Tasting Freedom -Saudi Arabia Experiments with Reform Amid Economic Downturn

By Susanne Koelbl In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

As oil riches have declined in Saudi Arabia, the crisis has forced change in the country. Women are joining the workforce and music is even being permitted on the streets. Can the world’s most conservative nation reinvent itself?

A man with a lute plays Beethoven’s “Ode to Freedom,” before moving on to play a piece from an Iraqi composer. Men are sitting next to women as they listen to the music. What’s so special about that?

The man tensely holding the lute is Khalil AlMuwail. He barely slept the night before. His day job is as an information technology specialist at a large hospital in the capital city Riyadh, but his true passion is playing the oud, the Arab lute. The deeply religious claim that people who play the oud also have other vices, and if the religious police catch someone playing the instrument, they destroy it. That’s how it has been here for decades.

To learn how to play the instrument and become a virtuoso, AlMuwail spent years driving 500 kilometers to neighboring Bahrain every two weeks for a one-hour lesson. He couldn’t find a teacher in Saudi Arabia.

But things are changing – even in what may be the world’s most conservative country. The government has stripped the notorious religious police of their power and the more than 3,000 guardians of morality, who terrorized women for wearing makeup and arrested unmarried couples for walking next to each other on the street, are a rare sight these days. This evening, as Khalil AlMuwail performs his concert to thundering applause in the tent of the Cultural Center of Saudi Arabia, they can’t be found either.

But what does it really mean that the Saudi king, the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, has reined in his feared morals police? And why have the fundamentalists gone silent rather than lament the loss of values?

The End of a Fairy Tale

The primary reason is the disappearance of Saudi Arabia’s fairy-tale riches. The kingdom is in the midst of the deepest crisis it has seen since oil first began gushing out of the wells in the eastern part of the country in 1938. Low oil prices have led to a 50-percent drop in the country’s revenues. In 2015, the government racked up a budget deficit of 90 billion euros, and the country began borrowing.

Then there’s the fact that Saudi Arabia was the pillar of a Middle Eastern order that now no longer exists, destroyed by the Arab spring and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The major powers, led by Iran and Saudi Arabia, are now wrestling over their position in the region. This confluence of events is threatening stability in the kingdom.

This means that there are more important issues at stake for religious fundamentalists than whether toenail polish is haram, forbidden, or not. The country’s enormous challenges could mean that the ban on women driving could also soon be lifted. Can the government of King Salman prevent a recession and reduce the country’s dependency on oil? Will Saudi Arabia prevail in its battle against repeated jihadi attacks? And despite all the changes, can it protect the country’s societal cohesion?

Suddenly, questions are being asked in public that people didn’t dare formulate only a short time ago. Like why a high-ranking cleric spread nonsense about driving leading to infertility among women. And why the country is entangled in an expensive and savage war with Yemen that has already cost the lives of 10,000 people and led to the displacement of 3 million others. Does it really make sense to sell part of the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco? Are there no other ways of relieving the country’s fiscal plight?

Challenging the Social Pact

“Why” is a word that didn’t previously exist in Saudi Arabian public debate. Suddenly, it can be heard all over the place, as if the economic crisis is forcing the country to undergo a kind of late-period enlightenment. Everything is being renegotiated, from benefits to the distribution of money, and the question of who will enjoy new freedoms and who will lose old privileges. In sum, the country’s previous social pact – prosperity in exchange for submission – is being challenged.

That pact, reached over 250 years ago between the Sunni Wahhabis and the Saudi dynasty had always been a win-win situation for both sides: The Saudis controlled the country’s land and oil revenues while the Wahhabi clergy ruled its hearts and minds.

But now economic crisis, political uncertainty and social upheaval are converging and radical Wahhabism, the national religion, has nothing to counter it with. It no longer feels contemporary: Its strict religious doctrine doesn’t leave enough room for the dreams of younger Saudi Arabians in a country where three out of four people are under the age of 30.

The country’s treatment of music is also now being questioned. The government has set up its own agency to organize concerts and build movie theaters, something that had been more or less forbidden in Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to keep the demands under control. Now music can be heard all over the place: Music that is charting in nearby Kuwait can be heard in Ubers while women exercise at the gym to a pop version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

AlMuwail, the musician, is 42 years old and dreams of introducing Saudi Arabians to the magic of music. “Our universe has the music of God,” AlMuwail says. He says he’d like to establish a music school. When he applied for the license from the requisite agency, he assured the authorities that he only wanted to teach well-behaved students and he romanticized music’s healing power. But his application was rejected because the dissemination of music deviates from the correct path set by the Prophet Muhammad.

