Everywhere you look, it seems, the Middle East is in flames. Yet, almost unnoticed by outside observers, the most conservative country in the region has embarked on a historic journey of reform.
Last week, a senior official in one of the worlds wealthiest states suggested that one third of all government jobs should go to women.
Switzerland? Denmark? France?
Wrong, the country is Saudi Arabia, and the senior official is Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the crown prince. In a state that has embraced the most misogynous readings of the Koran and a society that remains deeply patriarchal, Prince Sultans statement was truly revolutionary.
As Sultans older brother, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, visits Spain, Poland, and France this week, it may not be obvious that Saudi Arabia is undergoing a substantive transformation, but it is. Although the Kingdoms diplomatic exploits capture the headlinesits efforts to counter Iranian influence in the Arab world, support for peace in Lebanon, and the Saudi-sponsored Arab League peace initiative to name just a fewits domestic changes are likely to be more far-reaching, durable, and consequential.
The Saudi monarch is pushing forward a surprisingly reformist domestic agenda, but his task is delicate. Five key actors will determine how this drama plays out: The 20 or so senior princes (including the king), the civil service, the merchant class, younger princes, and the religious establishment. King Abdullah can win this fight, but he cant do it alone. By seeing Saudi Arabia as more than just a place to sell arms, buy oil, or fight terror, Europe and the United States can tilt the balance of power toward more reformist elements and marginalize the forces of religious reaction. The stakes couldnt be higher: King Abdullah is battling not just stubborn conservatives and parts of his own family who are resistant to change, but Saudi history itself.
Modern Saudi Arabia took form in the middle of the 18th century, when a puritanical Islamic reformer, Mohammed Ibn Abdulwahab, made an alliance with an Arabian tribal prince, Mohammed ibn Saud. It was a trade of religious legitimacy for political power, an alliance that endures today. The trouble is that the Islam of Mohammed Ibn Abdulwahab adheres to a narrow definition of the Salaf, the traditions and practices emulated by companions of the prophet Mohammed, and has narrowed further through subsequent interpretation by members of the Saudi religious establishment. It is, as a result, deeply antimodern. (When the late King Faisal sought to introduce television in the mid-1960s, the religious establishment balkedthat is, until the king showed them an image of a religious man chanting verses from the Koran on the black-and-white screen.)
This allianceof an antimodern religious establishment and a ruling family with modernizing elementshas shaped modern Saudi Arabia, often for the worse. In the early 1980s, the late King Fahd, fearful of the effects of Irans Islamic Revolution and reeling from a Saudi extremist attack on the Grand Mosque of Mecca, sought to co-opt the more conservative Salafists. So, he made a bargain: While the king and the civil service would still control the hardwaredefense, finance, oil, and foreign policyhe essentially handed over the softwarethe education system and the courtsto conservative forces.
During the next two decades, the Salafists proceeded to reprogram Saudi society: Religious police roamed the streets, confronting those who did not pray or women who showed too much hair; extremist teachers spewed anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Shiite invective; religious courts stifled womens rights; well-funded Saudi universities created a generation of Islamic studies majors with few marketable skills; and funds poured into all corners of the Muslim world to support extreme Salafist thinking. All the while, the clerics sought to shut out foreign influences that could corrupt Saudi morals.
Of course, Saudi Arabia was not Afghanistan under the Taliban. Other social forces counterpunched, most notably the civil service, the prominent merchant families, the urban intelligentsia, and a handful of modernizing princes. Meanwhile, regions of the Kingdom with histories of cosmopolitanismmost notably the Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia where Mecca is locatedresisted the encroaching social conservatism. Moreover, the tens of thousands of Saudi elites who studied in the United States in the 1970s and 80s brought back with them modern ideas about business and economic development; satellite television, which first appeared in the early 1990s, brought still more corrupting foreign influences into millions of Saudi living rooms.
Still, the empowerment of the Salafists in the King Fahd era was enough to stunt the Kingdoms development and raise religious radicalism to dangerous new heights. Thats why King Abdullahs quiet reversal is so importantand potentially revolutionary. Through acts small and large, he has already marginalized the Salafists in favor of the civil service and merchants, who have, in return, used their traditional spheres of influencebusiness, trade, and government policyto promote change in society.
Open-minded ministers running the Information Ministry and the Labor Ministry have allowed a mild renaissance in the Saudi media and pushed for greater access to employment for womenanathema to the Salafists. Ambitious Saudi officials have pledged to make the Kingdom one of the 10 most competitive economies in the world. Already, in order to qualify for World Trade Organization status (achieved in December 2005), Saudi Arabia has changed or refined more than 50 laws, all of which open the Saudi economy and thus society to more interaction with the world. Saudi Arabia ranks among the highest in World Bank regional studies of business climate and public-sector reforms.
Perhaps most illustrative of King Abdullahs vision is the new university to be opened in his name. It will focus on science and technology. It will have coeducational classes (another small revolution). And it wont be in the hands of the Salafists: A separate curriculum is being planned to ensure that the remaining holdouts in the education ministry dont scuttle things. Whats more, a mood of dialogue has taken hold: the King Abdulaziz National Dialogue Center, named after King Abdullahs father, brings together leading figures in public lifeincluding the Shiites, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the Kingdoms population and are despised by the Salafiststo debate pressing issues of the day. And technological advances are breaking down social barriers: Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones have become an essential item for the young Saudi who wants to meet members of the opposite sex. And the religious police, the fearsome mutawain, have been reined in.
The Salafists, however, are not entirely knocked out. When Saudis voted in municipal elections last year, Islamist candidates were the big winners. Some of the more establishment, conservative Salafists maintain close ties to the 20 or so senior princes who command key positions. Salafists might lead calls to reverse the emergence of women in the workforce, which could gain some traction given the patriarchal nature of Saudi society. Extreme Salafists have also resisted the Internet, key educational reforms, and the emergence of Shiite figures in national debates.
Heres where Europe and the United States can step in. Europe and the United States should embrace Saudi Arabias newfound economic openness with strategic investments and trade agreements aimed at bolstering the Kingdoms manufacturing and industrial capacity, creating jobs for the countrys growing middle class. By doing this, Washington and Brussels will be supporting the civil service and merchants who favor modernization and contributing to the marginalization of Salafists. A growing, industrializing economy will provide a virtuous loop that reinforces education reform as more Saudis seek the skills to compete. Issue number one on the minds of many Saudisnearly two thirds of whom are under 30is unemployment. If the civil service, the merchants, and the reform-minded king can create new jobs, their new alliance will gain the legitimacy of success.
Part of the kings jobs strategy includes the creation of six massive new special economic zones (essentially free-trade zones) that will provide much-needed diversification to an economy still dominated by oil. It will also contribute to the backdoor modernization that takes place as middle classes grow and economies become interlinked with the world. The zones are seeking joint ventures in research and high technology from the United States and the European Union, and the zones are also expected to be a freer environment socially as well.
A modernizing, moderate Saudi Arabia could be a lodestar for an Islamic world in turmoil. For most of modern Saudi history, the Kingdom has simply poured fuel on the burning oils of the Muslim world. Getting its own house in order by empowering the forces of modernization is a positive first step. But Europe and the United States need to realize that they have an important role to play in writing the countrys next chapter.