The Paradox of Saudi Arabia’s Social Reforms

A still from FRONTLINE's "The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia."

A still from FRONTLINE's "The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia."

October 1, 2019

In the years since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has come to power as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, several headline-grabbing social reforms — concerts, movie theaters, a lift on the ban on women driving — have been introduced in the ultraconservative kingdom.

Initially, the pace allowed the crown prince to portray himself as a modernizer. However, as FRONTLINE’s documentary The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia investigates, his rise to power was coupled with a crackdown on political dissent and activism.

FRONTLINE spoke with experts about some of Saudi Arabia’s recent social reforms, the Saudi monarchy’s calculus in enacting them, and why some activists pushing for similar changes were arrested and imprisoned.


Shortly after King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud came to power in January 2015, he moved Prince Mohammed into the royal line of succession. In an early sign of the changes to come under the monarchy, Saudi Arabia announced in the spring of 2016 that it would rein in the religious police. The police were responsible for enforcing morality and social norms in public spaces and had attracted mounting criticism and negative attention to the kingdom.

Curbing the religious police’s powers of arrest was a “fundamental and foundational” change, according to Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. “That has allowed them to take a whole different number of measures that ease up on the rather severe sort of social norms and restrictions that were in place previously,” she said. She added that the move allowed for other changes to follow, such as easing gender segregation and allowing women a more prominent role in public life.

Experts noted that the reforms caused a noticeable shift in the Saudi way of life, at least in some parts of the country.

“One of the things that has dramatically changed in the past few years is the general relaxation of social life,” said Eman Alhussein, a researcher and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “For a long time, people had to maintain two separate lifestyles: one inside their homes where they can act normal, be whoever they want to be, and one in public.” Now, she said, there is a “very relaxed atmosphere” in big cities like Riyadh and Jeddah.

The next year, 2017, brought more social and cultural changes. That September, Saudi Arabia announced that women would be allowed to drive by the next summer, lifting a decades-old restriction. Two months later, the kingdom said it would end a more than three-decade ban on public movie theaters. After it began permitting concerts, musicians such as Mariah Carey and the Black Eyed Peas performed in the country.

At an investment conference in October 2017, Prince Mohammed characterized the changes that were taking place as a return to a more open past. “We are simply reverting to what we followed — a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions,” he said. In an interview with the Guardian around the same time, he blamed his country’s embrace of an ultraconservative version of Islam on its regional rival Iran. “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding, “Now is the time to get rid of it.”

This August, Saudi Arabia announced changes to the so-called guardianship system, a mixture of laws and customs that restricted Saudi women from certain quotidian things without seeking permission from male guardians. The recent changes allow women to be guardians for their children; register marriages, divorces, births and deaths; obtain family documents from the government; and remove a requirement that women have to live with their male guardians. They also offer women more protection from employment discrimination and the ability — once they reach 21 — to get passports and travel abroad without requiring a male guardian’s permission.

“I think the most important [social reform] is the one that has been recently implemented, which has to do with the guardianship system…For me, I think that’s a huge milestone,” Alhussein said. “What the government did is they took their hand away from imposing this patriarchal system.”

However, Alhussein said that now families are likely dealing with the fallout from the shift. “The women don’t want to harm the family structure by doing something against the family’s norms, even if it’s allowed for them to do it.”

Experts and observers of Saudi Arabia note that it’s hard to gauge the reaction of the Saudi population to these social reforms — legitimate public opinion polling is hard to come by. The adoption of the reforms is also likely to vary from more liberal areas to more conservative ones, as well as within families.

Some women will benefit from the reforms more readily, while some will still have to fight for the implementation of them, according to Yasmine Farouk, a visiting fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program. But regardless, women now have a legal way to pursue their rights. “This has changed their lives,” she said. “It’s changed how males in their society see them.”

“It’s not just the women,” Farouk added. “When you talk to Saudi men who have daughters or wives who are now able to drive, to work or to do their own legal documents, first of all they now know that other males in society are obliged to respect the female members of their family. Second, they now know their girls can have a future that is independent from them.”


The grassroots desire for change in the country is not new, and the kingdom’s previous monarch, King Abdullah, cautiously enacted reforms that allowed women to vote, run in municipal elections, work in certain jobs, and take up positions on the Shura Council — a body that advises the government. The pace of the current changes, however, is unusual for Saudi Arabia. There are several factors driving these social reforms by the Saudi state, according to experts: to help shore up Prince Mohammed’s economic goal of increasing the number of women in the workforce, to improve the reputation of the monarchy abroad, and to signal an opening up and modernization of Saudi society in order to attract tourism and foreign investors.

And there’s additional political rationale: appealing to people under 30, the largest age demographic in the country.

“All the previous crown princes who then became kings, or not, were older, so they had their own base inside the state and in society. They had occupied positions inside the state that allowed them to be known in society and build personal legitimacy around their person,” Farouk said.

With his rapid rise to power, Prince Mohammed didn’t have years of service to build such support and relationships. However, he found a base to target in Saudi Arabia’s youth. More than two-thirds of the country is estimated to be younger than 30. The younger generation, which — through the internet — grew up with more exposure to the rest of the world, is seen as more welcoming of social freedom. By enacting these reforms, she said, the crown prince is “trying to build his own personal legitimacy.”

Diwan noted that the social and cultural reforms are also taking place amid a shift toward nationalism in the country. “It allows for some more space for young people to participate,” she said. “They get this sense of building their country.” With the changes in recent years, she said, the Saudi monarchy found a way to allow people to be more participatory, but without the hallmarks of a liberal democracy.


At the same time that Saudi authorities were announcing these reforms, other events in the country pointed to an increasing intolerance of political dissent and criticism.

For example, just weeks before the ban on women driving was set to be lifted in June 2018, prominent women’s rights activists who had campaigned for the ban to be lifted were arrested and imprisoned. [Click here for more on what happened to the activists.] Despite the seeming contradiction of those actions, experts said the message was clear to Saudis — change comes from the top.

“When you’re in an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia, even when you respond to people’s demands you have to be careful not to create precedents,” Farouk told FRONTLINE. “The idea is to make people understand these are not concessions, these are things that the royal family — the king, the crown prince — wanted to do, whether you wanted it or not.”

Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said his organization was informed that Saudi women’s rights activists were warned by the authorities not to talk publicly about the driving ban being lifted. “The implication of all of that was, they knew international outlets would want to speak with these women who had campaigned for this for so long and they didn’t want these women to be the face of it,” Coogle said. “They didn’t want them to get credit for it.”

The arrests could also be seen as a warning against further demands for rights. “By imprisoning high-profile feminists, the monarchy attempts to weaken and abolish the ability of women’s groups to organize, advance their rights and be heard,” Nermin Allam, an assistant professor of politics at Rutgers University-Newark, said.

The Saudi monarchy’s suppression of political dissent was thrown into especially stark relief when the killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi made international headlines a year ago.

“Somehow you have to keep both in mind simultaneously, that there’s been a real social opening and cultural opening, and a real political threat there,” Diwan said. “Okay, you can take advantage of these openings and changes but you need to be completely in line with this new political program. That’s kind of the way Saudi Arabia is structured right now.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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