AlMuwail, who is a member of the country’s Shiite minority, then wrote a letter to the highest-ranking Shiite cleric in the city of Najaf in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In it, he asked if music was a vice and if playing the oud was haram. The cleric answered that music is permitted as long as it isn’t used for blasphemous purposes. AlMuwail showed the letter to the authorities, but they still rejected him.

Testing the Limits of Freedom

Things in Saudi Arabia don’t always make sense. Modernizers and conservatives are constantly at odds with each other – sometimes one side prevails, sometimes the other – and between these wrestling matches, younger Saudi Arabians test the limits of their freedom.

“I don’t want to be stopped by the police when I am out with my girlfriend,” says Farhad, a 26-year-old photographer. He’s come to the Wmdah ArtSpace in north Riyadh, an art gallery located between fallow lands and cement walls, with his friends. The men want to take guitar lessons – an exotic undertaking by Saudi Arabian standards. “Until now, we didn’t have normal lives,” says 29-year-old marketing expert Abdullah. “Now they at least let us breathe.”

When young Saudi Arabians discuss politics, their conversation circles around one man: Prince Mohammad bin Salman. At 31 years of age, he’s not much older than the subjects he rules over. His likeness peers out over them from the concrete pillars of highways and the walls of skyscrapers, always depicted next to his father King Salman, both larger than life.

The prince, as the country’s de facto ruler, enjoys vast power. As defense minister, he has led an alliance of Sunni countries in a devastating war in Yemen, where it is fighting the Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels. He’s also the deputy crown prince and the initiator of the Vision 2030 reform program, which envisions fundamental changes in all areas of society – from infrastructure to the economy and culture.

Turning the Kingdom Inside-Out

The prince is turning everything in the kingdom inside out, and some say that only a young person, without scruples or any ties to the past, can do what is necessary in Saudi Arabia. He must wrest privileges from allies that have taken them for granted and question old certainties. The first effects of this transformation are already palpable.

Almost everything considered normal in the West is banned in the kingdom. Given the country’s tradition of radical gender division, unmarried men are not allowed to be in the same room as young women. Saudi Arabians consider many longtime comforts to be a given, but now they are having to pay for their private water consumption for the first time along with electricity bills. Soon the state will begin collecting taxes and the civil administration will be paid based on the work they actually do and not just for showing up at the office.

“It no longer works for people to come into the office at 10 a.m., take a leisurely lunch, then attend long prayers before going home at 2 p.m.,” says one Western executive who has lived in the country for many years.

This kind of change doesn’t come easy, and the royal house recently had to retreat on some of the cuts it had made. Resentment among government employees has been widespread, with some seeing their salaries cut by as much as one-third, even as the royal family continues to live in the lap of luxury.

For many of its subjects, the kingdom long remained a kind of protected space. The monarchy demanded obedience, but it also took care of its subjects in return. The new status quo suddenly requires a greater degree of self-sufficiency, a trait that doesn’t exactly fit into this absolutist system. So how are such fundamental changes supposed to work in society in such a short period of time? More importantly: What will be the outcome?

“You can talk about music. But women singing in front of men is forbidden – the men wouldn’t be able to hear their voices and would instead be looking at their bodies,” says Musaed AlMuhaya, a professor for new media at the Islamic University and a member of the old guard. He’s one of the few conservatives currently willing to speak openly about the renewal taking place in the country.

Crackdown on Critics

It would be imprudent to criticize the prince’s Vision 2030 in the current environment. Even the Grand Mufti says little about it. Nor does the head of the Mutawa, the religious police, whose official name is the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

At the start of the year, well-known author Tirad al-Omari dared to express concerns about Vision 2030. He feared that the amount of change might be overwhelming and also expressed concern about the high taxes and a war in Yemen that was costing so much money and so many lives. Omari has supposedly been under house arrest ever since.

Even archconservative preacher Saad al-Braik was ordered to visit the Interior Ministry after he sided with a colleague who had been arrested after criticizing the concerts planned by Prince Mohammed. With 5 million followers, Braik is a celebrity among fundamentalists on Twitter. But the times have become unpredictable, even for the pillars of the religious establishment. Braik is no longer tweeting.

