Reforms in Saudi Arabia: Real Progress or Cause of Future Instability?

By Refael Kubersky

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia announced that it would spend billions of dollars on building new entertainment venues and bringing in Western artists to the kingdom. The plan completely overhauls the Saudi entertainment sector, modernizing the sector and paving the way for Saudi Arabia to potentially host artists and shows such as Maroon 5 and Cirque du Soleil. Saudi Arabia’s new focus in entertainment is groundbreaking, as it would have been unheard of for a Western pop group like Maroon 5 to perform in Saudi Arabia based on their ultra conservative past.

The new focus in entertainment reflects the mission of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, as he seeks to dramatically shift the country economically, socially and culturally. The entertainment overhaul is apart of Salman’s “Vision 2030” program, an effort to decrease the kingdom’s economic dependence on oil. As oil prices decreased in 2014, it became clear that Saudi Arabia should not bet its entire economy on its petroleum industry as it has over the past decades. Salman is leading a push to privatize certain sectors of the Saudi economy, and break up the nationally owned oil business. He has aggressively sought foreign investment to help boost his projects, and hopes to diversify the Saudi economy by 2030.

Additionally, Salman has eased many of the Kingdom’s tight religious policies, such as expanding women rights in society by allowing them to drive and attend sporting events. These policies are aimed to alleviate the oppression many Saudis have faced, especially women, for years, and establish themselves as a more progressive Kingdom that matches with the moral standards of the West.

But while these changes are progressive and positive economic and social steps for a country that has often been criticized by the Western world, Salman’s actions are perceived by many in the Kingdom as naked power grabbing moves, and, as a result, may lead to instability in a country that has been an island of stability in a highly volatile Middle East.

In recent memory, Saudi society has been run based off an unwritten pact between the Saudi monarchy and the religious establishment run by Wahhabi clerics. The clerics provide the Saudi monarchy religious legitimacy, giving the Royalty their blessing even as they make deals with Western powers and live incredibly lavish lifestyles. In return, the Saudi monarch gives the clerics the ability to enforce their uncompromising version of Islam in Saudi society.

By implementing new social reforms that run contrary to the clerics’ vision for Islamic society, Salman has breached this pact with the religious establishment. Salman has arrested clerics who have spoken out against his religious reforms. By instituting these reforms, Salman seeks to consolidate power by taking away the clerics religious influence while hoping that the reforms are met with praise amongst the populace.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, criticized Salman this past September following the arrests of prominent clerics who had peacefully protested, stating, “These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammed bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law.” Instead of working with the religious clerics within his country, Salman is committed to silence those who oppose his mission.

Despite this, Salman could be vulnerable if his plans do not go according to planned. While the price of oil has been steadily declining for the past few years, Saudi Arabia’s nationally owned oil industry has granted its citizens tremendous benefits from the government such as free health care and subsidized housing. By privatizing sectors of the economy and breaking up the nationally owned oil industry, its citizens may begin to enjoy less of these benefits, potentially creating unrest amongst its populace.

Additionally, ultra conservative sections of Saudi Arabian society may not be ready for the social reforms that Salman is passing. Salman himself has stated that rural Saudi Arabians would be less inclined to adapt to new social policies, stating, “a woman needs to be able to drive herself to work... Everyone knows that – except the people in small towns. But they will learn.”

But can Salman truly rely on rural Saudi Arabians to change their traditionally ultra conservative beliefs overnight? If sweeping social changes are made without a plan that confronts the issue of rural Saudi Arabians, it could lead to these individuals siding with radical clerics who object to Salman and believe that he is violating Islam, potentially leading to an uprising. Consequently, if economic reforms fail, citizens will be even more tempted to side with radical religious clerics, creating more unrest. By implementing social reforms, Salman risks overlooking the religious makeup of his kingdom, and could receive major backlash if radical clerics can galvanize enough support amongst the populace.

As Salman continues to implement drastic economic and social reforms, it is important to keep our eye on Saudi Arabia’s stability through this transition. It is possible that Salman’s economic plan will succeed, with Saudi citizens maintaining the benefits they enjoy from the government, and fully embracing the social changes that the new government brings.

However, if Salman pursues a policy of stifling opinion and incarcerating dissidents, Saudi Arabia may ironically face greater instability despite implementing more liberal social and economic policies. This in one of the few Middle Eastern countries that has maintained stability throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Perhaps working with more moderate clerics within the kingdom in developing social reforms and having them deliver his message will better ensure that his reforms are well received and not met with backlash in the future. Salman must be careful as he embarks on his mission, or he could set off another firestorm in the Middle East.


Refeal Kubersky is an undergraduate student studying at the University of Michigan.


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