By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
03 July 2018
Much has been said about the reforms undertaken by Saudi Prince and de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). Some have hailed him as the harbinger of a new Saudi Arabia which is rapidly modernising under his influence. However, the pace of change is too slow and appears cosmetic. If MBS is really serious about modernizing Saudi Arabia, then he should start with some fundamental changes. Let us see what are these reforms which have been subject of much debate globally and within the Muslim world in particular.
The reforms have to do with a certain loosening of cultural norms within the absurdly conservative nation defined by a peculiar interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism. As the first visible marker of conservatism has to do with women, the relaxation of that conservatism and the inauguration of so called liberalism also start with women’s question. Thus almost all the reformist measures announced by MBS has directly or indirectly to do with women. Allowing cinema was the first move by MBS but then there is very little that we know till now about the status of this creative enterprise in the kingdom. Does the reform only confine itself to screening Hollywood mindless movies which can safely be consumed by the pampered Saudis or does the reform also entail that average Saudis will be able to make and produce their own movies? Since cinema and other cultural art forms are deeply political by nature, does it also mean that a cinematic critique of Saudi establishment will be tolerated by the Prince and that the creative exercise will not be subject to severe censure or even threats to life and liberty? So far we have not heard about the nature of cinema which is being screened in Saudi Arabia. If the idea is that it is just for mind-numbing consumption, then we are not talking about real reforms at all.
Similarly, the kingdom announcement with great fanfare the organization of a fashion show- a first in Saudi Arabia. What actually happened was not just the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia but possibly the entire world: robots were paraded down the aisle instead of real models in this so called fashion show. A very warped understanding of honour and sexuality saw to it that women and creative directors were not allowed to do what comes naturally to them by being situated in the fashion industry. While the world laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea of robots walking down the ramp, some became suspicious, and rightly so, of the real intentions of MBS.
This trust deficit which the Prince has earned can be better understood through the lifting of the ban on women’s driving. Saudi Arabia again became a spectacle of sorts when women (in 2018!) where ‘allowed’ to drive legally on the streets. There were scenes of jubilation with women and their families posting images of driving, something very routine in other parts of the world. But one might stop and ask: how real is this change? True, it will bring some relief to women who can now go to work without the aid of a driver. But then, the Saudi system of male guardianship would still require that women are still subject to the rule of men. From opening bank accounts to getting passports and travelling to another country, Saudi women still have to seek the consent of a male guardian. This in itself is extremely humiliating and actually debars women in in this country from exercising their human rights. It is ridiculous that in this day and age, women have to seek permission from their husbands, fathers or even their sons for mundane things. What makes the situation ludicrous is that women outnumber men (although they constitute only 15% of the organised labour force) when it comes to accessing higher education in Saudi Arabia. And yet despite being more educated, she is considered the property of men and kept under their suzerainty.
Those who are celebrating the ‘permission’ granted to women to drive on their own must understand that this is just that: permission. In other words, it got effected through the ‘will’ of the King and must be understood in its proper context as a ‘gift’ from the monarchy. And herein lies the problem with those who are equating this reform with liberalism and democracy. The essence of democracy is the belief that all citizens have certain inalienable rights. Freedom of movement, criticism and free expression is fundamental part of democracy and liberalism. So while we are celebrating that women have been allowed to drive, let us not forget that this was a demand which women activists made decades ago. When we mention the supposed liberalism of the MBS, let us not forget that there are women still behind bars for making those demands. That MBS decided not to free them despite international pressure only tells us that despite the media hype around him, he remains a despot and a dictator.
Despots demand obedience, they cannot face criticism. Any critique of the system is understood as a personal criticism and those who are resisting this unjust regime have to face the music. Thus the women who are now behind bars are there for committing a crime which they in part helped to dismantle. In any other part of the world, they would be released and celebrated. Not so in Saudi Arabia. For anything and everything here must flow from the crown itself. If anyone wants to call it a step towards democracy and liberalism, then they would need to redefine these words first. But then this is also despotism of all special variety. Saudi Arabian despotism is wedded to Wahhabism and together they make a potent mix. Any critique of the system invites lashes and imprisonment as the case of Raif Badawi tells us. Those who are critical of the religion and want it to adapt to modernity also face persecution. A regime which treats Shia Islam as heretical cannot be expected to tolerate any criticism of Islam itself.
MBS curiously and infamously blamed the Iranians for the conservatism of his own country. This is complete nonsense. If he is really serious about bringing reforms, then it must start with a deep introspection rather than blaming someone else. And one of the first questions that he needs to ask is how the pernicious ideology of Wahhabism has very nearly destroyed the soul of his country. From the looks of it, one can only say that he is not ready to question anything related to the Wahhabi superstructure. Till the time that happens, MBS and his reforms should only be understood as a mere sham.
There comes a time in any nation’s present when it is confronted with its own history. Very often, the present offers two possible ways to deal with the situation: either
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com