Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Historic steps in Saudi Arabia

The signs of liberalisation in Saudi Arabia are getting clearer, writes Haitham Nouri


Historic steps in Saudi Arabia
Historic steps in Saudi Arabia

Saudi and Arab women were still celebrating Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz’s decision to allow women to drive cars when he issued another historic decree forming a committee to review the Prophet Mohamed’s hadiths (sayings). The decision came after a series of steps viewed as “enlightened” by some, with other seeing them as opening the door to further “secularisation.”

Moreover, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman said on Tuesday at the beginning of the landmark Future Investment Initiative that his kingdom will return to “what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world”. He vowed that “We will not waste 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas, we will destroy them today.”

The first decision allowing women to drive cars in Saudi Arabia was applauded by many worldwide. Egyptian journalist Ahmed Youssef described it as “a display of women’s solidarity around the world,” while just a few weeks later Saudi television broadcast concerts by Egyptian singer Om Kulthoum, triggering an avalanche of overjoyed tweets and a measure of gloating at conservatives.

Rashed bin Hamoud, a Saudi fan of Om Kulthoum, said that “her picture was once removed from the streets, but now she will appear on television every day.” Bin Hamoud was not the only one to applaud the decision, as “Kulthoumis” in Saudi Arabia have been everywhere defending the decision and calling for the broadcast of songs by Abdel-Halim Hafez, Farid Al-Atrash, Asmahan and other icons of Arab music on Saudi television.

Some days ago, Saudi television broadcast a concert by Ahmed Al-Hefnawi, a violinist in Om Kulthoum’s orchestra for many decades, along with Saudi musicians performing the classic song Al-Atlal (The Ruins). Bin Hamoud said that “my father has many 1970s recordings of Om Kulthoum’s concerts broadcast by Saudi radio and television. Some Saudis believe they contributed to her fame because she sang the poetry of Saudi prince Abdullah Al-Faisal at that time.”

Haitham Abu Zeid, an expert on history and religious affairs, said that “there are liberal channels that are Saudi Arabian, which means the regime and the audience support them. What is new is that state television is now also broadcasting the concerts.”

The King Fahd Cultural Centre in the Saudi capital Riyadh also recently hosted a competition for short films, which some commentators viewed as paving the way to removing a ban on film theatres in the conservative kingdom. Bin Hamoud said that some Saudi cinemas had opened in the 1960s at sporting clubs, but had been banned in the 1970s.

 “In the late 1970s there were major transformations in the region. First, the Islamic Revolution in Iran caused Saudi Arabia to mobilise Sunni Muslim forces to confront the exporting by Iran of its Shia Revolution,” Abu Zeid said.

“The raid on Mecca by the Juhman Al-Oteibi’s group in 1979 also made the Saudi government lean towards more conservative interpretations of Islam to prevent one-upmanship by fanatical groups. Finally, there was the jihad in Afghanistan which mobilised thousands of Saudi youth through Political Islam groups and increased the influence of clerics.”

 “We can also add the Iraq-Iran War, the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat and the continuation of the Lebanese Civil War. This closed Arab doors that were partially open,” said Saudi professor Khaled Al-Dokheil. “People began to embrace backwardness and Political Islam. You could not go to any enlightened Arab capital as you could in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.”

Within a few years, the Arab world began to lean towards the Islamist right, whether during the civil war in Lebanon or the Egyptian peace initiative with Israel, the Iranian Islamic Revolution, the war in Afghanistan, the raid on Mecca, the First Gulf War, the assassination of Sadat and the application of Sharia (Islamic Law) in Sudan.

Abu Zeid described the recent Saudi decisions inspired by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as being “steps towards what we can call secularism.” He quoted the crown-prince’s response to a question about whether swimming costumes would be allowed on Saudi beaches, to which he responded that “Saudi beaches will meet international standards.”

Regarding the new committee set up in Saudi Arabia to review the sayings of the Prophet, Abu Zeid said it was “a historic step because Saudi Arabia practises Wahhabism, which is one of the Salafi schools that are followers of the hadith. Therefore, revising the hadith, whatever the outcome, will be revolutionary.”

Salafis in general, and Wahhabis in particular, follow the Prophet’s sayings to the letter in their fatwas (religious rulings), to the extent that they may even contradict other Sunni Muslims. They consider ahad sayings (those having a chain of transmitters from one person to another) as a source of doctrine, while Cairo’s Al-Azhar University insists that in order to be considered valid these sayings must be mutawatter (conveyed by many people who came in contact with the Prophet).

“Whatever the revisions that are made, for example on their support or strength and context (in the interpretation of the hadith), the reviewers could decide that some sayings are circumstantial,” Abu Zeid predicted, meaning that they only apply in the circumstance in which they were made.

“This means the reviewers will take into account the historical context in which the religious text was revealed or said in a specific social and political context,” he added.

Such decisions to “modernise” Saudi Arabia have been backed by Crown Prince Mohamed as part of the kingdom’s 2030 Vision, which includes liberating the economy by removing subsidies and privatising public-sector enterprises, most notably the oil giant Aramco that has more than $1 trillion in assets.

Recent decrees should encourage investment in the oil-rich kingdom in the petroleum sector and others, helping to wean the country off its dependence on oil revenues. Reports have indicated that a Chinese consortium has asked to buy five per cent of Aramco before it is offered on the London Stock Exchange in 2018.

“Saudi Arabia’s economy will also benefit from the hundreds of thousands of young people who have studied abroad over the past two decades,” according to Abu Zeid.

The study abroad campaign launched by the late king Abdullah in the mid-1990s resulted in some 400,000 men and women studying abroad in a variety of fields. These vast numbers greatly impacted society by “infusing their experiences abroad, global ideas and lifestyles,” according to Mansour Abdel-Rahman, a former engineering professor at Dhahran University.

“Saudi Arabia is experiencing what Egypt went through under Mohamed Ali after scholars returned from studies overseas in France and elsewhere in Europe [in the 19th century],” Abdel-Rahman said.

 “Whatever the case, the Saudi government seems to be convinced that the traditional way of governing the country is no longer viable and that the time has come for change,” Abu Zeid concluded.

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