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Saudi in concert

Apr 15,2018 - Last updated at Apr 15,2018

Recently, I had the oportunity to hear a Jordanian speaker talk of the reforms currently underway in Saudi Arabia. “People do not want reform,” he said, “least of all the women.”

According to him, women are happy to be driven wherever they want to go, free from any responsibility. Men are also happy that women cannot drive, because it saves the cost of their cars and all the money that they would spend if they could jump in a car and go shopping all the time.

“Really? Is this all that women can do, squander their husbands’ money and bear children?” I asked. “They can do anything they want,” came the answer. “They are happy to be escorted everywhere because they do whatever they want in safety and comfort. You do not know this because you do not understand Saudi society.”

I admitted that I spent only one week in Saudi Arabia many years ago, but I asked who are the extraterrestrials who masquerade as Saudi women and campaign for their rights in defiance of the social order.  

I mention this conversation to highlight the enormity of the challenge which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) faces, and his evident courage in undertaking this task.

Opposition is not limited to those who have all the privileges under the current system, though they are influential and deeply entrenched. Equally difficult is the challenge of converting the disadvantaged, who cannot conceive of a different life, like the slaves who were sad to be set free in a country that abolished slavery late in the 20th century. 

Some of these slaves were distraught because a life of servitude was all they knew. They lamented to their former masters: “Why do you not want me? What have I done wrong? I have served you faithfully all my life.” 

Successful reforms need a people who realise that reform is inevitable if their society is not to perish in immobility. People need to be capable of imagining and demanding social change, and also capable of rebelling in support of their demands.

This is clearly not the majority outlook in Saudi Arabia, so MBS needs to invent a process which substitutes attractive virtues for the comfortable vices that he wants to eliminate.

Wherein lies the dilemma of reform: Saudi Arabia is wise to launch reforms while the national economy can still provide a decent standard of living to a critical mass of the people. Conversely, prosperity often blinds the public to the need for reform. 

This supports the outlook that reform, to be useful and durable, must be gradual and cautious. Then again, the reformer does not always have the leisure of time — sometimes he is compelled to take the bull by the horns.

Still, it was heartening to see Saudi men and women at a concert, enjoying together a cultural activity. This was a major step forward. We hope that it will be one of many, and we can only wish our Saudi neighbours all success. 

 

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