The pace of reforms instituted under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in recent years has been swift enough to generate countless headlines about a "new" Saudi Arabia. Yet much of that media coverage has also been breathless, taking the palace and the crown prince's word for this "vision" of a more tolerant, modernized but still-absolute monarchy. There seem to be two sides to every reform under MBS: His celebrated anti-corruption campaign rested on the notorious round-up and shakedown of princes and businessmen at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh; Saudi women were given the right to drive, finally, but women's rights activists were detained and tortured; the kingdom opened up to Western-style entertainment, including concerts and movie theaters, while conducting its largest mass execution in years; and so on.
To make sense of this paradox and understand the reality on the ground in Saudi Arabia as MBS has consolidated power, DAWN convened a discussion on Twitter Spaces this week between two of DAWN's non-resident fellows: Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics, and Hala al-Dosari, a Saudi women's rights activist, scholar and writer. With questions from Abdullah Alaoudh, the Gulf Research Director at DAWN, they debated the extent of the changes underway in Saudi Arabia and what the future may hold.
—Frederick Deknatel, Executive Editor
The following partial transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length. A full recording of the discussion, including additional questions and answers, is available here.
Abdullah Alaoudh: Dr. Rasheed, you have written so many books about the history of Saudi Arabia, about democracy or lack thereof, about reforms, about "Muted Modernists," about the "Masculine State." As a short intro into the topic of social reforms, what do you make of the changes taking place since MBS came to the position of crown prince and the day-to-day ruler in Saudi Arabia?
Madawi al–Rasheed: Thank you, Abdullah. Yes, I have been researching and writing about Saudi Arabia since the formation of the state, and what struck me is a contradiction throughout this history of almost 100 years that society is very vibrant, unlike what we are led to believe—that here is a conservative society that restricts all kind of freedoms, and it is a society that objects to any change. What struck me is this is absolutely not true. I can give you so many examples where Saudi society was actually leading the drive towards change, whatever that change is.
If you're talking about the 1960s, we are told that it is the state, the leadership, that introduced women's education, and society rejected it and objected to the introduction of mass education for girls. Through my research, and you cited one of my books, A Most Masculine State, I demonstrate how calls for educating girls had actually started much earlier than the 1960s. However, there was no response from the leadership until the '60s, when it was politically convenient to announce that girls are now going to be educated in special schools.
It's the same thing in recent times. I have been struck by how active Saudi women are. We're in a society that doesn't allow civil society, that doesn't allow activism, yet for a very long time, Saudi women had called for a right to drive, which is a right to movement, free movement. Also, the right to restrict the guardianship system, and all sorts of other reforms.
These kinds of demands had started from the bottom up, but then we are told that it's only the leadership of the king, or now the crown prince, who can actually initiate and bestow these reforms on society and, at the same time, suppress dissenting voices. Throughout this history, we find that the Saudi state wants to take all the credit for any kind of change, any kind of social reform. But also, what strikes me is the absence of political reform, that all these kind of measures fall short of allowing Saudis full political representation or, for example, an elected government or allowing them to form their own civil society, pressure groups, lobbyists, to allow trade unions. All of this had been erased from the history of the country, although Saudis had paid a very high price, simply because they asked for the right to engage in civil resistance, including demonstrations, including sit-ins. All that had been denied, and, in fact, it had become criminalized.
So the challenge for anybody observing Saudi Arabia is to think in terms of the vibrancy of society, the ability of the society to be much further ahead in its demands. But unfortunately, it had faced serious repression from the moment that the kingdom was established. And then anybody at your end, Abdullah, especially in the Western media and the policy sort of profile of Saudi Arabia, they always play on this theme and adopt the official government narrative that Saudis are or form a conservative society that objects to everything, and it is only the leadership that can initiate reform and its limited, really limited, definition.
Now there is this debate that without the crown prince, Saudis will continue to be driven by radical ideas, to be drifting toward some kind of obscure politics, demanding Saudi Arabia to stay fixed in its ancient history. But this actually is not true. Any academic observing what the Saudis have been demanding, which I have done myself and many other scholars have done, will see how vibrant Saudi society is. The problem is the government or the leadership wants to claim all the credit for change, whether it's driving a car, going into a classroom if you are a woman, and now, even with the exaggerated introduction of Western mass culture. This narrative that continues to dominate Western reporting on Saudi Arabia—that in order to reform this backward and conservative society, you need a strong leadership, and maybe blood needs to be shed in order for these so-called reforms to be accepted—I think resonates with those scholars with their Orientalist fantasies that Saudi society is a monolith. It consists of individuals who are all the same—all of them are conservative, all of them are radicals, but we have to encourage the leadership to restrain them, because only the leadership is progressive, against the background of this backward, conservative society.
