Revolution Underway in Saudi Arabia
By Saeed Qureshi
Following his appointment as the Crown Prince by his father king Salman on 21 June 2017, Mohammad Bin Salman(MBS) has moved fast to address two issues. One is to order arrest of scores of the members of the royal family on charges of corruption. The most important royal members among them are Muhammad Bin Nayef, prince Mutib bin Abdullah and the richest prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.
These celebrities have been removed from their prestigious positions and placed under arrest. The incarcerated royal family members are barred from traveling aboard. According to reports 11 royal princes, four ministers and ten former ministers have been arrested. With the time passage the number of the arrested people might increase.
His critics’ opinion is that these princes particularly prince were sidelined because they posed a threat to Crown prince Muhammad for themselves being claimants of that powerful position. Or lese they didn’t want him to be the crown prince. One such person is Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah
The other issue was to liberalize the Saudi society by lifting some of the harshest rules and restrictions relating to the day to day lives of the people. Muhammad has decided to restore civil liberties and openness as were prevalent prior to 1979. Of these numerous prohibitive religious laws and regulations, some were focused on the women. Under those laws, the women couldn’t drive, couldn’t go out without a male family attendant and had to wrap their whole body.
He has decided to revive the cultural centers and cinemas for the people to get together for social gatherings and even dance parties as these were in vogue prior to 1979 when these sanctions were imposed by the powerful clergy. In his interview given to New York Times’ senior journalist, Thomas L. Friedman, the crown prince Muhammad told the interviewer that “in the 1950s women were without heads covered, wearing skirts and walking with men in public, as well as concerts and cinemas.”
In this regard scores of religious leaders and Islamic scholars have also been arrested to forestall any reaction or opposition from them to the restoration of civil liberties particularly relating to the cultural dimensions.
Freidman reported that during his stay in Saudi Arabia he saw that the people on the whole welcomed these measures. Particularly the youth and women were exuberant and supported prince Muhammad in his bid of releasing the society from many unnecessary shackles placed on the people after the takeover of the Salafi brand of Islam. Thereafter, the people came under a strait jacket of strict restrictions as if the Saudi Society had been rolled back in the past.
Muhammad also holds the portfolios of the First Deputy Prime Minister and the minister of defense. He is just 32 years but from his measures and decisions which he took after his advent as the crown prince make him look like a visionary and a forward-looking person who wants to erase the impression that Saudi society was closed, fundamentally puritanical and socially orthodox.
From his public statements and interviews, it surmises that he possesses immense urge and determination to transform Saudi Arabia from a rigid orthodox and radical Islamic track to a more enlightened and forward-looking paradigm.
His removal and imprisoning of some 11 princes from the Royal family along with scores of other highly influential business figures and top-notches is stunning and rather a courageous step towards curbing the widespread culture of monetary corruption through devious means.
As already mentioned, Crown prince Muhammad’ drive is two pronged. One is to eliminate the rampant corruption particularly in the royal family and big corporate sector. The second is to restore a normal civil life and lift stringent conditions, rules and restrictions imposed by religious clerics.
His sacking and imprisoning 57 highly influential individuals is being interpreted as an action to remove any bottlenecks and challengers to his office by the members of the royal family. One such person is prince Naif who has been the predecessor crown prince. King Salman removed him and replaced his son Muhammad with additional powers to be able to make decision that can liberalize the society to a certain extent and open up and ease the day to day and socio-cultural life of the Saudi citizens.
One giant step is to abolish the so call religious police (shurtas) which had been exercising excessive clout and no holds barred powers to catch anybody from anywhere, lash them in public and shove them in the most horrifying makeshift prisons. The women folks were not immune from their savage onslaughts and ruthless implementation of law that curbed the independence and civil liberties of the women with impunity.
Mentioning about the level of corruption Muhammad claimed that “Our country has suffered a lot from corruption from the 1980s until today to such an extent that 10 percent of all government spending was siphoned-off by corruption each year, from the top levels to the bottom.”
Under order from the incumbent King Salman bin Abdulaziz-Al-Saud in 2015, a team prepared a list of 200 persons responsible for enormous financial malpractices. These are the individuals who made money through kickbacks, overcharging and through such projects which either were never accomplished or later turned to be white elephants. It is evident that more arrests would be made in due course of time. As to what punishment would be awarded to those found guilty might be known after the verdicts are announced.
It can be presaged that the switch over from a rigid Islamic system to the one compatible with the rest of the world with civil liberties would not be easy. If the orthodox Islamic groups resist this gubernatorial change there could be bloodshed or acts of sabotage and frequent demonstrations against both king Salman and his visionary son crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
We have also to watch and see what could be the reaction from other Islamic nations which are also under a rigid puritanical version of Islam and where Salafi Sharia(jurisprudence) is in vogue. One of such countries is Pakistan where Salafi/Sunni code of Islam is vibrant and where the reaction from these hardliners could be perpetual and strong.
The writer is a senior journalist, former editor of Diplomatic Times and a former diplomat. This and other articles by the writer can also be read at his blog www.uprightopinion.com.