Speaking at an investment forum in Abu Dhabi in May 2018, former Congressman Eric Cantor had a lot to say about the “bold” reforms underway in Saudi Arabia. Cantor, currently working on Saudi Aramco’s highly anticipated IPO, was unsurprisingly effusive in praising the Saudi leadership for opening up sheltered economic sectors, and most especially the oil industry, to foreign investors looking “to be a part of the economic growth. . .” in the Kingdom.
Seemingly as an aside, Cantor also briefly mentioned the reform effort “ . . . has to do with social transformation as well.” Indeed, ever since King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman embarked on their Vision 2030 slate of economic and social initiatives launched two years ago, the former congressional leader and an array of other Western pundits have claimed Saudi society is experiencing a “revolution” in terms as broad as they are vague. Has Saudi Arabia in fact undergone radical sociocultural change almost overnight? In many ways it has. Does the army of consultants advising on the new initiatives deserve credit for importing a cultural revolution? Not quite.
Hidden Diversity of Thought
The current narrative surrounding Vision 2030 is right in crediting a younger, more dynamic, and ardently pro-Western Saudi leadership—and especially the Crown Prince—for taking decisions to bridge the gap between an aging ruling class and a population that skews far younger. However, outside commentators lose touch with realities on the ground when they claim he is having to “drag” the country towards opening up.
While the Crown Prince has certainly faced some resistance, painting Saudi social change as a top-down endeavor ignores the diversity of opinions, preferences, and viewpoints among more than 20 million Saudi citizens. Despite a clichéd image of an isolated desert nation, the Kingdom has been a major economic player in a globalizing world for three decades. It already has deep social, cultural, economic and educational links with both the United Kingdom and the United States.
Within contemporary Saudi Arabia, a wide variety of values, religiosity, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity abounds. That diversity helps explain why recent changes impact some Saudis far more than others. In the Kingdom today, the word “liberal” is often a catch-all used to describe those middle-class and upper middle-class (and often foreign-educated) segments of society whose values tend to be based more on modernity than on religious tradition. Many of the changes cater to Saudi liberals, who are prominently represented throughout the new government agencies implementing the reforms.
For these social liberals, the current changes are indeed a revolutionary break with the past. For much of the past century, these Saudis had to rely on royal patrons for protection from religious police and vigilantes. They deferred to the religious establishment’s conservatism publicly while teaching their children more cosmopolitan and modern values in private. No state institution manifested their liberal ethos, in opposition to the repressive conservative one, until a royal decree created the new General Entertainment Authority (GEA) in 2016. Come June, middle class and upper-middle class women will benefit most from ending the ban on women driving, in addition to already being able to openly listen to music, attend concerts, and participate in GEA-organized events. The Crown Prince is hardly forcing any of these women (or their male counterparts) to see the value of the new social and cultural openings. Instead, they constitute one of his most important constituencies and bases of support.
Change in Fits and Bursts
Unfortunately, these new freedoms will mainly count for women from liberal families. Those from families that disapprove of such pursuits can still legally be denied their newfound mobility by fathers and patriarchs (be they husbands, brothers, or even sons) under the guardianship system.
The leadership is aware of these divisions and the long road to a more relaxed social consensus. What we are witnessing is not a neoliberal reduction of state interventions, as Vision 2030 is often portrayed, but rather a change and shift in the nature of such interventions, with entertainment and sports featuring prominently. The Ministry of Culture and Information is carefully determining which (foreign) movies will be played — though state involvement sadly does not extend to reducing 75 riyals ($20 USD) ticket prices at Riyadh’s new cinemas. The ministerial-level General Sports Authority (GSA) dominates tabloids and popular discussions among Saudis of all ages.
The parallel projects of cultural opening and economic reform must eventually meet halfway, especially in securing the full independence and enfranchisement of Saudi women. While Saudi Arabia already has a determined women’s rights movement, the combination of changes in the state’s social policy and new economic opportunities may finally open space for societal debates thus far kept under wraps. The leadership’s role must be to now complement this opening by targeting the legal interpretations and enforcement carried out by the traditionalist, still largely autonomous judicial system.
A Clear-eyed View of Transformation
These debates—and the more important ones yet to come—make a reductionist view of the changes taking place within Saudi Arabia a mistake. The Kingdom needs its reforms to go further than the purely economic changes that please direct foreign investors and consultants like Mr. Cantor. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has already demonstrated a willingness to take on the religious establishment and the forces of tradition that far exceeds what young Saudis expected of previous monarchs. Within the framework of Vision 2030, he is making changes that many Saudi citizens have waited their entire lives to see. If Saudi Arabia is indeed undergoing social and cultural revolution, it is only a partial one. Making the new status quo sustainable, and pushing ahead further still, requires encouraging the emergence of a new pluralism that brings together liberals and conservatives, Sunnis and Shias, religious and irreligious, tribal and non-tribal, and political and apolitical.