Automatons and autocrats: the brave new world of Saudi Arabia

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is on a mission to shake up Saudi Arabia, the most change-resistant of Arab countries. Though still only 32 and not actually king, he appears to have been given unlimited power and is determined to make use of it.

Last week alone, he announced a $500 billion plan to create a hi-tech utopia in the desert, declared his intention to convert Saudi Arabia to "moderate" Islam, and granted Saudi citizenship to Sophia, a Chinese-made robot with lipstick and well-developed breasts.

There's a touch of Kim Jong Un about Prince Mohammed's fads and fantasies but in the prince's case they are of a sort that tends to be viewed favourably in the west – especially by consultancy firms slavering over the fees they hope to collect.

His willingness to take big decisions is beyond dispute but what some admire as boldness, others regard as impulsiveness; where some see self-confidence, others suspect recklessness. His ability to assess risks and see decisions through is still unproven, and the early signs are not good.

It was Mohammed bin Salman, in cahoots with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who two years ago launched the ongoing military intervention in Yemen and, more recently, picked an intractable quarrel with neighbouring Qatar. Neither of those is going well (to put it mildly) and the princes appear to have waded into both of them without much thought about exit strategies.

No less perilously, in announcing his ambition to reform Saudi Arabia's religion, the heir to the throne has stepped where his forebears feared to tread. He has signalled his willingness to confront the most reactionary religious elements – elements that have hitherto been a mainstay of the Saudi monarchy.

As far as the religious nettle is concerned, previous Saudi rulers had reason to be nervous. They were mindful of King Faisal whose modernisation plans ended abruptly with his assassination in 1975. Among other things, King Faisal had enraged the religious ultras by permitting Saudis to watch television.

The late King Abdullah, who survived into his nineties, also recognised the need for reform – he appointed women to the Consultative Council and encouraged female employment – but was extremely cautious about how far to push it. He continued to hold back from more contentious changes, such as allowing women to drive and ending the discriminatory male "guardianship" system.

At King Abdullah's snail-like pace reform on the scale that Saudi Arabia needs would have taken centuries – which explains why the young prince is in such a hurry. While many will welcome this in principle, the question is how it can be achieved without a catastrophic backlash from those who view the plans as horrifyingly radical.

So far, though, it looks to be succeeding. Last month's announcement that women will shortly be allowed to drive was accomplished without obvious signs of mass opposition. But this doesn't necessarily mean the conservatives have accepted defeat. Their relative silence could be partly explained by the crackdown on dissenting voices – liberal as well as conservative – instituted by Mohammed bin Salman since becoming crown prince.

A Saudi utopia

Last week the Saudi capital hosted an investment conference with the extraordinarily ambitious Neom project as its centrepiece. The plan is for a $500 billion "independent economic zone" covering more than 26,000 square kilometres in the northwest of the kingdom, adjacent to the Jordanian border and facing Egypt across the Gulf of Aqaba.

"Neom" is a made-up name combining the prefix "neo" with the first letter of mustaqbal (the Arabic word for "future") – and the outline plans are certainly futuristic. They talk of a place with passenger-carrying drones, new ways of growing and processing food, free high-speed wifi, continuous online education, e-governance, carbon-neutral buildings, wind power and solar energy, and a healthy environment that encourages walking and cycling.

Some might wonder if Neom is necessary – couldn't these things simply be introduced in existing cities? But that's not really the point. Arab leaders are fond of mega-projects and Neom is intended as a statement about the new Saudi Arabia and its future king.

Needless to say, an article in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday was sceptical. It pointed out that the history of mega-projects in Arab countries has been less than spectacular and noted that the far more modest $10 billion King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh – designed to attract foreign firms – is still mostly empty almost a decade after work on it began.

Neom's logo

The hope, presumably, is that if Neom goes according to plan it will have some kind of trickle-across effect, gradually shifting the rest of the kingdom in a more modern and progressive direction. The risk, though, is that it will be perceived as an enclave of privilege, fuelling resentment among ordinary citizens who feel ignored and bypassed on the road to utopia. Neom isn't being presented as a job-creation project for Saudis and the expectation is that it will be populated mainly by foreigners and robots (with robots in the majority, according to some reports).

This is where sexy Sophia, the mechanical woman on wheels, comes in. Her attendance at the investment conference and the news that she had been given Saudi citizenship was meant as a "symbolic gesture", according to Al Arabiya, but it invited mockery on social media. People noted that Sophia was not draped in black from head to foot as Saudi women are supposed to be, and was also mingling freely with the opposite sex. Others commented on how easily she had obtained Saudi nationality when millions of foreign workers in the kingdom have precarious residence permits under the iniquitous kafala system which ties them to specific employers.

Sophia – the first robot to acquire Saudi nationality

Social 'innovation'

Robots aside, the most intriguing part of the Neom plan is that it's envisaged as being "independent of the kingdom's existing governmental framework". At the very least, this implies creating an array of new laws applicable only inside Neom – financial laws to attract foreign investors, construction laws to meet the environmental requirements plus, presumably, new air-traffic laws for the passenger-carrying drones.

