By Mohammed Wajihuddin
September 6, 2018
In his seminal work Inside the Kingdom,
British historian and biographer Robert Lacey records a tale that the sons of
Saudi monarch King Faisal (1904-1975) thought was probably apocryphal, yet they
relished relating. During the 1973 oil embargo, Henry Kissinger threatened
Faisal that America might stop consuming Saudi oil. ‘’In that case, we shall go
back to our tents and live on camels milk. But what will you do, Mr Kissinger,
without any gas for your cars?,” Lacey writes as Faisal telling Kissinger.
Decades later, Faisal’s nephew, Saudi
Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS as many in the media prefers
to call him) doesn’t need to turn to the quintessential desert symbols of
‘tents and camels’ to hammer home a stern message. Taking the kingdom as he is
off oil economy, powering it by resources generated from Haj, Umrah, solar
energy and investments, MBS is changing Saudi Arabia.
And it was evident during the
recently-concluded Haj pilgrimage (2018). Banking heavily on the 1 plus billion
global Muslim population’s growing piety and ability to pay for the expensive
pilgrimage, the young Crown Prince knows why there is no such a thing as free
lunch. “Nothing is free anymore here,” complains a Pakistani cabbie to me while
driving from the port city of Jeddah to Mecca, one of the two centres housing
Islam’s holiest shrines. Mecca and Medina together make Saudi Arabia the heart
of the Arab and the Islamic worlds.
someone who last visited Saudi Arabia a decade ago, I find it difficult to
recognise the Mecca I knew Sky-high towers turned into costly hotels dwarf
Mecca’s grand mosque and the cube-shaped Kaaba at the centre of the mosque’s
courtyard. Many affluent pilgrims occupying the comfortable rooms at these
plush hotels don’t need to jostle with the crowd below to find a foothold
inside the holy Haram; they pray at their hotel rooms unless of course, they
are performing Haj or Umrah.
The massive expansion to the Haram done in
the last few years means more space for the pilgrims whose number, despite the
cost of travel to and living in the holy city have gone skyrocketing, are
increasing by the day. This year around 3 million people performed Haj.
What is salutary in the MBS’s vision for
Saudi Arabia, called Vision 2030, is the emphasis it gives on changing the
image of the country from a conservative, puritanical Islam-propagating land
into a tolerant country. A crucial line that underscores MBS’s dream for his
country as envisioned in the Document reads: “Our vision is a tolerant country
with Islam as its Constitution and moderation as it method.”
Moderation is key to modernity and
progress. The application of moderation in the Saudi way of life was amply
demonstrated when this June Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving
vehicles in public. Though I didn’t see many women driving cars on Saudi roads
during my fortnight-long stay in the kingdom, the decision has been widely
acclaimed and has far-reaching consequences.
It empowers women and is a giant leap towards achieving gender equality
in a society where the law has been loaded against the women.
Another step that is putting Saudi Arabia
on the path of moderation is a negligible presence of Mutawwa or cops
who would impose morality in public. “Earlier, you would see women in public
fully covered from head to toe and they would not venture out without a male
companion. Now many don’t don face veil and are visible everywhere,” says a
cousin who works as a mechanic in Medina, the Prophet’s city. I accompany the
same cousin to a mall in Medina. Men and women, in separate queues, line up
outside the massive mall’s ground floor coffee shop. The women’s queue is
longer than the men’s. The same cousin
narrates how a decade or so ago one of his male colleagues was punished by a Mutawwa
because he was found travelling in a car with a female colleague.
The change can be easily seen at the shops
too. So, while looking for a vial of perfume at a duty-free shop at Jeddah
airport, I come across saleswomen demonstrating the brand’s “good” quality to
male customers with aplomb. Yes, she is in full hijab. So, what? A beginning
has been made. Women are no longer invisible from the public spaces and the
long-closed society is mercifully opening up.
Many may argue that the socially
reform-minded Crown Prince has also jailed some activists, including those who
fought for the rights of women in Saudi Arabia. And they also argue that this
January bin Salman put as many as 11 Saudis, including some cousins and a
billionaire businessman Alwaleed bin Talal, the richest man in the Middle East,
under house arrest at the luxurious Riyadh Ritz-Carlton on charges of
corruption. This anti-corruption purge also stems from a resolve the Crown
Prince makes in his Vision Document. “We will immediately adopt wide-ranging
transparency and accountability reforms and, through the body set up to measure
the performance of government agencies, hold them accountable for any
shortcomings,” reads the Vision Document.
Evidently, the 35-year-old Crown Prince is
a man in hurry. Age decidedly is on his side. But he is moving against a
mountain of odds and has made many enemies. And the enemies are more within
than without. His anti-Houthi adventure in Yemen is bleeding Saudi Arabia
But if Saudi Arabia withstood the storms
that the Arab Spring caused in its neighbourhood, credit must also to the House
of Saud which enjoys awe and respect among the civilians. Or are the citizens
too afraid to raise a voice against the House of Saud? The same House of Saud
concluded a pact in 1733 with Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the preacher whose dangerous
ideology would be known as Saudi-funded Wahhabism. The good thing is that bin
Salman acknowledges the mistakes the kingdom made in the past. In an interview
to the Washington Post in June this year, bin Salman admitted that Saudi Arabia
invested in mosques and madrasas overseas during the Cold War at the behest of
its Western Allies. He added that successive Saudi governments lost track of
the funding. And then he resolved: “we have to get it all back.” Not
surprisingly, the funding for the project of Wahhabism has almost dried up.
The House of Saud commands approval of the
Saudis also because of the way the royals conduct themselves. “There are
thousands of princes. But, unlike the sons of Saddam Hussein who were rumoured
to have kidnapped numerous women from the streets, one doesn’t hear Saudi
princes terrorising its citizens. That helps project it as a benevolent
kingdom,” explains Siraj Wahhab, a senior journalist at Jeddah-based Arab News.
The destiny’s child, Mohammed Bin Salman,
may change Saudi Arabia’s course of history.
A senior assistant editor with the Times of
India, Mohammed Wajihuddin writes about Muslims, their issues, hopes and
aspirations. Committed to upholding inclusiveness, communal amity and freedom
to dissent and debate, he endeavours to promote peaceful existence. A
passionate reader of Islam, he endeavours to save the faith from the clutches
of the jihadists.
DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are
the author's own.