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Embracing Change, With Caution

June 28, 2018

 

There is a school of thought known as philosophical skepticism. Adherents to this viewpoint believe there is no absolute certainty in knowledge. 

The same can be said of politics. 

This past Sunday as the clock struck midnight and Saturday, June 23 became Sunday, June 24, countless women backed their cars out of their driveways and drove down bustling city streets. Several hours later, many more women dropped their children off at play dates or lessons while driving around their respective towns running errands. Even more women drove themselves to work on Monday, June 25, 2018. 

No big deal.

Except this was Saudi Arabia. And just like that, as the clock struck midnight the Saudi ban on women drivers was lifted, metaphorically struck down as well. What had been verboten just minutes earlier was now, with the strike of the clock, completely legal and perfectly OK.

The critical word here is legal. To many, the law in Saudi Arabia is the prison shackling women to their homes, their husbands, and their fathers. This perspective, however, is superficial. Even if the law is the prison, more often than not the law is not the prisoner’s shackles. Culture, religion, society, and conformity: these are the true shackles keeping women bound to their posts.

Both pundits and practitioners have praised the end of the Saudi ban. At the nucleus of the Muslim world, this symbolic change granting Saudi women the right to keys and motor engines is more than symbolic, predictive perhaps of the end of Wahhabi orthodoxy. Perhaps. Since Mohammad bin Saud secured the title of Crown Prince to the Saudi monarchy a year ago he has attempted to prove that Islam is not unbending; his primary evidence corroborating this assertion has been the recent liberation of Saudi women and the liberalization of Saudi society. The country’s first movie theatres opened last year. Women can publicly play music. Mandatory segregation of cafes is ending. Women can attend sporting events. And on Sunday, women were granted the legal right to drive. 

The lionization of the Crown Prince is pervasive, manifest by the ubiquitous fawning of the media, politicians, and diplomats. Yet through the glitz and the glam of all of these very heartening changes I, however, remain a political skeptic. 

In Vision 2030, his blueprint for the new Saudi Arabia, MBS (as the Crown Prince is colloquially known) references technology as the spark that will steer Saudi Arabia into the twenty-first century. He has accordingly set out a five and ten-year plan to facilitate technology’s incorporation into the classroom, the workforce, and even the tourism industry, further stating that the internet will effectively be a tool for government transparency. 

The Crown Prince has unreservedly embraced technology and transparency. Yet, journalists are paradoxically still imprisoned for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s human rights policy on the internet.

In Vision 2030, MBS further embraced government accountability, launching a comprehensive anti-corruption campaign. MBS, the Don of this revolutionary charge, points to the November crusade that landed members of the royal family in the Ritz Carleton, a virtual prison and the penultimate mockery of their riches-to-rags descent, as proof that no-one is exempt from the newfound policy of transparency and accountability. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that MBS, Don Quixote himself, purchased a French Chateau. It seems comprehensive accountability, anti-corruption, and transparency comes with an opt-out option for the Crown Prince. 

Contradictions are embedded in Saudi Arabia’s changing public policy, but the one that has me the most skeptical is with regards to Saudi women. Saudi women are legally allowed to drive, but to what extent will this new law be an agent of change? Journalists and advocates of both genders are still locked in prison and denied the basic human right of due process, charged with protesting, ironically, Saudi Arabia’s policies on women. 

And while women of all ages took to the streets on Sunday to drive, even more women remained at home, denied their now legal right to the car keys not by the law but by their male guardians. When asked about the new law, Abdullah, a taxi driver in Riyadh, maintained that he would never grant the women in his life the right to drive. “I’m happy for others to have this choice. But our lives were just fine the way they were.” 

Other women remained at home not because of the men in their private lives, but because of the men on the street. Noura, a 20-year-old chemistry student, verbalized what countless other women were thinking: she would not be driving any time soon out of fear of being pulled over by a male police officer and “harassed, molested, or worse.” She explained “Men here have a very low mentality. I mean, think about how they’ve been taught for so long.” 

The law has changed. And so technically, the prison door has opened. But the shackles remain as tight as ever. A new law cannot change decades of religious indoctrination or suddenly affect the widespread transformation of a national ethos. Men still forbid their wives and daughters from putting the key in the ignition. And some are eager to take advantage of women out alone on the street; fastened to no male, they appear to be fair game.

The law has changed, but the culture it seems is more resolute. And changing culture is a more onerous task. 

A former associate professor for women’s history at King Saud University has spent years advocating in Saudi Arabia for the trivial yet powerful right to drive an automobile. The announcement that women will be granted this right was pronounced in September. Within hours, she received a cautionary call: The Crown will not tolerate you boasting this victory on social media.

Changing policy is not a triumph for social advocates, it is a triumph for MBS.  

There is a strong, inextricable link between politics and vanity. These past twelve months have bared witness to the tremendous political change in Saudi Arabia. Yet these changes beg the question: are they tethered to MBS’s vanity and concern for his reputation, or his true, unadulterated belief in liberating Islam from Wahhabism’s stronghold, and granting his country the freedoms they’ve long been denied? This answer will determine everything. 

Of politics, Charles Krauthammer wrote: “Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything… lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away… Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians.” 

Saudi Arabia is on the brink of a change of historic proportions. Its politics have the opportunity to yield Krauthammer’s more advanced, efflorescent culture. On June 24, 2018, MBS made the intrepid political gambit and granted women the legal right to drive. We are told that this political move was motivated by his desire to liberate his country from Wahhabism and emancipate his economy from oil. But this seemingly virtuous policy is still littered with hypocrisy and contradictions. Can he unshackle women, embrace technology, sing the praises of accountability and transparency, and defeat corruption, without similarly leading a new human rights agenda and holding himself and his reign to the same standards to which he held the men in the Ritz Carleton in November? Can change of this magnitude really be achieved without refurbishing the country’s political composition? Can true change occur when public opinion and judgment are constrained in the clutches of censorship?  Like King Midas, MBS’ gifts could also be his greatest weakness. Charm, intellect, and headstrong idealism may be enough to change the law, but changing culture and society is a Sisyphean task. 

 

The Crown Prince has managed to secure a title bequeathed with the authority of gatekeeper to Islam. Yet the responsibility that dovetails that station is grander than the title itself. “To the world, you may be one person,” they say. But I say, never underestimate what a single person with the right idea, attitude, and courage, can accomplish. Especially when the one person is the gatekeeper to Medina and Mecca.

I’m an idealist. I believe that perverse political ideas, like locking up journalists who disagree with you or transforming your country without any change to your country’s political underpinnings, are condemned to death. I’m also a political skeptic. I doubt the sincerity of change when it is implemented too swiftly, when it is grounded in the monopolization of power, when it is fastened, indivisible, to a single man’s name. Politics is change’s ultimate gatekeeper—I doubt politics when its motive is vanity. 

Yet what about the converse? When political change is ushered after decades of religious extremism and political ennui, change, no matter its haste, can be a breath of fresh air and a powerful tool for good. 

It is because of the confluence of these factors— the timing of the change, MBS paying lip-service to eradicating degenerate rules—that I say never underestimate what a single person with the right idea, attitude, and courage, can accomplish. And if nothing else, Mohammad bin Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the future gatekeeper of Medina and Mecca, has the eyes, not just of the world in general, but of the Islamic world in particular, trained on his Kingdom. Change, indisputably, is in the air. As a favor to Krauthammer, MBS is building a new moat, new walls for his country. Whether it will effectively keep out the barbarians remains to be seen. I hope, for everyone’s sake, that it will.