“I bought my grandmother a gold necklace from my first salary and she changed her mind about me working alongside men.”
Ghiwa (name changed), a tourist guide in Madina province of Saudi Arabia, adjusts her niqab as she answers a casually asked question about working women.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, or MBS as he’s popularly known, seems to have used Ghiwa’s household tactic on a national level to herald an era of change in his country. The conservatives are bristling at his Vision 2030 for it breaks to shackles of traditional attitudes and performative religiosity.
In Al-Ula, a northwestern city in the Madina province, one can barely hear the muezzin’s call for prayers. This oasis city, once an important market along the historical incense route, sits at the centre of MBS’s ambitious plan to steer Saudi Arabia away from dependence on oil and pilgrimage and match the beat of modernity. Interestingly, Al-Ula is considered a cursed city in the Islamic worldview as its residents fell for idolatry and are thought to be punished by God for the same. MBS may have cheekily played on this reputation while setting up the Royal Commission for Al-Ula which seeks to capitalise on the wealth of archaeological wonders in and around the city.
“Traditionalists say that a Muslim should avoid staying, eating, or drinking in Al-Ula. Hell, yeah!” Samir (name changed), a Pakistani-American tourist at the most expensive luxury resort in Al-Ula bursts out laughing. His wife and children are frolicking in the pool. Ever since it opened its doors for tourism, Saudi Arabia has been seeing a growing number of tourists who wish to explore the country beyond the pilgrimage sites.
Idea of nationalism
This interest in touring the country sits with its newly-forged idea of nationalism which is not essentially linked with religion. Mohammad (name changed), a photographer from Riyadh says, “Change is good for our country. Saudi Arabia has been late in stepping along the course of time. But we are getting there”. He proudly shares how his sisters were better at driving cars than many of his friends. “If a woman drives, she can handle household chores independently.” Empowerment starts with convenience.
Saudi Arabia has been at pains to project a new image of friendliness towards the ‘other’, be it the Abraham Accords, easing of the visa norms, opening up the country for popular sport and entertainment events, or opening the first liquor store in Riyadh after seven decades. The Saudi establishment and regular people are recognising the benefits of being welcoming towards the ‘other’ for it results in economic and geopolitical gains. Young Saudi Arabians are participating in this transformation process for the sake of individual liberties as well as in the name of nationalism.
“I want to travel the world but I have a to-do list for my country. As a teacher, I am responsible for preparing the next generation to be capable of taking Saudi Arabia to the next level of development,” says Ahmad (name changed), a young English teacher in the Madina province. He also shared how girls were performing much better than boys in academics. In the modernisation drive, young women are offered scholarships to study and train abroad to prepare them for the times ahead.
There is some obvious resistance. “Sometimes tourists say they don’t want a woman as their guide. We tell them to cancel their tour in that case. There are no refunds,” winks Asra (name changed), a tourist guide in Al-Ula. She wore her ID card proudly over her abaya. Only her eyes and thumbs (for touchscreens of her phone and other gadgets) were uncovered. “My choice of attire is informed by tradition and not so much by religion,” she adds.
Al-Ula’s archaeological bounty could have been a cultural landmine of sorts given the implications of Aramaic inscriptions on the perception of the Koran. The authorities concerned are treading with caution while wresting power over the culture and society from the religious establishment. From the cursed city, Al-Ula is pacing towards becoming another Istanbul—a confluence of civilisations.
In the wake of the falling oil prices almost a decade ago, the seeds of top-down nationalist mobilisation were sown during the reign of King Abdullah. The desert is now showing signs of this crop. It is to be remembered, however, that top-down socio-cultural changes have not always worked as desired in Saudi Arabia. Like, in the case of the Sahwa (Islamic Resurgence) mobilisation in the 1970s and 80s, the religious leaders later began to challenge their political benefactors on issues of foreign policy.
The Saudi Arabian middle-ground approach in its regional foreign policy has worked well for it so far. The heat of the current Israel-Palestine conflict, too, has spared it. Under the almost unchallenged leadership of MBS, Saudi Arabian people are being encouraged to examine their uniqueness in the strife-torn WANA region. While countries like Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and Libya are strewn with devastated, often bombed out, historical sites, Saudi Arabia is preparing to stun the world with its antiquities of Al-Ula, Hegra, Tayma, and other sites still under excavation and exploration.
The resurrection of MBS’s grandfather King Abdulaziz, who founded the third Saudi Arabian state and ruled the country from 1932 to 1953, in the form of the naming of airports and roads after him is significant. Just like the older king didn’t rely on oil for nation-building, MBS wants to signal to the world that Saudi Arabia is relevant even without being a significant source of fossil fuel. His ‘green’ approach is gaining support in the young Saudi Arabian population.
Opportunities for Indian
A Saudi Arabian spring is all fine but what is in it for India?
To begin with, Indian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia can expect better working conditions. In a renewed social contract, everyone—citizens, immigrants, tourists—is beginning to be seen as an important stakeholder. Nadim (name changed), a South Asian immigrant employed in the hospitality industry says, “I’ve seen Saudi Arabia changing in the last five years. Earlier, we couldn’t even look our Saudi Arabian colleagues in the eye. There was a very strict hierarchy at work here. It is not so anymore. Labour courts have been reformed”. According to Eliyas (name changed), a schoolteacher in Madina province, however, attitudes cannot change drastically. “We grew up seeing Indians mostly as labourers. It will take time for us to accept them as tourists and patrons.”
Indian educators and artists have enormous opportunities in Saudi Arabia because of the government’s urgency to overhaul the education system. India seeks to benefit from Saudi Arabian nationalism which aims to prepare people for a diversified economy. While it is ‘Saudi First,’ the country welcomes regional and far-neighbourhood synergies in the space of culture, technology, security et al. The ongoing first-ever India-Saudi Arabia joint military exercise in Rajasthan, Sada Tasneeq, is one of the examples of the growing partnership between the two countries.
While Saudi Arabia will look at India to send tourists in addition to the regular Haj pilgrims, India can leverage its position for its counter-terrorism initiatives. Bilateral investments in the space of infrastructure and service sectors for India and Saudi Arabia respectively also have great growth potential.
“We want our country to be on top in all fields,” a front office employee in Jeddah shares. India can benefit from this Saudi Arabia aspiration.
(Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based writer and entrepreneur.)
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