But the plan goes further and talks of Neom as a place for "societal innovation" – which appears to be code for a sharia-free zone where, in order to attract foreigners, gender segregation, female dress codes and other rules based on wahhabi doctrine won't apply. How the religious ultras will react to this remains to be seen.

Reading in English about the plans for Neom it's easy to underestimate their theological consequences. The talk of social "innovation", for instance, may sound innocuous enough (in western culture its connotations are broadly positive) but its Arabic equivalent, bid'ah – sometimes translated as "heresy" – rings immediate alarm bells for religious conservatives. There's a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that "every innovation is a misguidance and every misguidance goes to hellfire". Although distinctions can be made in Islam between "bad" and "good" bid'ah, it is on the grounds of preventing bid'ah that Saudi scholars over the years have opposed all manner of new-fangled things, from wristwatches in the 1940s to camera-phones in the 2000s.

Front page of the Saudi newspaper Arab News last Wednesday

Forward into the past

In contrast to the forward-looking vision of Neom, when the prince talks of religious reform it's not as innovation but as a return to the past. He told the investment conference:

“We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world ... We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that’s open to all religions. We want to live a normal life.”

The enormity of this statement may not be immediately apparent but, coming from the heir to the throne, its implications are stunning. It amounts to an admission that Islam as practised in the kingdom and promoted by the royal family is not "moderate" and that as a result people can't lead "normal" lives.

Talking of a "return" to moderate Islam may reassure conservatives who worry about bid'ah but it also implies there was a point, sometime in the past, when Islam in Saudi Arabia went astray – which raises a politically tricky question: When?

The most obvious answer is that it happened in the 18th century with the emergence of wahhabism, the austere version of Islam on which Saudi rulers have based their claims to legitimacy since the founding of the kingdom in 1932. Acknowledging that, though, would strike at the very foundations of the House of Saud, so the prince settled for a more recent date: 1979 – the year of the Iranian revolution.

In an interview with the Guardian, he argued that the kingdom's rigid doctrines came as a reaction to revolution in Iran, which successive leaders “didn’t know how to deal with”. Implausible as this might be, it conveniently shifts the blame away from previous Saudi rulers and towards the enemy next door.

What does 'moderate' Islam mean?

So far, the prince has not explained how he plans to set about making Islam in Saudi Arabia moderate or what, exactly, he means by "moderate".

To some, "moderate" Islam means little more than rejection of jihadism and other forms of religion-based violence. That is certainly a part of what the prince has in mind. For instance, a royal decree issued a couple of weeks ago established the King Salman Complex for the Prophet's Hadith. Based in Medina and drawing on Islamic scholars from around the world, this will scrutinise the hadith – collections of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet – in order to “eliminate fake and extremist texts and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam and justify the committing of crimes, murders and terrorist acts”.

Attempts of this kind to combat jihadist ideology are nothing new, however, and their effects have been limited. The trouble with this sort of initiative is that jihadists, knowing it has been set up by the Saudi government, are unlikely to take much notice of its pronouncements.

But the prince's idea of "moderate" Islam clearly doesn't stop there. When he talks about allowing Saudis to live "a normal life" he means lifting religious restrictions on people's everyday activities. One example of that was the easing, earlier this year, of restrictions on music concerts. However, following objections from the Grand Mufti, the General Authority for Entertainment hastened to assure him that although concerts were taking place the audiences attending them were fully gender-segregated.

Making Islam "moderate" by becoming less puritanical doesn't necessarily make it progressive or tolerant. This can be seen in Egypt where the Sisi regime, in its effort to crack down on Islamists, has made "moderation" compulsory. The Sisi brand of Islam is moderate in the sense of being theologically mainstream but it is also illiberal and authoritarian in character.

While allowing some scope for tolerance – of Christians, for example, who form a large minority in Egypt – it has set limits on religious discourse in order to confine it to the middle ground. The main intention, obviously, was to place Islamist theology beyond the bounds of acceptability but at the other end of the spectrum it also means that atheism, scepticism and liberal interpretations of Islam have become equated with extremism.

Prince Mohammed appears to favour the Sisi approach, or something very similar. "We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas," he told the investment conference last week. "We will destroy them today."

That, in a nutshell, is why he is likely to fail. Making Saudi Islam moderate – in the fullest sense of the word – is as big a project as Neom, if not bigger, and it certainly can't be accomplished overnight. To suggest it might take 30 years is probably on the optimistic side. It requires a massive shift in attitudes throughout Saudi society and, as part of that, there would have to be a complete overhaul of the education system which not only promotes religious intolerance but actively discourages critical thinking.

Critical thinking accompanied by open debate offers a route to sustainable reform but, for an absolute monarchy, that can have undesirable consequences. One notable omission in the prince's plans for change is the political system – and yet it's highly relevant. How far can the kingdom really open up while still retaining an absolute monarchy?

Prince Mohammed would no doubt regard the monarchy, under his command, as a benevolent force but that misses the point. To succeed in bringing about genuine change he will need to carry the Saudi public with him, which means listening to them and engaging them in the process – something that Arab rulers have historically been reluctant to do.

No one should be deceived by the prince's passion for modernity. Behind it is an old-style vision of autocracy – one that probably wishes all Saudi citizens were more like Sophia the robot, programmed to do exactly as they are told.