Who are the beneficiaries of those changes? Is it all society? Are the changes inclusive? Are they for everyone, or are they for a selected elite that had benefited from those changes simply because of their loyalty to their regime and loyalty to Mohammed bin Salman?
- Madawi al-Rasheed
Abdullah Alaoudh: Hala, I think you remember the famous piece Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times in 2017, when he talked about what he called a revolution from above led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, liberating women in the country. On your end, you have been part of the great movement, for a long time, actually calling to work in the grassroots in Saudi Arabia to push for women to drive and other basic rights for women in the country. We want to hear your reaction to this idea of a top-down approach that Thomas Friedman was pushing at the time, as opposed to a bottom-up approach.
Hala al-Dosari: I'm echoing actually what Dr. Madawi has mentioned about the problem of Western reporting on Saudi Arabia, which is void of nuances. I doubt that reporters who wrote such pieces understand the organic movement within Saudi society or understand the struggle of Saudi society. They are so much tuned into the Wahhabis and the radical history of Saudi Arabia as an exporter of strict Islamic ideologies, as suppressors of women. And they're not really informed about the movements within Saudi Arabia to grant women more rights. I think it's really pathetic to report without engaging at least with people who are involved in those movements and only sit down with the crown prince, as Thomas Friedman did, at night, where the crown prince keeps on talking and talking about his vision and ideology, which is not based on any kind of reality. I doubt that he met any of the women. I doubt that he met any of the active agents of change in Saudi society, which is completely different from the reporting of someone like Dr. Madawi al-Rasheed, who has written extensively about those active voices, about those voices of changes within Saudi society.
I just wanted to highlight, when you talk about reforms or social reforms, you need to consider the human development deliverables. What have we achieved in terms of developing the human factors, in terms of education, academic freedom, in terms of access to information, in terms of improving women's rights, improving representation, which is completely void in the context of Saudi society? Since 2002, the U.N. Human Development Reports have consistently reported on the three main factors that hinder reforms and social developments in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia. They are authoritarianism, limited women's rights and access to information, and we see that more and more after Mohammed bin Salman came to power. We've seen the repression and the closed-off political spheres. We see how they are trying to dominate the narrative, dominate the voices, influencing public opinion, pushing against any kinds of critical voices or dissident voices—and not only in Saudi Arabia. It's becoming more of a transnational repression.
Of course, when you talk about women in particular, how can you reform women's rights without the voices and engagement of women? Women who have led the changes are now silenced, if not imprisoned or tortured. So we're really seeing setbacks on all fronts when it comes to engaging the society in these kinds of social reforms, and very much limiting that to this creating of a buzz factor, in which Saudi Arabia is trying to compete with Dubai as a business and entertainment hub. We have seen in the previous decade how many youth all over the Arab world are actually aspiring to live in Dubai, aspiring to work in Dubai, because of the social openings, and I think that the leaders of the region are reaching a false equation of reform—that they can contain the aspirations of the Arab youth, without a revolution as in 2011, by providing more social and economic reforms. The main element in that for sustainable reform is engaging youth, not only in entertainment or providing them with a semblance of economic reforms—which doesn't happen, of course, in closed societies or closed political societies—but engaging them in terms of influencing policies, influencing decision-making, and making them a partner in their own futures.
Abdullah Alaoudh: Back to you, Dr. Rasheed. When you write about Saudi Arabia and social reforms and when we talk about these things, we always get the response from many people that, well, there are changes on the ground. Are you denying that there are in fact real changes on the ground, that, let's face it, people are enjoying, and many people are applauding and taking advantage of? On the other hand, a lot of people would say, you guys are reporting from outside, and there are real changes and you should report on them. Do you see real changes, as opposed to what you call fake changes, and how do you see the percentage between the two?
The U.N. Human Development Reports have consistently reported on the three main factors that hinder reforms and social developments in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia: authoritarianism, limited women's rights and access to information. We see that more and more after Mohammed bin Salman came to power.
- Hala al-Dosari
Madawi al–Rasheed: Yes, absolutely, Abdullah. We are not blind to the changes. We can see the changes. But the biggest question and issue is, who are the beneficiaries of those changes? Is it all society? Are the changes inclusive? Are they for everyone, or are they for a selected elite that had benefited from those changes simply because of their loyalty to their regime and loyalty to the person of Mohammed bin Salman?
I do remember, when the issue of driving cars was important for women, interviewing a woman about whether she wants to drive and whether this is so important for her. She said to me—and it was a shock, you'd imagine that everybody would embrace this change—she said to me the issue for me is not whether I can drive. The issue for me is whether I can afford to buy a car, which is very telling. Because if you are a professional woman—you have a job, you have children, you need to rush them to school, you want to entertain yourself in the afternoon, take them to different events and classes—being able to drive is extremely important. We all know as working mothers, as working professional women, a car is extremely important. You don't want to be relying on a man to take you from A to B all the time and run errands for you. But the driving doesn't actually conceal the fact that there is a serious wealth disparity in one of the richest countries, not I would say in the Arab world, but in the world, with all the resources that it has. And we see that this gap hasn't been bridged.
