Saudi Arabia’s shifting religious policy: why you should care


There was a time – the early 2000s to be exact – when the fact that the only country the State of Qatar shared a land border with was Saudi Arabia, was a cause for amusement not consternation. Although the tiny peninsular nation could not compare – yet – to the lavish spread that life in Dubai could be described as being, the residents of Qatar were reminded every time they crossed the Saudi-Qatar border that they were living in an oasis in the middle of the desert. Our land rovers and Mitsubishi Pajeros would park a kilometre or two from the checkpoint and the men would get out while the women changed into their burkhas. Unless you were white, in which case you could dispense of such formalities. For thirty minutes or so we would check our vehicle top to bottom for any pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses that might mistakenly have found their way into our baggage. Even CDs of devotional songs were dangerous. Saudi Arabia had strict rules regarding the proliferation of ‘foreign’ religions and even visitors on transit were not exempt from the rules concerning the smuggling of religious materials.

Once we were across the border, we could look forward to an hour’s ride to the border of the United Arab Emirates. In that hour we would be greeted by signs at regular intervals warning visitors that non-Muslims were banned from Mecca and that if we were found on the road to that holy city without a valid excuse we would be prosecuted. Every now and then we could expect to be overtaken by SUVs well over the speed limit, loud Arab folk music shrieking out of their open sun roofs. Finally, just as my mother would begin to complain about having to wear a burkha on top of the heavy layers of her sari we would see the UAE border check post come into view – our bizarre mini-adventure had come to an end. We were back in civilisation, where women could drive and flogging was kept to a bare minimum.

The USA’s discovery of how to make shale oil drilling efficient will perhaps be regarded by historians of the future as the turning point for women’s rights in the Arab world

Saudi Arabia has always been a country of extremes. Aramco – the world’s most valuable company –is based here, but at the same time the rule of law is practically non-existent for most immigrants especially those from South Asia. Riyadh – its capital – is a city of stunning skyscrapers that rival those in the West but it contains parks where bachelors are not allowed to enter. There are private company enclaves in places like Jubail filled with foreigners where women can usually wear what they want and mingle freely with the men, while closer to the main population areas the strict guardianship laws would put them in trouble for the same. There was even a time when the religious police – the Mutawas – could put a man behind bars for chewing gum in the day during the month of Ramadan but thankfully their powers have been greatly curtailed recently.

But perhaps what is most insidious about Saudi Arabia is its soft power. This is a quality that is not felt much in the West where the problem is quite the opposite – it is Islamophobia that is the issue here. But in many areas of South and South-East Asia, Saudi Arabia is the trend-setter for Islam. Ever since the 1950s, when starving Keralites crossed the Arabian Sea to find jobs in the Gulf, they have brought back with them new ideas of what Islam entails. The moderate version of Islam indigenous to the area was slowly replaced by the Wahhabist version of the prophet’s doctrine. Suddenly, Hindus and Christians were ‘kaffirs’ or infidels. A ‘Muslim League’ – modelled on the Muslim Brotherhoods found in many Middle-Eastern countries – was set up, and went on to win major elections. There was also a tendency to conflate speaking in Arabic and being a true Muslim. Basically, as the most successful of the Islamic nations – not to mention the caretakers of Mecca – Saudi Arabia had earned the power, in the minds of many South and South-East Asians, to decide the direction that Islam would take.

There was a time when Prince Mohammad’s liberal policies and ideas of cultural revolution was considered a fringe element in Saudi Arabia’s political landscape

It is in the light of this powerful position that Saudi Arabia holds that the true impact of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promise to change the country’s culture to one of ‘moderate Islam’ can be gauged. The easy manner in which he issued his statement in an interview with the Guardian recently, belies the difficult nature of the enterprise he proposes to embark upon. It does not take a Nobel Prize winning economist to tell you what is currently wrong with Saudi Arabia. Despite being among the richest countries in the world the country’s economy is geared solely towards the extraction of its mineral resources. The human development index may be high, but that statistic tells us nothing about the anaemic nature of the entrepreneurial culture in the country. Coupled with an inefficient and overbearing regulatory system and a close to nil recognition of substantive civil and political rights, Saudi Arabia is one of the worst places in the world to try and start a business in. Another significant deterrent is the fact that it is close to impossible to register a company of your own in Saudi Arabia if you don’t happen to be a citizen – permanent residence is not enough. But citizenship is similarly impossible to get and is closely linked to conceptions of race. One does not become an Arab just because he or she happens to be born in Saudi Arabia – hence one does not become a citizen by birth. So enterprising businessmen from other parts of the globe find themselves having to enter into partnerships with local citizens many of whom know nothing about running a business. Every South Asian in the Middle East knows at least one story of a man swindled by his business partner who then had to spend years in jail because of a breach of contract. Basically, the development of a marketplace of ideas is essential to encourage entrepreneurship in any country but it is difficult to form one when an oppressive religious culture censors most ideas. That is precisely what Prince Mohammad is endeavouring to change.

But what’s interesting is that there was a time when Prince Mohammad’s liberal policies and ideas of cultural revolution was considered a fringe element in Saudi Arabia’s political landscape. The House of Saud has always had liberal members educated abroad who subscribe to Western ideologies and dress up for Ascot. But there was a clear distinction between what the House of Saud could do and what the general public – always under the watchful gaze of the Wahhabist maulvis and other religious clerics – could do. But Prince Mohammad aimed to destroy this distinction. It was only in 2015, when oil prices suddenly fell dramatically, that his fringe policies gained support. The political elite realised that in a word where the OPEC could not single-handedly determine global oil prices, Saudi Arabia was less immune to external changes. No longer could they implement increasingly authoritarian laws and remain unconcerned by any potential global backlash. In this brave new world, they would need alternate sources of income for which foreign investment is necessary. And for foreign investment, a certain degree of pandering to the global community and its values is a prerequisite. In a nutshell, the USA’s discovery of how to make shale oil drilling efficient will perhaps be regarded by historians of the future as the turning point for women’s rights in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia has always been a relatively unique country filled with contradictions. But it has also always wielded an almost disproportionate say over not only the world economy through the price of oil, but also world politics through its claim on being the protectors of Islam. The latter is a claim that was challenged when the Islamic Revolution in Iran 30 years ago put the Ayotollah in power which explains not only the country’s political rivalry with Iran but also why it took a decisively radical turn around that time – affecting global perceptions of what Islam should be like. But the incentives are different this time around. The global economy has never been more connected and with the OPEC a shadow of its previous self, the softening of Saudi Arabia’s internal policies may just usher in an Islamic renaissance.


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