There is talk of change in Saudi Arabia, allowing women to vote, allowing them to drive; even about having an elected government to run the country. But how long will it be before these changes take effect within the kingdom? Some don’t want change, others see change as inevitable but want it to be gradual while others would like to see immediate and sweeping reforms of the many rules in this highly conservative and almost medieval society.
I have just read an excellent article by Chuck Holmes (Except and link below) as part of an international reporting project through the John Hopkins University. In his article he gives both his views and the views of several people that he has interviewed within the kingdom;
“The shock waves of the Arab Spring continue to reshape countries like Egypt and Syria. But the kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains largely unaffected. King Abdullah and the Saudi ruling family are in firm control of the country’s massive oil wealth and Islam’s two holiest sites — Mecca and Medina.
Yet change seems to be on everyone’s mind. In a country known for its restrictions, many people here are speaking openly about the need for democratic changes — things like an elected parliament, a transparent regulatory system and women’s rights to vote and drive cars — which they cannot do now.”
He interviews several people from different backgrounds in the kingdom and all are wanting change, but they are looking for evolutionary change and not a revolution to make huge changes to the country over night. This is a very conservative place and people do not like to see too much change, especially the more religous among the Saudis who want to see the many Islamic traditions preserved and enforced within the law.
He suggests that laws regarding the mixing of the sexes are being relaxed by allowing adolescent boys into the malls at the weekends alone where before they would have been kept outside, there have always been groups of teenage boys cruising the malls admiring the groups of girls doing the same but distance remains between them. They are all in full view so there is no true mixing although if you watch they are all constantly on their phones. Technology today makes it almost impossible to restrict mixing of the sexes, they will talk, text, instant message, bluetooth and even flirt on camera; without banning the technology it will be almost impossible to prevent this from continuing. Almost every young teenager, young man and woman in the cities in the kingdom has a top end phone with which to access the mobile networks and the internet, policing this would be next to impossible.
Physical mixing however still has its difficulties, there are various places within the kingdom where many people would go to be alone or even to hold “wild” parties but during the last several months this is actually becoming harder as the Mutawa (Religious police) try to reassert some authority by policing these areas. Many of my friends are telling me that their partying has almost completely stopped due to this activity as it is just too risky. So where the rules are being relaxed in some areas the Mutawa are trying to make themselves strong in others to maintain the balance, however this cannot continue for ever and change will eventually come.
Women are still banned from driving within the country and demonstrations last year were a non-event with few participating; one woman was arrested for driving and sentenced to lashes although she was quickly pardoned before she was made a “martyr” for the cause of women’s driving. However other changes have been made with women now allowed to vote in municipal elections and even run for office. There are also changes with regards to employment although my personal opinion is that the changes are as exist as what they are trying to overturn. Men can no longer staff lingerie shops, they now have to be staffed by women. Cosmetic stores will see the same changes later in the year also which will mean that you will begin to see far more women employed within various stores within the many malls.
The King currently is playing a very difficult balancing game, trying to satisfy those that want to see change while still keeping the clerics happy with regards to the countries religion and traditions, although he has recently sacked an outspoken cleric who was very against any form of change for the women in Saudi Arabia. I think that chuck is right in his assessment that change in Saudi Arabia will be evolutionary and not revolutionary and that will suit most of the residents of the country even if those outside do not think that the pace of change is fast enough especially for the improvement of women’s rights.