Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

Saudi Society Dips a Toe Into the 21st Century

| November 2, 2016

“Welcome to the new Saudi Arabia,” says the youthful minister of the country’s newly minted Ministry of Entertainment. We are sitting in darkness watching the LED-lit bodies of New York dancers gyrating on an arena stage to deafening hip-hop music. Behind us, some 1,300 Saudis of all ages—robed men and abaya-covered women sitting side by side—are whooping their approval.

What is going on in this conservative kingdom? Such mixing of sexes long has been forbidden. Ditto music. Until very recently the very word entertainment was an expletive. Such frivolity in the eyes of the kingdom’s Wahhabi religious authorities was considered a damning distraction from devotion to Allah.

But these days change is rocking Saudi society’s very foundations. Traditions once thought inviolable are toppling with little warning, scant explanation and no time for public adjustment. Nothing seems sacrosanct in this new world of diminished oil revenue.

The monarchy, effectively led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammedbin Salman, an assertive 3l-year-old son of the king, seems determined to remold Saudi society, changing the way Saudis think and act. To do that, comfortable traditions are being ruthlessly replaced by uncomfortable new realities. Such changes, the prince believes, are necessary to achieve his Vision 2030 goal of a modern economy where Saudis rely on their own initiative and enterprise, not on government handouts.

Gone is the House of Saud tradition of family consensus that once meant change occurred glacially—if at all. While many of Prince Mohammed’s royal uncles and cousins oppose him, they are proving unable to slow change, let alone derail him.

Gone, too, is the once pre-eminent authority of the religious establishment, for centuries ruling partners of the monarchy. Clerics who dare to criticize change are jailed and the rest are silent. With such core pillars as royal family unity and religious support shaking, Saudi citizens fear that almost anything can happen at any time. Widespread enthusiasm for the prince and his Vision 2030 only a few months ago now has turned to ambivalence, anxiety and anger.

The latest shock is the regime’s decision to cut by 30% to 40% the compensation of government employees, who comprise two-thirds of all working Saudis. Never in previous decades of oil price ups and downs has the government touched its people’s livelihood. That was unthinkable until it happened.

Worse yet, government ministers sent to television to explain the decision alarmed the public by warning that without such cuts the kingdom faces bankruptcy in three or four years. Adding insult to injury, the minister of civil service accused government employees of working just one hour a day, implying their compensation cut is fully justified. Government workers in Medina are being fingerprinted five times a day to assure their presence at work.

Shocked Saudi citizens have taken to Twitter, the public’s megaphone to the monarchy. (Saudis are the world’s leading per-capita users of Twitter.) Some nostalgically post photos of the late King Abdullah, who lavished spending on the kingdom during his 10-year reign. Others tweet angry comments accusing ministers of working only 15 minutes daily. A former minister pointedly tweeted that advisers to the young prince should remember that Vision 2030 doesn’t mean that government can “move from dependence on oil to dependence on the people’s income.”

The prince at the center of this revolution is well aware of the public angst. Yet he shows no signs of abandoning his efforts to balance the budget and restructure the economy and society. He has crossed his Rubicon. Like Caesar marching on Rome, the only option for redemption now is success.

Transforming Saudi society won’t be easy, but restructuring a $750 billion economy to rely on private-sector growth can’t be done without forcing individual Saudis to become self-reliant. The prince tells his advisers the pace of change must not slow. He warns that the kingdom has lost two decades under previous kings who failed to take the tough decisions to wean the country from its oil addiction.

Prince Mohammed also presses on with revamping the role of religion, and offering entertainment like the New York dancers in Jeddah along with promises of Cirque du Soleil and even a Six Flags in a few years time. Today, religious police who once patrolled Saudi streets arresting women for failure to cover their hair or for mixing with men have been banned from such arrests. They have largely disappeared from Saudi shopping malls, to the delight of many Saudis. Still, another traditional institution has fallen, raising the specter that more big changes are imminent.

Growing anxiety has led to angry finger pointing. Government blames previous rulers for shortsighted reliance on oil. Some Saudis blame the current regime for mismanaging oil production in recent years. Still others praise Vision 2030 but condemn its rapid execution.

Still others, who oppose any change, accuse the deputy crown prince of naively leading an America-inspired conspiracy to destabilize the kingdom and make Iran the region’s hegemon. The proof: McKinsey & Co., an American consultancy, helped devise Vision 2030 and the U.S. Congress has passed legislation allowing Americans to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks. Clearly, say these voices, the U.S. is a Crusader country out to destroy Saudi Arabia and Sunni Islam. Even some less-conspiratorial Saudis have turned anti-American as a result of this legislation.

Still, the only thing that seems likely to move Mohammed bin Salman from his charge toward the Promised Land of Vision 2030, is the death of his father, King Salman, who turns 81 in December. So far, he has enjoyed his father’s total support since being named deputy crown prince only 18 months ago.

Equally important, disgruntled Saudi citizens at some level understand that the kind of revolution they are experiencing is fundamentally different from the chaos and carnage enveloping neighboring counties like Iraq, Syria and Yemen. So, while Saudis may grumble, it is doubtful they will stir the kind of strife that has beggared their neighbors.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: House, Karen Elliott.“Saudi Society Dips a Toe Into the 21st Century.” The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2016.