The beneficiaries of Mohammed bin Salman's reforms or social reforms are not as widely spread. They are selective and target a specific constituency. This is why these so-called changes fall short of satisfying the majority of Saudis, men and women.
Take another example, the scholarship system that was introduced under King Abdullah. Thousands of students were sent abroad simply because of the failure of the local education system to produce skills that are suitable for a modern economy. This scholarship program absorbed quite a lot of the resources that could have been channeled into actually building decent universities that give people the skills required for the 21st century. But again, once you create a two-tier system of education, those who are educated abroad, who are fluent in languages, with new skills, technology, etc., and a local education system that fails to respond to the needs of your economy, then you are creating here a kind of division between those who are educated abroad and those who are left behind.
In all the projects that the government sponsored and made a lot of propaganda about, we find that they have unintended consequences. The consequences are if you are educated in a particular university in the country with very limited language skills and other technological skills, you are not really fit to compete with those who come from abroad. All your aspiration is to end up in a government job as a clerk or as a civil servant with a very low salary if you compare it to the neighboring countries, and therefore your prospects for promotion, for achievement, are limited. These are just examples of how the so-called development and so-called change had been really undermined by the ill thoughts that had gone into implementing the change and the policies.
Abdullah Alaoudh: Speaking of which, had there not been scholarships, Hala and I would have probably ended up in a Saudi university and living there or somewhere in Saudi Arabia, if not in jail. We were part of that scholarship system that you described. Of course, there are problems in this division that it created, as you described, but the scholarship itself benefited some people, as you said, and we may have been part of the people who benefited from this.
Madawi al–Rasheed: Yes, but the irony is that both of you have not returned to Saudi Arabia. This education and scholarship is a double-edged sword. You send people abroad, and of course the majority will come back, but it creates the nucleus of people who are aspiring toward a different way of life, different rights and freedoms, but that doesn't mean that the people who had stayed behind had been silent. In fact, quite a lot of them had never set foot outside the country and remained very active. You mentioned one of my books, Muted Modernists, [about ulama and intellectuals] who had come straight from the so-called conservative Saudi-Wahhabi establishment. They had been indoctrinated by the government and its religious scholars' propaganda, yet they were able to go beyond what was expected of them, although they had been educated and they are a product of the Saudi education system inside the country. They paid a high price, and some of them died in prison, such as Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid, who had formed one of the leading human rights, civil and political rights association in Saudi Arabia.
Education itself is a double-edged sword. It doesn't necessarily mean that if you stay in Saudi Arabia, and if you got educated in Saudi Arabia, you are going to remain silent and loyal and stop asking for your rights. Also, in a connected world as the one we live in, there are no boundaries anymore as to what goes on outside and inside. People have access to information, although there is heavy censorship inside Saudi Arabia.
Hala al-Dosari: I just wanted to add one thing about whether reforms are genuine or not. Every question of reform, we need to ask the question of, what is the intent of this reform? If the intent of this reform is not people-oriented, is not centered in the public interest, then we have to question this type of reform and the scope of that reform. When we think of driving, for instance, or when we think of the ability to travel, these are all perfect, but did these change the lives of women from certain sects of society where women live within conservative families? Definitely not. When we look at women from basically the majority of conservative society inside Saudi Arabia, we are witnessing on Twitter, in different cases, that women are being murdered, subjected to violence, because they have certain attitudes that are not acceptable to their immediate families, and the resources created by the government did not protect them.
Besides the reforms of the legal system, besides lifting the restrictions from an official point of view, there is not a change in the mindset, a shift in the mindset of society, which is something the government can never do. This is something that society has to be able to organize and mobilize, as we did in the guardianship campaign, as we did in the different campaigns on violence against women, as we did on the ability of women to commute. We have created public discourse. We have created narratives where women are able to voice their concerns, challenge the arguments. They write in local newspapers. They appear on local TV interviews. They were able to argue and discuss with their communities why these reforms are important. There is no mandate that comes from the top-down that says, we are criminalizing, for instance, discrimination against women in applying for jobs, or sexual harassment at the workforce, when in reality, many women will not be able to report sexual abuse, because they don't want to. They can't afford to lose their jobs. We don't have any kind of feedback loop in the system that would amplify women's voices—those voices that are essential to track down the impact of those kinds of reforms, because in parallel to enforcing certain reforms, women's voices have been suppressed.