Reforms in Saudi Arabia in recent years were remarkable considering its former societal atmosphere. The reforms, however, had no democratic breakthroughs.
To almost every person, the idea of Saudi Arabian dunes humming to rhythms of legendary DJ van Buuren is unfathomable. However, the kingdom recently hosted the MDL Beast Soundstorm, a government-sponsored music event for 4 days. In addition to van Buuren, major performers such as David Guetta, Jason Derulo, and Martin Garrix performed in the ceremony. It’s hard to believe that Saudi food courts couldn’t even play music just less than 5 years ago.
Shifting political and sovereign dynamics in Riyadh, since 2015, have been highlighted by musical events like the recent one. Less than 700 hundred thousands of Saudi citizens attended. This shows how flexible the Saudi citizens were in adjusting themselves to reforms that were more political than social.
Allowing ladies to wear a free dressing rather than the previous entire hijab, abolishing the restriction on this group for driving, loosening restrictions on movie facilities, curtailing the authority of religious police, and more have all been implemented recently.
Saudi Crown Prince is considered the driving force behind the country’s rapid changes. The measures are just one aspect of Bin Salman‘s socio-political reforms. The reforms in Saudi Arabia aim at changing the worldwide view of the country and contain the international backlashes. The ambition is to transform Saudi Arabia into a modern, liberal, tourism-friendly nation that wants to hide, and not move away from, its hardline traditions.
However, the country’s tentative new tango is mitigated by the reality that it is a formal adherent of extremist takes of Islam like Wahhabism, or Salafism. This period of change also marked a suppression against domestic opposition, with few willing to publicly denounce the rulers.
Reforms in Saudi Arabia; Social or Political?
Bin Salman, through the blessing of father, has enacted significant reforms in the first months of taking the power. However, there is no evidence that he plans to follow up his bold social reforms in Saudi Arabia with equally bold reforms of the kingdom’s governance institutions. Actually, it appears that Riyadh will continue its conduct an autocratic government under the young crown prince, with little room for citizen engagement.
Saudi nationals are still being subject to detention and imprisonment for speaking out against the administration or engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. According to HRW, almost all participants of the “Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association” have been jailed for their activism. Several freelance journalists and web campaigners have been received long-term convictions for their activity.
In an unprecedented show of power, Saudi authorities held scores of the country’s richest and most influential businesspeople and top administrative figures for months in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 2020. The inmates were imprisoned until they promised to refund the revenue in suspected fraudulent payoffs to the government. Some accounts claim the ultimate sum exceeded $100 billion.
Fraud is certainly a substantial hindrance to economic reform in Saudi Arabia. Government action to eradicate it will surely enhance the business environment and encourage international and local investment. Furthermore, the government’s actions against individuals suspected of corruption were widely praised by Saudi residents.
Saudi Arabia’s conduct on Khashoggi murder in Istanbul consulate and its suppression of female activist Loujain Al-Hathloul is clarifying. Far from entailing democratic or social reforms, Riyadh practices are political activism to welcome western powers and attract foreign investors. Mohammad Bin Salman is smart enough to know that equaling social with democratic overhaul in Saudi Arabia will endanger the pillars of kingdom in the country.