What might be most striking about current developments is that the ruling class seems to have the religious establishment firmly in its grasp – and not the other way around as had previously appeared to be the case. The Saudi rulers allow the radical sheikhs to speak when it is convenient for them, but they also don’t shy away from silencing them if the situation requires.

“I am a bulldozer and I will clear anyone out of the way who doesn’t go along with things,” Prince Mohammed reportedly informed television bosses and representatives of the media as he presented his Vision 2030. It hardly matters whether it’s just a rumor or an actual quote. No one dares publicly question the royal renewal project any longer.

This isn’t the dawn of some new liberal era in Saudi Arabia. Many political activists – whether oriented toward Islamism or democracy – are currently in sitting in jail. In 2016, 154 people were decapitated by sword.

New Roles for Women

The winners of the emerging change are women. They now head banks, cancer research centers, work as market analysts, store managers, editors in chief of publications and top models.

“It’s not that they suddenly learned to appreciate us. They just needed the money,” says one blogger who is frustrated that it was financial misery, and not broader insight, that has forced the rulers to rethink things. Now women are supposed to work in order to help compensate for men’s’ shrinking earnings. The ban on women driving could even soon be lifted – primarily because wages for male drivers are too expensive.

Leena al-Haidari is a 26-year-old investment banker who completed a master’s degree in London and she lives in a house with her father and three sisters. Her parents are divorced. It was her father who pushed for his daughters’ emancipation by sending them abroad to university without any male guardians – a move that drew bitter resistance from most of the rest of the family.

For Haidairi, it is now self-evident that she should earn her own money, pursue her career plans and also choose her own husband. Her dark hair loosely dangles over her slender face. Her wrist is covered with a bracelet that reads: “I am my own guardian.” The sentence refers to the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are treated like children. King Salman only announced this month that he would allow women to use government services, including health care and education, without the approval of a male guardian.

“But the new generation is no longer asking for permission,” says Madeha al-Ajroush. The 62-year-old feminist became the first woman to drive the streets of Saudi Arabia in 1999. She was arrested, as were many who followed in her footsteps. Today, al-Ajroush works as the only female psychoanalyst in Saudi Arabia. “The country is ripe for change,” she says. al-Ajroush says she believes the fundamentalists have failed and that they have “invested only in power and not in their credibility.”

As a young woman, al-Ajroush lived in New York, where her father was a diplomat. She completed her studies to become a psychoanalyst in the West. Back in Saudi Arabia, she initially provided treatment to women with bipolar disorders or schizophrenia. But for the past three years, her patients have also included women who have their own income and can afford to get advice. They come to her to talk about the narrowness and restrictiveness in their country, because they see a direct corollary between it and their own personal problems, that disdain toward women can lead to depression or that personality-development can be shaped by external freedom.

“A dramatic transformation is in progress, and local traditions are no longer decisive to the younger generation,” says al-Ajroush. The internet and the ability to travel abroad have undone the decades of isolation, she says. Saudi Arabian society is now ready to “take the leap.”

Between a Hardline and Free Spaces

The country is beginning a societal discussion in which it is unclear where it will lead. All groups – men and women, old and young, fundamentalist and liberal – believe they have the support of the majority of the population behind them. Perhaps that’s not so surprising in a country that knows no public opinion polls and in which families have remained tight-knit.

Bujairi Park recently opened in western Riyadh. It’s a green space where men and women walk together, picnic and sit in cafés while holding hands. Many women still cover their faces at home when a man appears on television, but the dating app Tinder is also now available in the city, and some unwed couples live together in rented apartments. On Tahlya Street, home to a string of hotels and restaurants, men and women seek contact stealthily, but with less and less facial covering.

Both things seem to be coexisting at the moment – a hard line that accepts no deviations, and the new free spaces.

That evening, AlMuwail, the oud player, searches for the writings of Aristotle and Platon in a bookstore. He wants to know what they have to say about music. Philosophy is technically banned in Saudi Arabia, but there has lately been a debate over whether this restriction still applies in the country, as well. For weeks now, the country’s bestselling book has been Rolf Deobelli’s “The Art of Clear Thinking.” AlMawail places it in his basket and heads for the checkout.

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