Saudi Arabia: Journalistic whiplash follows a crown prince's political crackdown

What now, Saudi Arabia? Any more surprises ahead for the media elite?

Barely a week ago, international media outlets were playing up what they interpreted as the beginning of genuine religious reform in Riyadh and the uprooting of corrupt privilege.

But that was then. This week the narrative has shifted dramatically.

That Western applause over Saudi Arabia's signaling that women will finally be allowed to drive in the desert kingdom, unabashedly received as a sign of religious reform, or at the least, a sign of moderation?

Now it's just as likely that it was mere religious window dressing meant as international cover for the wholesale purging of key political rivals by the royal household -- which is to say by Saudi Arabia’s young and ambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, acting with the apparent approval of his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Click here for a refresher on current events in the oil-rich desert kingdom -- though keep in mind that by the time you read this events may quite possibly have moved on.

Not to be minimized is that all this comes at a time of escalating tensions between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran that are capable of destroying whatever semblance of peace remains in the Middle East.

Care to read an Arab take on what's happening? Click here for what one Al Jazeera columnist made of this. (You’ll need to know that a “thobe” is an ankle length garment commonly worn by Saudi men.)

Also, here's an analysis piece from the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz warning how the situation could push Israel into a new war with Hezbollah and even Iran.

The lesson for journalists and followers of the Fourth Estate? Allow me to quote the late historian and all-around public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger Jr. In a New York Times’ op-ed published Jan. 1, 2007, he wrote: “The future outwits all our certitudes.”

Which is to say, we should try to do the best we can as journalists. But it's narcissistic delusion to believe that being skilled at writing authoritatively necessarily equates with being the always knowledgeable authority.

That’s a good thing to keep in mind, particularly when covering a government as opaque as the absolute monarchy that has run modern Saudi Arabia since its inception in 1932.

As I noted above, as recently as last week influential members of the elite international media were writing approvingly of Crown Prince Mohammad’s ostensible loosening of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-restrictive religious codes rooted in Wahhabi Sunni Islam. His promise that women would finally be allowed to drive in the kingdom, though not until next year at the earliest, seems to have taken in quite a few in the West desirous of a more socially, meaning religious, liberal Saudi Arabia.

The Economist, the British weekly, provides a prime example of this.

It published a piece last week on how the Muslim Arab world is in the midst of a lessening of street-level religious expression resulting from disenchantment with ultra-conservative religious leadership.

It led the piece with an anecdotal lede out of Egypt, where Islamists attained rule after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Until they were overthrown, of course, by the military. The point, backed up with a slew of statistics from Middle East surveys, was that fewer people were showing up at mosque services, reading the Quran or engaging in other displays of religious practice.

The piece noted that despotic secular Arab governments -- if any government may be called truly secular in the religiously polarized Middle East -- were pushing the changes via policies. The magazine said the governments publicly professed to wanting to modernize their nations.

But it also included, in a lesser story line, despite it making it into the headline, that the dictatorial Arab nations involved had concluded that too much public religion constituted a political threat.

Here’s the link to the story. And here’s the paragraph that nicely sums up its desired message.

The region’s authoritarians, who once tried to co-opt Islamists, now view them as the biggest threat to their rule. By curbing the influence of clerics they are also weakening checks on their own power. Still, many Arab leaders seem genuinely interested in moulding more secular and tolerant societies, even if their reforms do not extend to the political sphere.

The Economist went on to report that the United Arab Emirates has led the way in trying to dampen politicized religiosity in the Arab world. And as noted, it cited Egypt, where “President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has not only banned the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s pre-eminent Islamist movement, but denounced al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s oldest seat of learning, for ‘intolerance’.”

It added that al-Sisi has closed thousands of mosques and dictated that Muslims now need a license to sacrifice sheep in their homes during Muslim festivals. (The latter seems to me a calculated effort to establish a data base of Egyptian Muslims willing to admit to deep religious leanings.)

Then we come to Saudi Arabia.  Here’s some of what The Economist said about the kingdom:

The most remarkable, albeit nascent, transformation is in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where Muhammad bin Salman, the young crown prince, has curbed the religious police, sacked thousands of imams and launched a new Centre for Moderation to censor “fake and extremist texts”. Women will soon be allowed to drive cars and enter sports stadiums. They are already encouraged to work. Now Prince Muhammad wants to create a new city, Neom, that seems modeled on freewheeling Dubai. Its promotional videos show women without headscarves partying with men. “We are only returning to what we used to be, to moderate Islam, open to the world and all religions,” he told foreign investors in October.

Optimistic? To a fault, I'd say.

The above piece ran in The Economist’s print edition. Since then the publication has hastily posted narrative-changing updates on its website, including this one.

So what’s next for Saudi Arabia?

I, for one, will be hoping, as this Washington Post op-ed suggests, that Crown Prince Muhammad stops acting like Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and more like one-time Russian reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.

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