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Sports: A barometer of Saudi reform

By James M. Dorsey

Mohammed Simsim, the president of the Saudi Arabian Weightlifting Federation, embodies existential dilemmas involved in Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s effort to reform and diversify the kingdom’s energy dependent and public sector driven economy.

To achieve his goal of turning the kingdom into a 21st century economy that no longer has oil as its mainstay and shifts its emphasis from a bloated state bureaucracy to an empowered private sector, Prince Mohammed will inevitably have to rewrite the power sharing agreement between his ruling Al Saud family and Saudi Arabia’s powerful and ultra-conservative Salafi clergy.

Prince Mohammed’s goals were set out in Vision 2030, a roadmap published in April, that also serves to ensure the future of the Al Saud’s autocracy.

Successfully pursuing those goals inevitably means weakening the clergy’s ability to dictate the kingdom’s social and moral norms that among others involve severe restrictions on women’s freedoms, including driving and sporting rights. Those restrictions are often grounded in century-old Bedouin traditions rather than Islam even if the clergy and the government cloaks its defense of them in religious terms.

In a chance meeting in April during the Asian Weightlifting Championship in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Mr. Simsim told United Arab Emirates weightlifter Amna Al Haddad that he marvelled at her success as a woman athlete. “Amna, you are doing a great job. You're very well-known for your manners. Maybe, you know, I would like to have, one day, a Saudi female weightlifting team. And you could come in and teach, " Ms. Haddad quoted Mr. Simsim as saying.

Mr. Simsim was expressing a widespread sentiment among a less conservative element of Saudi society that is believed to be strong in numbers even if that is difficult to gauge in a country void of public opinion polling. It is also believed to express Prince Mohammed’s sentiment.

Prince Mohammed is a popular figure. He represents a new generation in a country with a youth bulge. His Vision 2030 constitutes a needed upgrading of autocracy. Nonetheless, leaving aside economic questions about the vision, Prince Mohammed will not be able to turn Saudi Arabia into a diversified knowledge economy on the basis of a backward looking interpretation of Islam that harks back to the 7th century.

Yet, taking on the powerful ulema is risky and easier said than done and Prince Mohammed and the government seem reticent to do so.

A former senior US military official who met Bin Salman in the first quarter of 2016 quoted the prince as saying: “If women were allowed to ride camels (in the time of the Prophet Mohammed), perhaps we should let them drive cars, the modern-day camels.” The officer said the prince had advised him that he was waiting for the right moment to confront the ulema on the women’s issue.

In what is perhaps a sign of what is to come, the government has already significantly curtailed the powers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police. It was a popular move given the committee’s often over bearing and excessive enforcement of ultra-conservative precepts.

The question, however, is how far the government can go without risking the legitimacy cloaked in religion of the Al Saud’s autocracy provided by establishment ulema and/or the credibility of a clergy that is being asked to further compromise on fundamental tenants of its belief.

The question is also whether the government can maintain an adequate balance between the compromises it needs the ulema and ultra-conservative segments of society to accept and make and the preservation of the clergy’s credibility and the ability of ultra-conservatives to absorb what in the kingdom would amount to revolutionary change.

The risks are heightened by the fact that Vision 2030 is as much a mechanism for economic reform and some degree of social change as it is to upgrade rather than diminish autocracy.

The challenges are multiple given that Prince Mohammed’s restructuring of the economy and sensitivity to youth aspirations necessitates a rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract that involves the slashing of subsidies, raising of prices of utilities such as water and electricity, introduction of indirect taxes, and streamlining of a bloated bureaucracy. With other words, Saudis will no longer get cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for surrender of political and social rights.

Economic reform will also have to entail enhancing women’s rights, including freedom of movement and equal opportunity as well as catering to a youth aspiring for a life that goes beyond the public and social constricts of ultra-conservatism – issues that strike a raw nerve with proponents of the kingdom’s austere, puritan, intolerant and inward-looking interpretation of Islam.

Sports is a litmus test of Saudi Arabia’s ability to tackle the challenges head on. Drafted by Western consultants, Vision 2030 identifies sports “as a mainstay of a healthy and balanced lifestyle and promises “to encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities.”

Yet, the document makes no reference to facilities for women in a country that has so far refrained from introducing physical education for girls in elementary and secondary schools and has virtually no public sports facilities for women.

Vision 2030 also fails to even implicitly address demands of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and human rights groups that women, who under pressure of the IOC participated for the first time in the kingdom’s history in 2012 in the London Olympic Games, be allowed to compete in all athletic disciplines rather than only ones mentioned in the Qur’an.

The government’s reluctance to take on the ulema and ultra-conservatives is evident in the fact that Saudi women at this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games are expected to compete only in disciplines the kingdom deems Qur’anic. Restricted Saudi women’s participation in Rio suggests that social reform, a sine qua non for Vision 2030’s success, amounts for Prince Mohammed and the Al Sauds to walking a tightrope, making survival rather than reform the paramount concern.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.

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