Saudi’s Crown Prince wants to return the country to ‘moderate islam’; what does that mean for gender equality


The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud recently said as part of his speech at the beginning of the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh that with his guidance, Saudi Arabia will move away from its current socio-political position as a fanatic monotheistic state to a more egalitarian one that will support the worship of all religions. He also said he would tackle the extremism that has spread from the rest of the Middle East into the country. For those not in the know, Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s wealthiest nations and has used that wealth to bypass sanctions for its religious and political extremism.

Abdulaziz Al Saud was recently announced as heir to the Saudi throne and seems to not be interested in following his father’s extravagance, at least in public spheres. Privately Al Saud continues to spend extravagantly, buying a yacht even though the country was experiencing a slump in oil sales.

And it seems we are already seeing evidence of his influence on the Saudi government. In the last few weeks, we reported that the Saudi Arabian government finally lifted its controversial law that banned women from driving cars and operating heavy machinery. Though some suggest that the move was a PR decision to launder the country’s image as it tries to diversify its economic portfolio away from crude oil, others say it is the direct work or indirect influence of Al Saud.

But what does this mean for women in Saudi Arabia whose lives are very regimented and supervised, right from childhood to senescence.  Saudi Arabia’s religion is a strain of Sunni Islam called Wahabism, what some have called a close cousin to the extremist teaching of terrorist groups like Isis and Al-Qaeda. And much of the power in Wahabism is ensconced in the religious clergy of the country and the monarchy.

Al Saud will have to motivate the country’s Imams and clergy to embrace his more liberal approach to governance, specifically loosening the tight restrictions on women not of Saudi descent. Perhaps the next line of action would be to expand the economic opportunities for Saudi women, starting with a loosening of the restrictions put on women as regards where they can work and who they can work with.

With economic opportunities, women will be better able to control their lives and by extension truly explore their sexualities within the provisions of Islam. The last time an Islamic country truly embraced liberalism was before the Iranian revolution and it will be interesting to see if the liberalism that characterised that time will replicate itself in Al Saud’s Saudi Arabia.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

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