Will secularism come to Saudi Arabia?

6 mins read

Saudi Arabia became a hot topic in Turkey with the news that a Saudi woman participated in a beauty contest. News channels and social media were abuzz with this news. Although I find beauty pageants sexist and completely unnecessary, the latest development is of course quite contradictory to the Saudi Arabia we know.

So what is happening in Saudi Arabia?

In short, Saudi Arabia is transforming. For the Saudi leadership, this transformation is more out of necessity than voluntariness.

In fact, the idea of transformation dates back to the 1970s. The House of Saud began to talk about oil as a scarce resource and that it would eventually run out, and from those years onwards they have been trying to formulate an alternative economic policy. This quest finally matured under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The 2030 vision is based on the idea of freeing the economy from dependence on oil. Within this framework, large budgets are allocated for investments in non-oil fields such as space exploration, artificial intelligence, green energy and tourism. Of course, the biggest of these projects is the NEOM project, which is designed as a self-sufficient smart city. The approximately $500 billion project is like a giant cake consisting of thousands of stages such as construction, infrastructure, superstructure, technological equipment and digital components that will take years to complete.

Of course, NEOM is not the only project. New stadiums, concert halls, museums, sports facilities and education centers are also planned. In addition to these, there are also projects such as greening the country, which is mostly desert, and enlarging valleys by human hands. This is because the Saudi government knows that climate change and the rapid drought in the region will make the country uninhabitable in the coming decades. If measures are not taken now, it is very likely that the country’s population will migrate to livable areas.

The 2030 vision project has its sights set on the future technologies of artificial intelligence, robotics, space studies and online gaming. In this field, large shares are allocated both by the state and companies.

In addition to this, billion-dollar projects for the development of tourism, promotion and advertising projects are progressing in parallel. Of course, it is not a coincidence to see world-famous soccer players and actors such as Johnny Depp in Saudi Arabia.

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, an opponent of the Saudi government, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has put Mohammed Bin Salman, the shining star of Saudi Arabia who is frequently featured in the Western media, in a very difficult situation. Nowadays, Mohammed Bin Salman, who has opened the purse strings for advertising and promotional projects, is trying to erase his dark image.

Okay, Saudi Arabia is trying to wean its economy off its dependence on oil and is making huge investments to do so, trying to attract foreign investors, entrepreneurs, researchers, inventors, in short, anyone with an idea. At the same time, it is determined enough to send a woman to the International Federation of Astronauts, to appoint a woman as the head of the Saudi stock exchange, and even to entrust women with important seats in the Vision 2030 project that will change the fate of the country.

But can this transformation take place despite Wahhabism and the Wahhabi ulema who have ruled the country arm in arm with the Saudi dynasty for decades?

It will happen because the transformation in Saudi Arabia, which is widely misinterpreted in the world, including Turkey, has no claim to secularism. In particular, the statements attributed to Crown Prince Bin Salman, such as “I want to be the Ataturk of Saudi Arabia” and “Secularism will come to this country sooner or later” are not true.

Of course, the Wahhabi ulema are uncomfortable with women being so visible. In fact, over time, their authority and influence will be gradually reduced and they will lose more and more power. However, it is important to remember that since the establishment of Saudi Arabia, there has been a kind of agreement between the Wahhabi ulema and the House of Saud, and the ulema’s influence over the king is limited to giving advice. Therefore, if the House of Saud, which rules the state, decides to transform, it will happen.

Crown Prince Bin Salman’s ruthless and uncompromising character also plays a role here.

In short, Saudi Arabia is transforming. It is quite possible that it will become the center of politics as well as the economy in the coming years. The schools that are being established, the choice of investment areas and the fact that they still hold a card like oil make this transformation possible.

Published in Turkish on the evrensel website

Hediye Levent

Wanders the labyrinths of the Middle East on youtube.com/@hediyelevent