Ri Insights

Are these the winds of change in Saudi Arabia?

paul gadalla

by Paul Gadalla

Rai Insights Contributor

The news of women finally being allowed to drive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken the world by storm.  Although it might seem the winds of change have truly swept through the Wahhabist kingdom, a number of these reforms only serve to keep the House of Saud firmly in its place.


The lifting of a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia came as a surprise as previous protests have been met with harsh reprisals and arrest. And just on the heels of the lifting of the ban, Saudi Arabia appointed a woman  to a senior government post – a first in the conservative kingdom and even allowed the appearance of a female singer on state owned TV for the first time in decades.


All these sudden breakthroughs seem to be coming at once but unfortunately not part of the pressure of civil society campaigns but of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s drive to reform the kingdom. It is more of a political decision to end the Saudi monarchy’s appeasement of Islamist groups in order to avoid any confrontation with them. Already authorities have disallowed female activists to comment on the ban. Instead the conservative kingdom hopes these reforms will curb more conservatism in Saudi Arabia, which has threatened the Saud family’s rule in the past.


For decades daily life in Saudi Arabia was seen as one of the most strict and austere in the world. The kingdom’s harsh laws stem from two tides. The first being the Wahabbists (who take a very literal interpretation of the Koran)  who helped the ruling Saud family ascend to power and the seizure of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, by Muslim extremists in 1979.


In a means to appease the Islamists who seized the holiest shrine in Islam and Saudi Arabia’s religious clerical establishment, strict laws were enacted that kept cinemas shuttered, banned women appearing on television, the genders separated and women under the guardianship of men. Saudi Arabia even created its own religious police force, the department of vice and virtue which had a wide range of powers to question and arrest people on dubious grounds of immorality.


These harsh ethos were imposed on all of Saudi society yet it did little to curb terrorist attacks or solidify the royal family’s grip on power. In fact, it had much the opposite effect. Expat compounds were bombed or attacked throughout the 1990’s and early 2000s.  A number of Saudi men left the kingdom to fight in foreign countries. Saudi funded schools abroad also helped spur more men to join jihadi movements. Al-Qaeda and other variants were opposed to the Saudi monarchy and its US ties, and a majority of the September 11 attackers were Saudi citizens, which ultimately caused the Saudi royal house to do an about-face towards its domestic policies.


With the death of King Fahd in 2005, new King Abdullah began a slow series of reforms. He curbed the power of the religious police to put an end to their abuses and allowed women to vote and stand in elections. He also began a heavy-handed crackdown on suspected extremists, arresting hundreds.  And in recent years women have been granted the right to vote and religious police have seen their powers greatly curbed.

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It is commendable that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has devised a roadmap for Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030, to help modernize the country as it prepares to veer away from its dwindling oil reserves.  He has been hailed as the man driving these recent reforms and has said that in the future the Saudi economy will need more women in the future. It is in a way stunning that it took until 2017 for the Saudi monarchy to realize this.  Also people should not forget that many activists have been jailed or killed demanding more equality in Saudi. The law itself is murky as women are still at the mercy of their male guardians, be it their husband or father. Will this mean they must seek their permission to drive?


These moderate reforms are mere baby steps.  The House of Saud still holds the reigns of power. Many of these reforms have been passed in hopes of curbing extremism in the country, which would threaten Saud rule instead of aiming to move the country forward.


If the Saudi monarchy truly wished to reform the country, it would begin by pulling out of Yemen, which has cost Saudi billions and obliterated Yemen. Bin Salman himself has been accused of leading a lavish lifestyle with the New York Times once reporting on his purchase of a $500 million dollar yacht.  Also it should remove the  There are many luxuries and a sense of recklessness that the Saudi royal family still enjoys and unless these privileges are curbed and real socio-economic problems addressed, reforms will mainly remain cosmetic.

*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon

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