of being “agents of embassies,” meaning people who take their cue not from the Saudi government but from foreigners.
Saudi Arabia has curbed the Islamist organizations that used to build mosques and spread Salafist teachings around the world in favor of a new regional assertiveness. The crown prince, writes Al-Rasheed, “is currently struggling to make Saudi Arabia a serious regional power on a par with Turkey, Iran, and Israel.” In this he has the support of President Trump, who visited Riyadh on his first official overseas trip after being elected. Previous US governments also backed—and armed—the Saudis, but European diplomats, who would rather see a balance of power in the region, fear the combination of a young, ambitious crown prince and a belligerent US president with no understanding of history or regional dynamics and a determination to crush the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A recent UN report suggested that Saudi Arabia, along with other parties to the conflict, might be guilty of war crimes in Yemen. The Saudis, it suggested, failed to consult their own “no strike” list, and frequently killed civilians. (The report held back from naming Britain and the US, which supply many of the aircraft and weapons used.) Some 18,000 airstrikes in the past three years have hit civilian infrastructure including hospitals and markets, and “certainly contributed to Yemen’s dire economic and humanitarian situation.” Other UN reports suggest that eight million Yemenis are at risk of starvation, largely because Saudi Arabia and its allies have obstructed aid getting into ports.
Such is the animosity toward Iran that the Saudis have warmed to Israel, which also sees the Islamic Republic as its main enemy. President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is said to have a good relationship with both MBS and Benjamin Netanyahu: the US decision to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral agreement that curbed Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, was forged in Riyadh and Jerusalem as much as in Washington. The Saudi king and crown prince have also picked a quarrel with Qatar, backed the Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, supported Islamist (although not ISIS) rebels in Syria, and tried to force the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister. “King Salman and his son have proved to be reckless,” writes Al-Rasheed. “Their foreign policy is based on a single doctrine: establishing the supremacy of Saudi Arabia in order to make it the sole arbiter of Arab affairs and the main point of entry for all international powers into the region.”
For now, the domestic and foreign policy ambitions of MBS continue unchecked because, although he has alienated the traditional power brokers—the clergy, the business elite, and the quarrelsome royal factions—he is wildly popular among Saudis under thirty. No longer do young Saudis feel that they live in a backward country or a backwater compared to other Gulf States. But their continued enthusiasm is dependent on the economy delivering jobs and prosperity. In his chapter on the Saudi state in the age of austerity, Steffen Hertog points out that employment has previously been regarded as a form of welfare, and it will be hard to convert Saudis from jobs as largely idle bureaucrats in meaningless government positions into productive private-sector workers. (He quotes a Saudi minister saying that the average government bureaucrat works one hour a day). The structural obstacles are immense. “While the Saudi private sector has built real capacities since the 1970s, it mostly caters to a domestic market that relies on state-generated demand, and has developed production models that rely on state protection and state-provided subsidies,” he writes.
The air in Riyadh is choked with dust from the construction of a new subway and dozens of skyscrapers. The aim is to create a skyline like Dubai’s, but the danger is that many towers will lie empty if the ambitious plan to diversify the economy falters for lack of foreign investment. The Dubai parallel is limited because the Saudi royal family, as guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, cannot allow what religious Saudis regard as the debauchery of the United Arab Emirates. The guardianship of Islam’s most holy sites remains essential to the Saudi sense of self. A group of grumpy old men I met at a livestock market just outside the capital told me that they could go along with newfangled ideas like movie theaters, but anything involving “alcohol and fornication” would be beyond the pale. It is no secret that some of the more than a million Saudis who visit Dubai annually indulge the pleasures of the flesh, but what happens in Dubai stays in Dubai and is regarded as entirely different from what is permitted at home.
No historical parallel is exact, but the crown prince might study another royal ruler who tried to modernize a conservative Islamic country: the Shah of Iran. Backed by the West and supported by a cosmopolitan urban middle class, he tried to decree a change in people’s way of thinking and became ever more repressive as he enforced his will. The Islamic Revolution that swept him away in 1979 was initially progressive, bringing together Communists and other leftist forces before they were crushed by the reactionary forces of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Success for MBS would presumably mean ascending to the throne of a more powerful and prosperous kingdom, his internal and external rivals having been subdued. There is no timeline for this: his father is eighty-three, though—rumor has it—he might not hang on until death but step down to allow his son to accede to the throne sooner rather than later. For the moment the young crown prince is on course, but he may yet find that he cannot impose his will indefinitely through a program of bread and circuses.
—September 13, 2018