Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has seen some major, positive changes regarding the freedom of its citizens. These changes have been spearheaded by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia has long been, and continues to be, among the most oppressive countries on the planet. But now, as illustrated by the end of the driving ban on women, things are starting to change. While women have seen the most gains from recent reforms, they also had the most to gain. But the reform movement has spread beyond women’s rights as well. The Crown Prince has called for a return to “moderate Islam”, and cinemas and other forms of entertainment are once again being allowed in the country.
First let me focus on women’s rights. There is nowhere in the world with more restrictions on women than Saudi Arabia. The crux of this oppression lies in Saudi Arabia’s ‘guardianship system’. The guardianship laws prevent women from freely exercising what few rights they do have as they can do almost nothing without approval from their guardian. They cannot work, travel, marry or divorce, live alone, or even leave a prison (even if they are detained without charge or their sentence is up) without consent from their guardian. They will be able to get a driver’s license without approval, though they still can’t travel freely. In addition to the guardianship laws, virtually all public spaces are gender segregated. Shopping malls, schools, public pools, you name it and women don’t have equal access. But still, things are changing. Women can now vote, and they can drive! There are still a great many gains to be made, but this is a good start.
Another key thrust of the Crown Prince’s reforms is his push to reform Saudi Islam, known as Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an incredibly intolerant and puritanical from of Islam. An extensive review of Wahhabi beliefs and the Saudi’s global support for them can be found here. Wahhabism is in the same vein of the kind of fundamentalist Islam practiced by ISIS and al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia has used its vast financial resources to export these beliefs around the world. So when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia calls for a return to “moderate Islam” it is hugely significant, given the Kingdom’s ideological hold on the entire Muslim world. When Saudi Arabia moderates, so does Islam as a whole. While details have been scarce regarding how the Kingdom will rein in its clerics, other than perhaps jailing them, Saudi Arabia has already made a strong commitment to restore public entertainment to the country and open up society.
Greater personal freedom for Saudis does not mean greater political freedom, however. This is still an absolute monarchy, ruled by royal decree and the whims of the monarch. The Crown Prince’s anti-corruption drive has amounted to little more than a shake-down of the Kingdom’s rich and powerful. This is not a country governed by the rule of law, but one in which any individual can be seized at any moment by the government, and stripped of all rights and freedoms. To cement this point, a month before the end of the driving ban took place, numerous women’s rights activists were jailed, lest people begin to believe in the power of protest. But still, we can’t expect everything to change at once, can we? Saudi Arabia has a long way to go, but it is finally moving in a good direction.