Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Prophet (pbuh), is regarded as the holiest place on earth and the center of Islam. Every year millions of Muslims from all over the world go on a pilgrimage to its holy cities, Mecca and Medina, where the holy mosque Al-Masjid al-Haram and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi are located respectively. Muslim people hold its glorious past, culture, tradition, its social norms and values in high esteem. Since the foundation of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 by Ibn Saud, who united the four regions into a single state, the country has been an absolute monarchy. The conservative Wahhabi religious movement within Sunni Islam has long been a most important feature of Saudi culture. Suddenly, the wave of reform had once shaken the nation when King Faisal, a former king of the country, attempted to modernize the country and reform its people’s lifestyle. During his regime, King Faisal installed television in 1965 for the first time ignoring all oppositions from conservative Saudis. But unfortunately, the reformer king’s attempt to modernize the country cost him dearly as he was assassinated by one of his nephews in 1975.
After more than four decades, the conservative kingdom is undergoing some social changes once again, as Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of king Salman, is trying to modernize his country since he was promoted to the post of Crown Prince by his father in June last year. Prince Mohammed declared that he would steer the kingdom away from the Wahhabi ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on which it was built. The prince has pledged to return Saudi Arabia to a form of “moderate” Islam, “open to the world and all religions”. The social reforms introduced by the crown prince ranges from uplifting women’s rights and allowing various forms of entertainment to revision of textbooks and fighting corruption and extremism. However, the recent changes and reforms in such a conservative country have not only astonished the people of the whole world but also heightened people’s expectations.
Saudi Arabia is trying to reform its public entertainment sources and open more areas for women through the government’s modernizing reforms. For instance- for the first time ever, the country has allowed its women to enter the sports stadiums to enjoy sports. Of late, the national stadium in the capital, Riyadh, has opened its gates for women to attend a soccer game. To prepare for the change, the kingdom has designated “family sections” in the stands for women. The stadiums have also been fitted with female restrooms and separate entrances and parking lots for female spectators. The move is Saudi Arabia’s first social reform planned for this year.
Saudi Arabia had some cinemas in the 1970s but its powerful clerics closed down them to reflect the rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time. Well, as a part of ambitious economic and social reforms envisioned by Crown Prince Salman, the government lifted the ban last year. Saudi Arabia's first cinema in over three decades opened on April 18 this year in Riyadh. Not only that, the country had signed an agreement with AMC to open nearly 40 cinema halls in about 15 Saudi Arabian cities over the next five years. The new cinema halls are even not going to be segregated by gender discrimination in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom. Saudi Arabia has a vision to establish around 350 cinema halls along with more than 2,500 screens by 2030, which are expected to attract nearly $1 billion in annual ticket sales. In addition, the new reform movement has a vision of allowing different forms of entertainment like music, dance etc. that were long banned. Thus it is hoped that the restoration of cinemas will help boost the local economy by increasing household spending on entertainment while supporting job creation in the Kingdom.
Moreover Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ordered that women will be allowed to drive cars for the first time in the kingdom, setting the decade-old ban on women’s driving to expire. The decision which will come into effect in the kingdom from June 24 this year has created quite a lot of stir among the people in the country and in the international media. The country has already started issuing driving licenses to the women. It is to mention here that until the present time, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that banned women from driving, albeit its ambitious government aimed at enhancing women’s public role, especially in the workforce. From now onwards, it is no longer mandatory for Saudi women to have a guardian in the car while driving, nor will they need to get permission from legal guardians to get a driver’s license. Well, it has been reported that a majority of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars had approved its permissibility while the move is bound to “apply and adhere to the necessary Shariah standards”. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, 32, is seen as the driving force behind the lifting of the ban.
Whereas the Crown Prince Mohammed is trying to open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles by easing strict social rules and promoting entertainment, it seems that his government is well aware of its negative aftermaths as well. Lately, for instance, Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet has approved a measure to criminalize sexual harassment. The legislation, which is awaiting a royal decree to turn into law, is the latest part of his reform movement that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated with a view to modernizing the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom. The anti-harassment measure introduces a penalty of up to five years imprisonment and a 300,000 riyals ($80,000) fine. The sole purpose of this legislation is to combat crime of harassment, prevent it and apply punishment against perpetrators. It aims at safeguarding the individual’s privacy, dignity and personal freedom, which are also guaranteed by Islamic law and regulations.
Meanwhile, the Saudi government approved a remarkable reform plan called "Vision 2030" in 2016, the ultimate goal of which was to diversify the Arab world’s largest economy away from oil exports. So the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wants to get international investors to invest in the country and, thereby, curb the country’s dependency on oil export. With regard to the fact that Saudi women are well educated but underemployed, increasing women’s participation in the workforce has also become a chief purpose of the Prince’s reform agenda.
Prince Mohammed believes that his social reforms will contribute to the country’s economic growth and moderate the extreme or conservative form of Islam, which will help promote stability throughout the Middle East. But many have questioned rationally - how shall a state associated with fundamentalism “moderate” the religion it promotes?
Well, in order to modernize a society, one has to challenge its established and traditional norms, values and rules, and shake its foundation. The Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman is trying to modernize his country, the Birth place of Islam. Therefore he is challenging the established norms, values and the rules of most conservative Islamic countries. Undoubtedly his purpose is to bring about positive changes to his country’s economy. Yet many people may question the credibility of such plan. However we have to wait to see whether the heroic Prince’s bold initiatives bear any positive fruit for the people or merely end in disintegrating the widely honored culture in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.