ART BY ESTELLE ZHOU
Here, a woman captures a selfie among a sea of brightly-lit food trucks and feverish festival-goers; there, a woman cruises past the highrises and streetlights of a busy part of town in her own car, without worrying about the legal implications of being a female driver.
But here is not just anywhere: These seemingly common occurrences are emerging as progressive changes in Saudi Arabia, a notoriously conservative nation that is working its way into the modern world of more developed nations.
Today, with the encouragement of its new, progressive leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is paving the way for stand-up comedy clubs, luxurious movie theaters and amusement parks two and a half times larger than Disney World.
A beloved hero in millenials’ eyes, bin Salman proves to be an appealing leader because of his progressive ideologies and the actions he has taken on such beliefs thus far. Since his rise to the crown in 2017, he has broken a number of oppressive status quos: in June 2018, he lifted the infamous ban on female drivers, and he has since been working to obliterate numerous several other bans.
Additionally, bin Salman has a bold vision for his country—aptly christened as Saudi Vision 2030—to diminish his country’s economic reliance on oil. For instance, the new government agency called General Entertainment Authority is funneling capital away from the oil markets by promoting investment in the untapped entertainment industry.
As the world witnesses such radical changes of a once authoritarian regime, leaders cannot help but rejoice at the idea of Saudi Arabia moving toward a more constitutional foundation, rather than the oppressive monarchy the nation has rested on for so many years.
But this sudden change also leaves the world highly skeptical of underlying motives. Traditionally, power is distributed evenly between the hard-line religious officials called the Wahhabi clerics and the House of Saud, or the royal family, so perhaps, the millennial Crown Prince imposed social reforms in attempt to tip the ancient balance of power towards a monarchy. Furthermore, the House of Saud is infamous for their lavish lifestyle, which has been threatened by the sharp drop of crude oil prices since 2014. This leads to the question of whether this generation’s most beloved hero faithfully modernizing a historically intolerant regime, or merely creating an illusion of change to pursue his ulterior motives.
Behind the neon lights and picture-perfect Snapchat stories, the pillars of an authoritarian government still stands tall. Ultimately, bin Salman’s efforts to modernize society should not be considered a step towards constitutionalism and freedom because he is merely funneling his nation’s wealth and power for himself and his supporters.
More often than not, he has remained loyal to his predecessors’ traditional rulings: silencing the opposition and instilling fear into their citizens. Several of the perceptions in Saudi Arabia seem extremely suspicious: women’s rights activists remain on the country’s most wanted list, despite a supposed flip in bans to favor women. For instance, prominent activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada were arrested for “their previous human rights work.” Unfortunately, this was not their first time. In addition, Saudi Arabia arrested nearly every founder of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, an organization that worked to further human and political rights in the nation. This blatant juxtaposition between social progress and political stagnation is particularly eerie and discouraging. Just as strong of an iron fist as his predecessors, Muhammad bin Salman implies that liberation of women is solely intended to give the people a tiny taste of freedom, far from any true progression that the citizens of Saudi Arabia, as well as other nations, are expecting.
Though still in the early days of his reign, bin Salman has already demonstrated an unquenchable thirst for power. Most notably, in November 2017, he gathered as many as 500 people, from government ministers to members of the royal families, as a part of his anti-corruption crusade. However, his primary motive for this righteous cause may not be to serve the people; rather, it is most likely to deceive the public eye into consolidating his monarchical power amidst widespread criticism of both his age and his country’s long-standing conservative ideals. Although he is inching the country toward slight progress, his method in making this egalitarian vision into reality is reminiscent of that of a totalitarian ruler.
Of course, bin Salman’s efforts to bring the country into modern light is no doubt an important step for Saudi Arabia. For this nation that has struggled endlessly to accept seemingly obvious notions of social conformities such as gender equality, the actions that bin Salman has taken are phenomenally precious. However, it is important for such a nation not to simply dwell on this minimal change; instead, citizens in the country must take this incident as an initiation for more. To further move this country toward a democratic front and to overcome bin Salman’s intended deception, the people of Saudi Arabia must take such an opportunity to rally and to push for change.
This is simply not enough.
After all, compared to developed western countries such as the England, France and the United States, all of which bin Salman claims to replicate, his advancement of gender equality is far from true political change. Such concepts are already so instilled in other countries that it is a given for society to even function. For Saudi Arabia’s leader to receive this much acclaim over such a menial change is completely absurd, undermining the true goals of the reform in the nation.
Only after both bin Salman and, most importantly, the citizens of Saudi Arabia realize just how much more change the nation must undergo before becoming a truly modernized country, will any inconsistencies behind bin Salman’s motives be obliterated and the country successfully reformed.
In order to instill lasting changes in a historically intolerant society, there must be a compromise between the austere religious values and liberal western concepts of individuality and equality. Understandably, causing even a small ripple in the Islamic world will not be an easy feat; this has been a world built from and built for those with an unwavering belief in ancient Islamic beliefs. However, Saudi Arabia cannot thrive in its bubble forever; bin Salman has begun to realize that, and the Wahhabi clerics and religious authorities must do so too.
On a final note, I will leave with the cliché statement, “change does not happen overnight.” Saudi Arabia has a long way to go in its mission to modernize an ancient society, but change all starts with the people. Saudi Arabians must wield bin Salman’s deceptive political weapons to the their favor, and spread the democratic and reformist spirit amongst the feverish festival crowds.