Reforms promised by a young Saudi prince are couched in references to the kingdom’s Islamic tradition but include ideas likely to upset some conservatives, risking future ruptures over the direction of society.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” plan, which the 31-year-old announced on Monday, largely aims to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy in an era of low oil prices and made few specific pledges of social change.
However, it also stepped into areas that have long been cultural battlegrounds in a country defined by its religious conservatism.
For the Al Saud dynasty, which has always ruled in alliance with the powerful clergy of the kingdom’s semi-official Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, that may require care in how far to risk a conservative backlash.
Presenting the plan, Prince Mohammed batted away the question of whether women would soon be allowed to drive. Instead, he turned to the usual formulation of Saudi rulers that their society was not yet ready for this, but he appeared to raise the possibility of change elsewhere.
Seemingly anodyne promises to invest in cultural events and entertainment facilities, to encourage sports and promote ancient heritage and Saudi national identity, are highly controversial among conservatives.
In Saudi Arabia, cinemas are banned and women’s sports are discouraged as promoting sin. The pre-Islamic era is dismissed as the age of ignorance, its relics deemed ungodly, and some clerics even see patriotism as tantamount to idolatry.
“When he talked about quality of life, about entertainment, he is aware of the changes in our culture and that’s what people understood him to be talking about. But at the same time, he showed reluctance.