An invitation-only gala screening of Black Panther in Saudi Arabia on April 19 has attracted worldwide attention as the country’s first public viewing of a film in over three decades. For Saudis themselves, however, the event was just the latest taste of the economic and social transformation promised by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and his Vision 2030 plan for his fellow Saudis. The reopening of Saudi movie theatres, long shuttered by hardline Wahhabi clerics, is one of several initiatives to lighten the nation’s stifling social burdens.
Together with marked improvements in the status of women, the return of cinema is part of a gradual break with an overly radical form of Islam. It points to an awareness among Saudi Arabia’s rulers that the hardships of a significant share of the population urgently need to be addressed. Letting women drive and screening films represent two important signs, but neither answers the question being asked by Western partners and human rights organisations. When it comes to internal liberties and foreign policy, will Saudi’s Vision 2030 truly lead to substantive change?
To answer that question, we must remember the prince’s reform programme is focused on economic modernization. By tearing down barriers to access and streamlining the business environment, Vision 2030 is designed first and foremost to attract new investors. Diversification towards a service- and knowledge-based national economy is not only designed for Saudi growth – which stagnated in 2017 – but also upstream preparation for a post-oil era. Despite having some of the most substantial fossil fuel reserves in the world, Riyadh has accepted oil rents cannot constitute a sustainable basis for the economy.
Those changes have some experts predicting the birth of a more modern Kingdom, with economic structures better positioned to combat wealth inequality and avenues for poorer Saudis to advance to the middle class. Both are critical to reinforcing the country’s vitality and growth, as are respect for international reporting and transparency standards. Efforts to win over foreign economic partners have had the salutary side-effect of fostering an unmistakable social and political openness that calls into question Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed and regressive image.
Grounds For Optimism?
Optimists include Emmanuel Macron, who welcomed MBS to Paris in mid-April. Speaking to domestic critics as much as his Saudi counterpart, France’s president outlined his position as such: “Our determination to fight terrorism, our desire for stability in the region, our ambition to modernize our societies, and our wish to bring about a secular vision of our societies and pursue of a political project allowing for individual emancipation have a better chance of success if we work together.”
Movie theatres and expanded rights for women – the right to drive, act on stage, join the army, become a lawyer, start a company, etc. – are important, as are the partial disenfranchisement of the religious police (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also generally known as the Mutawa) and the pursuit of new cultural policies. However, all of these steps remain limited for the time being. Still missing from the equation is concrete evidence of a deeper shift in Saudi mindsets.
While there is certainly room for optimism, some conventional notions need to be done away with. Firstly: Rostow’s famous development model has not stood the test of time. Economic modernization, even indispensable wealth distribution policies, do not in and of themselves create to a favourable political climate for human rights or a foreign policy that adheres to international norms. As recent interviews with the crown prince have made clear, we are far from a Saudi “Arab Spring”.
The second false assumption is that accelerated modernization goes hand-in-hand with the end of relativism in terms of human rights and standards. In his interactions with European and American counterparts, the crown prince still adheres to his country’s “unique” interpretation and application of human rights. Prisoners of conscience, notably Raif Badawi, have not been liberated, despite posing little threat to the existing power structures. Capital punishment has still taken place on a large scale.
The Right Approach?
What, then, should our attitude be towards Vision 2030? Should we give the country our full support, or maintain a certain level of distrust? This question, at least, has a clear answer. While we must not close our eyes to the question of human rights, there is no reason not to participate. If we can follow in the French president’s footsteps and hold the Kingdom to its commitments to abandon support for Islamist groups or radical imams, we can certainly see Vision 2030 as a historical opportunity.
The same holds true when it comes to addressing Saudi foreign policy, especially because Saudi Arabia is our ally. However we view the Houthi rebellion, we must be frank and firm in denouncing the indiscriminate bombing and starvation faced by Yemeni civilians. On a more strategic level, however, the real danger could ultimately be Saudi disengagement from regional affairs.
For example: the mere suggestion of MBS accepting Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule over Syria provoked real concern among many geopolitical analysts. In contrast, European capitals welcomed his willingness to participate in the response to the Syrian government’s chemical accounts just days later. Saudi Arabia, unlike Iran, is not destabilizing the Middle East. On the contrary, if the Saudis frame a new, coherent foreign policy for the MENA region and break with their previous support for Salafist groups, they could become a genuine factor for regional stability.
While Saudi Arabia is far from conforming to Western norms of personal liberties, the development of economic ties to Riyadh, accompanied by clear political dialogue, constitutes a means of influencing the Kingdom’s evolution. To this end, Vision 2030 can be considered a mutually beneficial opportunity for gradual democratisation, even if organised and directed from above. For now, we have no choice but to take the gamble, all while remaining vigilant with regards to the rapid developments sure to come from both inside and outside the country.