Printed: July 04, 2022

Saudi prince’s modernization might be a neon light too much


Recently the First Red Sea Film Festival was held in the Saudi port city of Jeddah.

It was a glittering and glitzy affair where Arabic language films were screened, and prizes awarded in various categories. On hand were celebrities from the western entertainment world.

Whether there were Saudi elders and puritans who were appalled by this so-called abomination on their soil, nobody knows. Most of them, however, remember the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, the outspoken Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, who was brutally killed and then dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

It is widely believed that his assassination was carried out on the orders of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of the desert kingdom. The late Khashoggi was an outspoken critic of the prince.

In 1983 Saudi Arabia banned cinemas, and for 35 years the country had no theaters, In 2018, the first cinema was opened in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The cinemas are now multiplying, and AMC Theaters plans to add 40 cinemas in 15 Saudi cities in the next five years. The Saudi government hopes that in the next eight years the country will have 300 theaters and 2,000 movie screens.

This relaxation of public policy along with allowing women to drive is unprecedented when one looks at the history of the kingdom.

It was in the early 18th century that a firebrand preacher Abd al-Wahhab started a revivalist Islamic movement in the Arabian peninsula. For more than 188 years a politico-religious alliance between Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad Ibn Saud, a tribal leader, endured and culminated in the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

According to the agreement the country was to be run by the House of Saud but the clergy would have the final say in religious matters. The religious philosophy espoused by Abd al-Wahhab later came to be known as Wahhabism.

Wahhabism reached the farthest corners of the Islamic world on the wings of petrodollars and caused havoc with the traditional societies in the Middle East and Far East. Pakistan is one such country still coping with the religious militancy and extremism inspired by Wahhabism.

During the 10-year long war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Western democracies poured in cash and arms for the Afghan freedom fighters (mujahideen) to fight the Soviets. Saudi Arabia also helped, but most of the money went to opening hundreds and thousands of religious schools in the country where the students, mostly from poor families, were fed a hefty dose of Wahhabi doctrine and prepared for jihad in Afghanistan. A great number of them never came back.

The Taliban take their inspiration from Wahhabism. During the first Taliban rule (1996-2002) men and women were strictly segregated, movie theaters were closed, music was banned, girls’ schools were closed, and women were pushed back between the four walls of their homes.

In 2014 Pakistani Taliban carried out the most heinous act when they slaughtered 150 children in a school in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.

While Saudi Arabia is entering a new so-called “enlightened phase” in Pakistan religious fanaticism runs amuck. In 2011 a religious fanatic gunned down a provincial governor while visiting an imprisoned Christian woman on trumped up charges of insulting Prophet Muhammad and who had suggested that the blasphemy law should be amended. The killer was hanged, but he is celebrated as a hero and his grave is venerated not only by the common people but also by some leading politicians.

The House of Saud claims the title of keepers of Islam’s holiest places. A cursory look at the city of Makkah shows how the holy city has changed in the past 50 years. Glass and steel monstrosities now circle the Grand Mosque, holiest of the holy in Islam. To add insult to the injury of the religious sensibilities of millions of Muslims, they also erected the world’s largest clock tower overlooking the Grand Mosque. Neon signs advertising fast food and shopping arcades are common sights. Makkah looks more like a ritzy Las Vegas than the spiritual epicenter of the Muslim World.

The Saudi Crown Prince wants to bring his country into the contemporary world. The modernization he has embarked upon is dispensing with some of the sacred relics and sacred traditions. Muslim pilgrims to Makkah come to drink from the spiritual fountainhead of their faith. They do not come to eat halal burgers at McDonalds, partake of nonalcoholic beer, or sip a skinny latte at Starbucks.

I am afraid the overzealous prince might toss the baby out with the bath water.

S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. His column runs every other week in The Blade. Contact him at aghaji3@icloud.com.