TOPICS: A tipping point in Saudi Arabia

When Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud was crown prince of Saudi Arabia, one of his most infamous decisions was banning the use of camera phones in 2004 — a demand from the country’s Wahhabi clergy who claimed the devices were “spreading obscenity. “But the decision was quickly reversed when King Abdullah faced pressure from his government ministers and, allegedly, from a cadre of foreign businessmen who threatened to pull their companies from Saudi Arabia. “Abdullah was presented with a choice between the Wahhabis and good business,” says one Riyadh-based businessman. “His decision [for the latter] was clear.”

By sidelining the traditional clergy in favour of the merchant classes and more progressive religious voices, Abdullah has been challenging the “great bargain” of the Saudi state — namely the empowerment of the Wahhabi ulema (hard-line Islamic scholars) in exchange for their sanction of the House of Saud. This unlikely reformer, who has unofficially led the kingdom since King Fahd’s stroke in 1995, has propelled the country through a radical transformation. From accession to the WTO to the billion-dollar overhaul of the educational system to increased criticism of the religious “police”, the closed kingdom is beginning to crack open.

These reforms come at a critical time. Saudi Arabia is barreling toward an economic and social crisis if it does not act fast. Almost 75% of Saudi citizens are under age 30 and youth unemployment is approaching 30% — a potential breeding ground for terrorists and regime dissidents. Current high oil prices are not enough to paper over the economic ravages of the past two decades. “The oil boom is over and will not return,” Abdullah told his subjects. “All of us must get used to a different lifestyle.” Economic restructuring of the kingdom is no easy task, nor can it be separated from social reform, such as increasing women’s participation in economic life and creating a business environment and laws suitable for foreign companies. Faced with resistance from the conservative official ulema, Abdullah has adopted a strategy of officially toeing the Wahhabi line, but quietly giving more leeway to the private sector.

Education, for example, had traditionally been firmly under Wahhabi control, with a focus on creating more imams than businessmen. But this won’t help a country striving to become an international powerhouse. So private universities have recently been legalised, with a half-dozen Western-style institutions slated to open soon.

The challenges facing the desert kingdom require highly tuned maneuvering skills. Reformers are counting on the durability of Abdullah’s reforms regardless of his successor. His legacy is likely to be protected by the new economic elite he is helping to create. “You can’t bury your head in the sand and expect to become an economic power,” said an administrator at a Western-style university in Saudi Arabia. “The king knows this, and he’s ready to accept the consequences of reform.” — The Christian Science Monitor