It is hard to deny that Saudi foreign policy is defined and enacted through the prism of the Iranian threat. Since the Arab Spring of 2011, the conflict beween Saudi Arabia and Iran has expanded, draining the kingdom’s resources. However, despite its importance, the Iranian threat doesn’t look poised to determine the country’s fate — but rather to shape the way the House of Saud manages domestic challenges.
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There is a growing understanding among the leadership that socioeconomic issues, like unemployment, housing shortages, discrimination of women and minorities and personal dissatisfaction, are gnawing in an unprecedented way at the foundations of legitimate rule, and challenging the unique and delicate fabric of the kingdom. A deepening identity crisis of Saudi society is lurking. More and more citizens, especially young people, are struggling to reconcile the tension between the ultra-orthodox and uncompromising way of life based on the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and the continuous exposure to the pleasures of the West and modernization.
Just as religious rigidity has stiffened, exacting a heavy price, the internet and private space have turned into a place of refuge for those who have abandoned or have a hard time observing the strict prohibitions.
Videos showing young Saudis challenging accepted norms have recently been uploaded to the web and gone viral. One of them is an exceptional virtual meeting between a Saudi teen and a young American girl. The boy declares his love for the girl in broken English and with great excitement, even though it is the first time he has spoken to her. He was later arrested for unethical behavior and released after two weeks. A similar fate is probably awaiting a group of Saudi teens who turned into unwilling internet stars after dancing at a private party while drinking alcohol and wearing immodest dress.
It’s reasonable to assume the youths appearing in these and other videos are not knowingly carrying the flag of revolution and social change but rather just want to have fun like other young people around the world. It is entirely possible that some of them live a religious lifestyle and accept the burden of Islam, but at the same time are drawn to the magic of a liberated atmosphere.
A young, rebellious leader
Until recently such phenomena would have evinced a harsh response from the religious establishment. However, a significant change began in 2015. It is too early to guess its consequences. Changes in leadership following the death of the late King Abdullah led to the appointment of Mohammed Bin Salman, the son of the ruling King Salman as the second crown prince and the one who is in practice running the kingdom.
Bin Salman is just 31. His young age and his rebellious personality and charisma led to other thinking regarding the dominance of religion in the kingdom and the main (and excessive) authority of the religious establishment and religious police. This trend became evident in the regime’s stance toward women. If in past the leadership vehemently opposed the integration of women in the workplace — due to the religious-cultural attitude that holds that women belong in the home — today, with the inspiration and leadership of Bin Salman, doors that were once barred to women are opening.
For example, women can represent clients in court, engage in medical professions and be journalists. The refurbished policy regarding women is first and foremost a product of necessity and not of a fundamental change in consciousness. Because of the growing hardships Saudi families face making ends meet just on the man’s salary — this, in the wake of cuts of government subsidies — there is a growing need ito integrate women into the labor market to increase family income. However, the way toward that goal is paved with obstacles that sometimes seem impassable. Integrating women into the labor force sharpens and widens the dilemmas faced by many Saudi citizens.
Until recently it was normal for many Saudi families to employ a private chauffeur to drive the woman to her work. However, because of the need to cut expenses, many are forgoing driving services (that cost over $400 per month), transferring the burden of the rides to the men. This reality leads to increasing pressure on conservative forces in the government to remove the ban on female drivers. The weight the Saudi public places on cultural-religious norms in the face of economic needs is what will determine to a great extent the character of the Saudi kingdom in the coming decades.
In the name of the principle of efficiency and reducing waste in the public sector, the government decided to cut the generous welfare basket of services that citizens receive in exchange for quiet and political loyalty. The government also stopped funding some enormously expensive projects. As a result, Saudi companies suffered economic losses, and Saudi citizens reported their inability to meet mortgage payments and regular expenses. Many of them are struggling as a result of the belt-tightening policy and protesting against it on social networks.
In order to diversify the economy and reduce dependence on oil revenues, core studies must be introduced to adapt the education system to the demands of the modern market. However, the introduction of such studies will mortally wound the monopoly of the religious establishment on educational content, and therefore is liable to undermine the overwhelming support it provides the political establishment.
Saudi Arabia is a tough country to digest, even for some of its citizens. This country is full of contradictions that paradoxically because of its quality has succeeded in surviving ideological, security and political challenges. But now the time has come for it to reinvent itself. Merging religion and modernism has always been a challenge for the incumbent regime, but the political wisdom of the various kings and their correct interpretation of the diverse voices on the ground have allowed them to navigate stormy waters.
If and when Saudi Arabia take steps to redefine its identity, it’s highly doubtful that the West will be able to detect the scope of the change. Saudi Arabia is changing all the time, but it’s doing so in its own way and at its own pace, without regardless to what the West expects of it. It’s a revolution made in baby steps.
It’s safe to assume that in the coming years Saudi Arabia will continue to be an absolute monarchy that tramples human rights and abuses national resources to expand the political capital of House of Saud. But that doesn’t negate the currents of change taking place under the Western radar. The Saudi women’s social media campaign against men’s control of their lives, the regime’s decision to restrict the authority of the religious police and religious establishment, the unprecedented diversification of the economy – all these are part of the quiet revolution.
Some of these trends start at the grassroots, often in an unorganized way, while others are the initiative of the regime. Either way, Saudi Arabia will continue to be a unique and multifaceted state that operates according to its own worldview, without apologies to the West.
Dr. Michal Yaari is an expert on Saudi policy at Tel Aviv University and the Open University.