SAUDI CROWN Prince Muhammad bin Salman attends a cabinet meeting in Riyadh earlier this month..
(photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/REUTERS)
Sunday marked the first time women in Saudi Arabia were officially allowed to drive. The fact that women can finally drive, after the decades-old ban was rescinded last September, has implications that go far beyond a move toward bettering women’s rights in the still highly traditional Saudi kingdom.
The decision was taken by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, often called MBS, as part of his move to bring parts of Saudi society up to date with the modern world. Another ruling permitted women to attend major sporting events, albeit with gender-separated seating, starting with a football match at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah in January.
MBS is leading the Vision 2030 program aimed at diversifying the economy, moving away from oil dependency and gradually opening up Saudi society. These moves include reopening cinemas and even trying to encourage a nascent movie industry, as well as allowing both sexes to attend concerts. He is also generally considered to be behind a significant anti-corruption crackdown that included other members of the huge royal House of Saud.
The ripples from these changes can be felt far from Riyadh. It is no secret that Israel and the Saudis, faced by the common enemy of the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran, are increasingly seen as being on the same side. Apart from the nuclear specter, Saudi Arabia has suffered from Iranian-sponsored rocket attacks from Yemen. There is obviously more contact between the Jewish state and the Sunni kingdom, albeit not in the open. Although Israelis cannot travel to Saudi Arabia, the inauguration in March of direct Air India flights to Israel through Saudi airspace should not be underestimated in showing improved Israeli-Saudi relations.
The ramifications for the latest Israel-Palestinian peace plans also need to be considered, especially in light of the visit this week by Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner on behalf of US President Donald Trump, who is keen to make the “Deal of the Century.” Saudi Arabia can put pressure on the Palestinians and the kingdom is currently more concerned with the Iranian threat and aggrandizement than it is with Palestinian posturing.
The visit to Israel this week by Britain’s Prince William, second in line to the throne, could also be seen in the Saudi context. This is the first official visit by a member of the British royal family since the modern State of Israel was established in 1948, although there have been unofficial visits by the Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and their son, Prince Charles.
It is likely one reason members of the British royal family have refrained from official visits until now was the fear of upsetting the Arab and Muslim world, and in particular, Saudi Arabia. Since the Saudis themselves now see common interests with Israel and are covertly cooperating in a number of fields, particularly in the battle against terrorism, the threat of retribution for a British royal acknowledgment of sovereign Israel has disappeared.
Perhaps, this should also be seen as part of generational change. Prince William is evidently being groomed for the day he accedes to the British throne, although his father is first in line. Crown Prince Muhammad is largely considered to be the strong man in the Saudi kingdom, although his father, King Salman, is still nominally in control.
In his early thirties, MBS is giving the Saudi kingdom a face lift. As major as these changes are, however, there is still a long way to go for Saudi Arabia to join the free, modern world. Human rights activists continue to be persecuted including, ironically, women who actively campaigned to be allowed to drive. Women continue to be subject to male guardianship laws and the strict Wahhabi dress code.
The results of yesterday’s elections in Turkey are also interesting in this context. The Muslim world is divided not only by the Sunni-Shi’a split but also between the Arab and non-Arab states in which Turkey and Iran are on the opposite side from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others.
MBS’s modernization measures therefore, even if limited, could be a driving force for regional change.