Saudis see in social reforms a deterrent to extremism

By Sultan al-Barei in Riyadh

A group of Saudi women attend a sports match for the first time at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on the occasion of National Day celebrations. [Photo circulated on social media]

A group of Saudi women attend a sports match for the first time at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on the occasion of National Day celebrations. [Photo circulated on social media]

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of sweeping social reforms that are expected to revitalise its society and keep extremism at bay, Saudi citizens and academics told Al-Mashareq.

Royal decrees and government decisions issued over the past three months reveal a national plan to fortify Saudi society and move it towards greater openness, Qassim University lecturer Yasser al-Muhanna said.

This is the ideal way to resist extremist ideology and prevent extremist groups or individuals from penetrating Saudi society to spread their poison, he said.

While these new measures were primarily directed at women, they will affect all strata of society, he said, adding that they are not arbitrary, but are rather part of the kingdom's development plans.

These include the National Transformation Programme 2020 and Saudi Vision 2030, both of which seek to stimulate the economy by creating jobs, eliminating unemployment and recruiting and training Saudi youth in various fields.

Key decisions include the establishment of a National Development Fund to revitalise the private sector, make it easier for citizens to access financing and loans, and launch a series of new investment projects targeting youth.

The decision to "reinstate the allowances, raises and benefits allocated to the government sector" that were halted when oil prices fell "was a felicitous decision that received a positive response both socially and economically", he added.

This is due to the liquidity created when the decision went into effect, he said.

Closing the door on extremism

"The war on terrorism in Saudi Arabia is being fought on many fronts," said Mahmoud Salem, professor of religious sociology at Imam Muhammad bin Saud University.

The kingdom is fighting a "military war" against terrorism both domestically and abroad, as part of the coalition battling the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), as well as an "ideological war", he told Al-Mashareq.

"However, the most important battle is reinforcing the domestic front by focusing attention on the Saudi citizen and identifying the laws and decrees needed to eliminate the pressures in his daily life," Salem said.

"Some of these laws and decrees will lead Saudi society towards enlightenment and openness and away from extremism and seclusion," he said.

"This would close the door firmly to terrorist groups, who are trying to penetrate Saudi society through the gate of religious fanaticism, extremist ideology and misinterpretation of sharia," he added.

Among the decisions is a royal decree, issued in June, to change the name of the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution to the Public Prosecution and have it report directly to the king, Salem said.

"The importance of the decree lies in giving citizens protection in legal matters, as it separated the executive branch of the state from the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution, which is part of the judicial authority," he explained.

This means the bureau now has complete independence in the exercise of its functions, "which will ensure their total impartiality and imperviousness to influence".

Women hold key to reform

Most of the decisions issued in recent months concern women, according to Fadel al-Hindi, a supervisor at King Abdul Aziz University's Centre for Social and Humanities Research.

But "this attention given to women did not come from a vacuum", he told Al-Mashareq, noting that "women are half of society, yet their role and presence had been dismissed in past years".

"Society will not be able to move towards openness without opening all arenas to women and enlightening them so they may enlighten future generations," he said.

"The decision to allow Saudi women to drive cars may have captured the attention of the international media, but there are many other decisions that went in the same direction and carry importance," he said.

The decision to allow women to drive was followed by a Saudi Transport Authority decision to establish training centres to teach them to drive commercial vehicles and prepare them to work in the sector.

Other decisions that serve the interests of women include an Education Ministry decision in July "to allow girls to play sports in [public] schools starting this academic year, an activity that was prohibited in past decades", al-Hindi said.

In a decision announced earlier this month by the same ministry, female university students are now permitted to carry their cellphones on campus.

And in August 2016, the first female telecommunications complex in the kingdom was opened in Riyadh's al-Remal district, al-Hindi said.

The complex provides all communications-related services including sales, maintenance and customer service, and all its employees are Saudi women.

To further support women, a royal order has been issued ordering the development of a system to combat harassment.

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