Days before an aging King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was admitted to the hospital, he reached out to a 59 year younger, once estranged nephew. Both had become preoccupied by the next phase of the country’s development -- a post carbon Saudi Arabia. After their rift, both the uncle and his nephew Mohammed had forged ahead, laying a plan to embrace the vast potential of a carbon free future in Saudi Arabia – minus the oil revenues.
Now Mohammed’s father, Prince Salman was about to claim the throne. As Abdullah intended, Salman gave his son unprecedented control over the oil monopoly, the national investment fund, economic policy and the Ministry of Defense. The young prince is the anointed leader and power behind the throne. Author Peter Waldman writes
that “Western diplomats call him Mr. Everything. He’s 31 years old.”
This young prince defies Saudi norms and reflects a new genre of thinking, even “as he tries to emulate Steve Jobs, credits video games with sparking ingenuity and to top it all, he works 16 hour days.”
This to my mind reflects a long awaited new vision in Saudi Arabia led by the younger generation of princes.
For a country that has lived off its oil wealth and foreign reserves, Saudi Arabia was burning through its reserves. “This is a country that historically survived on its oil wealth which supported 90% of the state budget, its export earnings and more than half its gross domestic product,” writes Waldman.
And Mohammed understands that a post-Carbon Saudi Arabia cannot sideline the energies of half its population. A new role for women is a key ingredient in his strategy. His phrasing is revealing: “We believe women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain.”
Among them? The much debated freedom to drive. "If women were allowed to ride camels [in the time of the Prophet Muhammad], perhaps we should let them drive cars, the modern-day camels,’'
Mohammed has told Western businessmen.
Mohammed is playing a powerful religious and cultural card. Every Saudi will be reminded by his comment of Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, who hired the prophet to manage one of her camel caravans, and of Aisha, his youngest wife, who legendarily led any army into battle bareback on her own camel.
What Mohammed is conceding is that women already have these rights under Islam, but have not been allowed by Saudi society to enjoy them – and it’s a badly needed recognition. It’s high time that Muslim women reclaim their Islamic rights, pursue their educations and their dreams.
Is Mohammed for real? I asked my friend Samar Fatany,
a keen and long observer of evolving Saudi politics, and one of the most courageous voices inside the Kingdom, what she thought. She sent me a blog she had just written in the Saudi Gazette. Her answer – yes, this is real. “The national transformation plan outlined by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, second deputy premier and minister of defense, is an ambitious and daring move that can finally put an end to the strong hold of extremists in Saudi Arabia.”
Fatany says that the 2030 Vision is not just about diversifying the economy. It also challenges the hardline mindset that has rejected past efforts to reform and modernize Saudi society. She argues that “it can finally put an end to the hold of extremists.”
Fatany is an astute journalist
who has her finger on the Saudi pulse. She highlights the need for “people with leadership qualities who are bold, progressive, charismatic, wise and competent and above all have the moral integrity to confront challenges and provide innovative solutions".
She is fervent about “putting the right man or woman in the right place, for the job at hand.”
She lays out her own bold strategy for how Prince Mohammed can implement his goals in the face of anticipated fierce resistance from the entrenched religious reactionaries who hold Saudi Arabia back.
“The leadership needs to curb the dominance of ultra-conservatives who could obstruct the transformation plan with their intolerant sectarian, extremist and racist attitudes. The plan should include grassroots changes to empower moderate intellectuals, academics and professionals with a progressive vision for change.”
Fatany wants citizens to demonstrate strong support for government moves against hardliners. She also advocates for human rights, social justice and a non-discriminatory lens for both men and women.
“Judicial reform is critical for the success of the national transformation plan”
explains Fatany. Social justice calls for effective, codified Shariah to make both men and women aware of their legal rights and make them law-abiding and contributing citizens. She believes that the guardianship rule and not allowing women to drive are examples of un Islamic discrimination
“We can catch up with global progress by activating a vibrant civil society that complements government policies, pushes the implementation of laws and promotes the skills of citizenship and ethical behavior essential for a more productive society.”
Prince Mohammad Bin Salman had made it clear that this kind of soft power is a key ingredient in his strategy. One of the key goals is to increase art, culture and entertainment facilities for citizens. He promised to invest in museums, theaters and cultural activities. He said there are plans to open the largest Islamic museum in the world and to register Saudi archaeological sites with UNESCO.
Samar Fatany is a bold optimist who has articulately identified several key issues that if adopted and embraced could make a genuine difference in the productive lives of men and women eager to participate in the new Saudi Arabia. Ms. Fatany acknowledges that these new bold ideas are not necessarily compatible with the views of Saudi extremists. Engaging moderate imams who can respect diversity and embrace modernity is essential to the culture of change. She urges Islamic scholars to contemporize their thinking– especially since there is no clear Quranic basis for their hardline views.
Ms. Fatany urges Saudi scholars of different sects and different schools of thought to promote the genuine message of Islamic tolerance. They need to come up with a stronger narrative that negates the extremist ideology. “Only then can we implement the transformation plan to help Saudi Arabia assume its role as the leader of the Arab and Muslim world.”
Is it to much to hope that a new partnership is emerging in Saudi Arabia, between the women who have fought for years for recognition of their rights under Islam, and a young Prince who wants to take the country past its increasingly dangerous dependence on oil and understands that he needs their help?
At a time when so much in the Middle East is bleak, I hope not.