RIYADH – Saudi Arabia is changing. When government officials here tell you that, you take it with an oversized grain of salt. But when Saudi human rights activists say the same, you pay attention.
"Baby steps," is how one bright young woman phrases it. She has studied abroad and recently become an attorney, one of only about 120 women admitted to the bar in this gender-segregated country.
Female attorneys in Saudi Arabia can practice only family law. But, she believes, over time other doors will open. "There is at least an acknowledgement that we need to evolve," she adds. More than that, this country's rulers have adopted a plan to reform if not transform their kingdom -- the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Self-interest is generally the sturdiest pillar on which to build. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and other royals -- in particular the young and dynamic deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud – understand that their extraordinary wealth and that of their country derives from a single source: the oil being extracted and sold to industrious peoples abroad.
When that oil runs out, or when competing means of producing energy diminish its value, what is to prevent the desert from reclaiming Saudi Arabia's palaces and mansions, its wide boulevards, its Rolex, Armani and Porsche outlets, its gourmet restaurants and elegant mosques?
Who will pay the salaries of the six millions Saudis (out of a total of 20 million) who now hold not-terribly-demanding government jobs, along with the 10 million foreign "guest workers" who, for a relative pittance, do the work Saudi citizens don't want to do? Nor is it inconceivable that competition for shrinking resources could lead to the kinds of conflicts now raging elsewhere in the region.
The blueprints for Saudi reform were unveiled last year under the title Vision 2030, which includes the National Transformation Program. Within less than a generation, subsidies and government jobs are to be trimmed, corruption and bureaucracy effectively combatted. A fast-growing private sector is to give rise to new industries and jobs. People would be freer – which is not to say they would be free.
Rather, Vision 2030 imagines Saudi Arabia becoming "a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method. We will welcome qualified individuals from all over the world and will respect those who have come to join our journey and our success." In other words, Saudi Arabia is to become a start-up nation instead of a pump-out kingdom.
For that to happen, the economy, culture and, not least, the state religion – an austere interpretation of Islam commonly known as Wahhabism -- will have to loosen up a bit. Last year, the Mutaween, the Saudi religious police -- enforcers of dress codes, gender apartheid and mandatory observance of prayer times -- were stripped of their power to arrest. Today, they may only observe and report transgressors to the regular police.
Among the country's foreign workers are at least a million Roman Catholics who are prohibited from establishing churches or praying in public. But the authorities now tend to turn a blind eye to small groups worshipping in their homes. Granting permission should not be confused with guaranteeing rights. "If even ten people are in my home," one Christian worker says, "there is a fear that there will be a knock on the door."
Internationally, too, changes have occurred. During the 1980s and '90s, Saudi Arabia took what many here now acknowledge was a giant step in the wrong direction. Following Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and, that same year, the siege of Mecca, a bloody uprising by what might be called ultra-Wahhabis, members of the royal family felt compelled to demonstrate their commitment to jihad. Billions of dollars were spent to build mosques and madrassas overseas and to send infidel-hating, terrorism-inciting clerics to preach and teach in them.
Among the results was al Qaeda which one Saudi intellectual candidly called "a Frankenstein's monster." Many Americans have not forgotten that 19 of the 22 "violent extremists" who attacked the United States on 9/11/01 were Saudi citizens. Do some wealthy Saudis continue to fund jihadists? Almost certainly. But American diplomats believe the government is now out of that business.
Though Israel is a neighbor most Saudis view with little sympathy, the continuing carnage in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and other reaches of the Islamic world seems to have made an impression. Few sophisticated Saudis still call the Jewish state the root of all the evil. They are acutely aware that the Islamic Republic of Iran poses an existential threat to both nations. And officials from both nations are now said to be quietly cooperating on intelligence and security.
The royals also are taking pains to encourage the powerful Wahhabi establishment to moderate and adopt a more liberal interpretation of sharia, Islamic law. These efforts have not been entirely successful. Jews and Christians continue to be denounced from some Saudi pulpits. Atheists are viewed as terrorists. And the textbooks used in schools here and abroad have not been completely purged of passages intended to inspire animosity toward non-believers. The best one can say is that there has been some improvement.
If Vision 2030 succeeds, Saudi Arabia will become more prosperous, more stable and less brutally repressive compared to most Muslim nations of the Middle East. The Saudis would work closely with Americans and others to oppose jihadists and to frustrate, perhaps even defeat, Iranian imperialism.Reform, like politics, is the art of the possible. At this fraught moment in history, is there a realistic alternative that would not be substantially worse for Saudi Arabia, the U.S., the region and the world?