Real Change or a Smokescreen for Oppression? A Look at the Latest Saudi Reforms
Federica Zoja 26 July 2021

A month ago, the Saudi authorities announced that, as of this year, Saudi women wishing to undertake the Hajj (one of the five pillars of the Islamic religion, the obligatory pilgrimage for all those who can afford it, physically and economically) can register independently; that is, without the permission of a male guardian. In short, no more mahram, a guardian that for women was capable of positive or negative influence, even in religious matters. An important step in the expansion of women’s rights that landed just a few days after another historical turning point: the possibility of living alone. Women no longer require permission from their father or from the male family member responsible for their protection (so far, the most penalized were the under 45s, while those over were required a clearance from their mahram). It is worth remembering that from 2019 they can apply for a passport and travel abroad alone, without the consent of their ‘guardian’. The system that equates women to minors, making them subject to the will of fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins ​​throughout their existence, has therefore been further eroded.

In the meantime, various professional fields have opened their doors to women: this year, the women within the Saudi civil protection have been involved in health checks on pilgrims travelling for the Islamic festival of Eid el-Adha. This year there are just 60,000 partaking in the pilgrimage due to the pandemic – exclusively citizens or foreigners nationals in the kingdom and female agents will be able to verify their green passes, documents, and body temperature. The expansion of the rights of Saudi women, combined with an intense PR campaign aimed at making the changes known internationally, is one of the tools in the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s arsenal to try and regain his position in the international community, after the (horror movie-worthy) murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which took place in October 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. An atrocious event that has darkened the image of the kingdom among Western allies, even failed to alienate their economic cooperation.

The release of some human rights activists, the now consolidated dialogue with Israel, the commitment to peace talks with Tehran to end the Yemeni conflict are all cards up the crown prince’s sleeve that he is playing on his way to rehabilitating his image.

The restoration of relations with the United Arab Emirates is part of the Saudi effort, which had been put at risk by some delicate economic-political dossiers, primarily energy. Abu Dhabi disputes the system of national crude oil quotas introduced by the Organization of Exporting Countries (OPEC) for its member states: the Emirates consider themselves penalized by too small a portion of exports and therefore boycott the agreements between OPEC and its partners. Sidelining the UAE cannot fail to influence the stability of crude oil prices. The compromise reached at the beginning of July between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, promoter of centralized control of production and export, seems to have brought calm in the Gulf, but analysts fear that it will not last long: the Emirates have in fact only obtained half of what they asked by banging their fists. The agreement, which expires at the end of 2021, will inevitably have to be renegotiated if a UAE exit from OPEC is to be avoided.

The rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the oil issue has highlighted the growing economic rivalry between the two countries, already exasperated by the pandemic. The competition is now openly reflected also on the regional political level, where everyone moves independently in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and the Horn of Africa. And probably also in Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon, to take advantage of increasingly unstable and precarious scenarios. Now more than ever, the Saud family should mend relations with “their brothers in Abu Dhabi”, who are more accepted on the international scene. MBS has already tried by inviting to his Emirati counterpart, de-facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Nayan, crown prince of the Nayan line. At the height of Eid el-Adha, the Emirati delegation landed in the Saudi capital under the spotlight of the mainstream media.

The press has given ample coverage to a recent – and drastic – decision by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, sponsored by its minister Abdullatif al-Sheikh: to lower the volume of the mosque loudspeakers. Exasperated Saudi families request the volume be dampened, especially in the evenings, due to the “competition” between muezzins in calling the faithful to prayer. The volume should be reduced to a third of the maximum even in the case of sermons. Of course, this determined ministerial intervention is not a trivial matter: it too is part of a gradual, but steadfast, process of reform of Saudi society in which religion will play a different role, less pervasive within the public sphere and more reserved to the private one. This is how the next king imagines a Saudi Arabia of the future: with fewer social restrictions, while negating political dissent. MBS has even limited the power of the more conservative sheikhs who voiced their discontent.

The socio-religious (and consequently also political) transformation is of interest. Even one of the traditional prerogatives of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), to check that all commercial activities stop five times a day, corresponding to the ritual prayers, is not immune. For offenders, Saudi law enforced suspension from work or closure for an indefinite time, and, in the case of foreign workers, even detention or deportation. But the rule of closure for devotion no longer has any place in a ‘modernized’ Saudi Arabia. To be more precise, a few days ago the Federation of Saudi Chambers of Commerce received a brief service circular that commits all businesses to remaining open during working hours, especially during prayers to prevent the spread of Covid-19, diluting the influx of customers throughout the day and to make the service more efficient. Having to close for compulsory prayer, shops, pharmacies, workshops, and supermarkets had to shut for at least two hours a day during full working hours.

The path of ‘secularization’ – to be understood as a lightening of the rules, not their cancellation – is always the same: no political discussion in the Shura Council (the topic, in truth, was scheduled in June, only to disappear in the span of a few hours); silence from the authorities, a few news leaks, and, finally, the implementation of the new provisions, that so to speak ‘fell from above’. Octroyées, we could say, in the manner of the European royal statutes of two centuries ago.

The moral police are also progressively losing their power in persecuting men and women who do not respect the segregation between the sexes, while the power of the secret service grows, committed to finding political opponents at home or abroad, as the so-called Pegasus Project report has uncovered. Riyadh obviously denies having spied on the cell phones of journalists, intellectuals, and dissidents using the Israeli software, Pegasus.

Dissent runs rife on social media, a realm favored by activists, who find themselves even more limited in their outcry due to Covid-19. On Twitter and Facebook, criticisms of the kingdom’s ‘new’ course follow two different lines: there are those who accuse the prince of having denied traditional Islamic and cultural roots; and those who, on the other hand, from a progressive perspective, denounce the repression of those who yearn for democracy. And then there is the Shiite minority, residing mostly in the east of the kingdom, on the Persian Gulf, who are systematically discriminated against. Nassima al-Sadah served her full sentence in prison for defending the rights of Shiite Saudis (about 10-15% of a population of 23 million). A writer and activist was detained in al-Mabahith prison for three years until June 29th. For the record, none of the human rights defenders released in Saudi Arabia this year were released early.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s desired multi-year economic and social development plan, dubbed Vision 2030, certainly does not include royal acts of clemency. Nor will it abandon abuse and torture by the police and secret service outside and inside the prisons of the kingdom, which remains a model of obscure totalitarianism.


Cover Photo: A Saudi female employee trains members of the staff at a new hypermarket run by a team of women – Jeddah, 21/2/2021 (Amer Hilabi / AFP).

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