April 18 marks a milestone for Saudi Arabia as its first cinema in 35 years is set to open its doors to movie-goers in the capital, Riyadh, with 40 more to come in the next five years. Unlike many of its public places where the sexes are segregated, the country's cinema will see men and women mingle together. In yet another milestone, the Saudi-based newspaper Arab News recently announced that it would strive for "a 50-50 gender balance newsroom by 2020."
Saudi’s modernizing drive is inseparable from its de facto ruler Crown Prince Muhhamad bin Salman (MBS), who told the press he would like to roll back the kingdom to becoming a force of moderate Islam once more. As announcements of concessions to modernity streamed out of Riyadh, MBS embarked on his tour of Europe and the United States to garner support for his plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy, moving away from its dependence on oil.
MBS’s world tour also took place ahead of the planned IPO of Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, worth $2 trillion and the jewel in the Saudi crown, initially expected to take place this year but has now been delayed until next year. Saudi hopes to use the proceeds from the IPO to jump-start its economic diversification program.
Relaxation of rigid social rules such as allowing cinemas or women to drive ─ superficial as they are for the time being ─ are inevitably tied with MBS’s economic vision for the future. There seems to be a realization in Riyadh that a deeply conservative, fundamentalist nation as Saudi Arabia has so far been is ultimately unattractive to investors.
If Saudi hopes to become an international business hub across the sectors, it will also need expatriate workers, most of whom would probably prefer a more cosmopolitan Middle Eastern city like Dubai to the hitherto ultra-conservative Riyadh. It would appear that it is this aspect of the kingdom that MBS seeks to address through various social initiatives aimed at making Saudi Arabia less daunting for business and investment outside the oil industry.
Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of Islam’s two holiest cities of Mecca and Medina, may project great soft power in the Islamic world but its reputation as a rigid and socially forbidding country in the Western world may prove to be a hurdle in generating the kind of investment it would like to see. No doubt past news reports of public beheadings of agnostics and "atheists" and persecution of sexual minorities were bad publicity for Saudi Arabia in the West.
To improve its chances for successful economic diversification, the kingdom has no choice but to improve its image worldwide as a friendly investment destination.
Saudi’s sudden turnabout and its past promotion of ultra-conservative form of Islam in Wahhabism, however, have left an indelible mark across the Islamic world, including Indonesia. MBS may have defended the kingdom’s championing of Wahhabism as a move requested by its Western allies during the Cold War in a recent interview with the Washington Post, but the fact remains its legacy is not exactly rosy.
Indonesia’s own struggle with radical forms of Islam is inseparable from the spread of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism throughout the archipelago from the 1970s onwards. Educational institutions like Lipia (Lembaga Pengetahuan Islam dan Bahasa Arab), the local branch of Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, have been instrumental in promoting conservative Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia in Indonesia. Lipia is exclusively operated and funded by Saudi Arabia.
The liberal Islamic scholar Ulil Abshar Abdalla has been known to characterize Lipia as "hostile towards the local Indonesian culture and Islamic practices." Among Lipia’s alumni are Rizieq Shihab, the fugitive head of the radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Jafar Umar Thalib, founder and head of the militant Laskar Jihad.
The greatest irony in Saudi’s current distancing from conservative Islam is that tenets of its soon-to-be-shed past may live on in other Muslim nations like Indonesia. Indonesian society has seen a steady move towards Arabic expressions of Islam for the past three decades, from the ubiquitous hijab to Islamic identity politics.
It was only last month that the government of the province of Aceh announced it was pursuing the possibility of enacting public beheading as a punitive action against murderers.
Syukri bin Muhhamad Yusuf, Aceh’s departmental head of Islamic Shariah and Human Rights argued that decapitation was in line with Islamic law and pointed out that Saudi Arabia adheres to the practice. "Under the special autonomy granted by the central government, Aceh is permitted to use the shariah as its source of law."
It remains to be seen whether MBS’s expressed desire for a more moderate form of Islam applies to Saudi Arabia exclusively or encompassing its soft power projections elsewhere. So far the Saudi government and its agents have not exactly stopped promoting Wahhabism throughout the world. In 2016, for instance, MBS’s father King Salman approved three more Lipia branches in Indonesia, subsequently accredited by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
History will judge Saudi Arabia not only by its success or failure to modernize itself since the move is largely motivated by self-interest. It will also be judged by its legacy to the Islamic world in the form of Wahhabism, which has undoubtedly germinated radicalism everywhere. Let us hope that MBS’s vision for the future includes efforts to rectify Saudi Arabia’s legacy throughout the Islamic world.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at email@example.com and on Twitter @Johannes_nos.