The recent decision by Saudi Arabia to allow PE classes for girls in public schools represents a small, albeit important, renovation in the House of Saud.
Better known for frail geriatrics than energetic youth, King Salman unexpectedly deposed Crown Prince Nayef in favour of his dynamic son, Mohammed bin Salman. Moreover, a series of younger princes have been appointed to ministries and regional governments.
Salman has eased guardianship laws and allowed women access to healthcare, education and travel without the consent of male kin.
As part of his Vision 2030, aimed to overhaul and diversify the economy, women are acknowledged as a valuable resource in the labor market and given opportunities to increase their participation.
These reforms reflect the imperative to shift from a single-source economy because of the downward trajectory of the oil price, no longer under control of the world’s largest producer.
More than half the population is younger than 25, and Internet savvy. In order to avoid political unrest and eschew dependence on largesse, the state must improve the dismal employment outlook, especially for women. Open communication with the youth is vital, and the popular Mohammed, at 31, is more likely to connect and embody their hopes for the future.
Salman’s predecessor, Abdullah, had initiated reforms in women’s education. He opened a women’s university for 50,000 students outside Riyadh, established the coeducational King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and granted scholarships to thousands of Saudi students of both sexes for study abroad. This policy was not without risk, as young Saudis were exposed to Western culture that was often branded dangerous.
The autocratic Saudi state continues to stifle the activities of women reformers, who have initiated Internet campaigns, such as “I am My Own Guardian” and “Women2Drive” despite restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. Altering the sexist driving rules might appear trivial, however doing so would threaten sexual segregation, the bedrock of Saudi's puritanical Islam. With an educated female population, institutionalized sexual segregation will need to be addressed.
Saudi Arabia is locked into Wahhabi ideology at home and its spread abroad. Since the mid 18th century, when the Saudis formed an alliance with a zealous Muslim cleric, Muhammad al-Wahhab, the monarchy has depended on religious authorities for legitimacy to rule.
In return, they ceded education, law and missionary activities to the clergy. The influx of extremists from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movement further radicalized Saudi doctrine.
Extreme Islam was also advanced by rivalry with theocratic Iran for leadership of the Muslim world, and by the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca that led to a policy of stricter Islam to appease the jihadi rebels. Bred to combat the West, jihadists eventually turned their attention to attacks on Saudi soil.
Islamic State and sympathisers have been blamed for a series of suicide bombings in the past few years. The Grand Mosque was a recent target, and attacks on Shia mosques have inflamed the restive Shia minority in oil-rich Eastern Province.
Mohammed is destined to face these challenges as he relieves his ailing father from responsibilities. The kingdom is trying to deradicalize jihadis returning from Middle East war zones. It is engaged in a protracted war with Iranian proxies in Yemen, and watches with dismay as Iran carves a land corridor via Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to the Mediterranean.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has appealed to Muslim leaders for a “religious revolution” for the sake of world peace. Steered by a new hand on the taps of terror and reform, the House of Saud’s opaque gerontocracy and religious behemoth could assist by reinventing itself with a new deck of cards.
A version of this article was originally featured in The Australian