Hot News

.Liberated Saudi Youth Wonder Where All the Wahhabis Have Gone.......... now

Fans in the stands ahead of the Supercoppa Italiana final between Juventus and AC Milan at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah on Jan. 16.

The vast halls of the Dhahran Expo in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province tingle with youthful excitement. One 28-year-old would-be entrepreneur named Zaid, wearing an immaculate white traditional thobe, says he wants to start a business making sandboards for tourists to hurtle down desert dunes. Female university students stop visitors to show off projects for an innovation class. In fluent English, Shahad Sonbul explains how a floating chair allows the disabled to use swimming pools. Next to her, a group of five seeks funding for a credit card case secured by fingerprints.
Financial markets may be obsessed with the initial public offering of Saudi Arabia’s national oil giant Aramco, which will begin selling shares on Nov. 17 in a potentially record-busting opening of the country to outside investors and the world. But the real essence of economic transformation is the unshackling of the nation from a puritanical brand of Islam that would have made the aspirations at the Dhahran Expo unimaginable. “In two years, the difference is crazy,” says Shoug Alamri, 22, one of the students. “Finally, I can be me.”

For anyone who’s kept an eye on the kingdom, what’s happening under the stewardship of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is nothing short of a revolution. For decades, the country followed the branch of Islam named after the 18th century cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose pact with the ruling Al Saud family gave his descendants free rein over society, education, and the legal system. But in 2017 the crown prince said turning to moderate Islam is key to his plan to modernize the country, vowing to “destroy” the remnants of extremism “today and immediately.” If not for that, the event in Dhahran would have been segregated by gender, with members of the feared religious police, the muttawa, prowling the premises to ensure women’s abayas, the cloaks they have to wear in public, are black and loose, and that men and women barely cross paths. A male Kuwaiti writer attending a book signing at Riyadh’s book fair in 2016 was ordered not to smile, because his dimples were seductive.
Today the muttawa are nowhere in sight. What’s visible instead is a younger generation of tech-savvy Saudis fired up by a sense of national, rather than religious, identity. “Saudi identity is us. The Wahhabi identity is not us,” says Mashael al-Baoud, who’s in her 30s. She’s standing behind her display of green crocodile-skin charms in the shape of Saudi Arabia and mobile phone cases embossed with the image of the crown prince or the national emblem, two crossed swords and a palm tree. “They have vanished,” she says. “Since they’re not here, we’re showing who we really are.”
To be sure, the country is nothing like a liberal Western democracy. The identity of the new Saudi Arabia is wrapped up in a bloody war in Yemen, the consequences of the brutal murder of newspaper columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and a curbing of free speech—all as significant as the positive changes that have been introduced by the kingdom’s autocratic, de facto ruler. The U.S. charged two former Twitter Inc. employees and a Saudi national this month with helping to spy on dissidents. The government’s focus may now be on what Saudis can do rather than what they can’t. Heresy these days is going against the state rather than the mosque.
But the contrast with the religiously repressed old kingdom is still dramatic. From cinemas to the lively activity in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Park to a top-floor hookah lounge in Jeddah, businesses have sprung up to cash in on the new tolerance. There’s even talk among some Saudis of the alcohol ban being lifted, possibly before the nation hosts the Group of 20 next year. What comes next depends on whether the economy can make enough strides to meet the expectations of a country where three-quarters of the population, including the crown prince himself, is under the age of 35. While they’re excited by the new liberalization, most young Saudis have one nagging concern: Where have the Wahhabis gone, and what are the chances of them coming back?
The risk for the world’s largest crude oil exporter is an aggressive pushback driven by the clerics and their followers, who once dominated many ministries, government institutions, mosques, and schools. Driving the conservative radicals underground is the cost of doing business, says Abdullah bin Khaled Al-Saud, a 37-year-old prince who is director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. “This is a revolution,” he says, and the country is “at a very critical juncture in its history.” Allowing the religious hard-liners their old purviews “could create some sort of infighting or instability, and no one wants to see that. So there’s a valid argument for maintaining a tight lid on society in this transitional period until we reach the safe shores.”
One of the key turning points in Saudi history, the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamists who sought to shift the country onto a more conservative course, came after a period of openness. The kingdom was flush with oil money, women could wear short, cape-like cloaks instead of full abayas, and official Saudi TV broadcast concerts. After the siege, and the Islamic revolution in Iran the same year, the government embraced the Wahhabis more tightly. Indeed, according to U.S. and Saudi officials at the time, Wahhabi teachings helped shape Osama bin Laden and the 15 Saudis who were among the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Today, there are worries about how the conservatives may seek revenge. “The big question that I always try to think about is: Where is the backlash? Why is it muted so far? Is there any pushback toward this?” says a Saudi academic, who asked not to be named because of the continuing sensitivity of the issue. “Whenever things take a drastic change, the other forces try to resist as much as they can based on the opportunities that they have. Right now they don’t have much opportunity to resist publicly.”
Prince Mohammed isn’t giving them a chance. He rolled out his Vision 2030 for change three years ago. The program aims to kick the economy into the 21st century, bringing women into the labor force and starting industries that used to be prohibited, such as entertainment and tourism. The plan is also to prepare young Saudis academically in a country where education has long been heavy on religion.
Saudi Arabia needs a jump-start. Almost completely dependent on energy exports, the economy is showing signs of diversification, with the nonoil economy growing by 2.9% in the latest quarter—the fastest rate in four years, according to Bloomberg’s chief Middle East economist, Ziad Daoud. It’s still a long way short of where it needs to be and remains mainly driven by the government still spending petrodollars. The International Monetary Fund warned in September that Saudi Arabia needs a tighter fiscal policy to safeguard its budget in case of a decline in oil prices. The IMF also reiterated that diversifying the economy is essential to create jobs and mitigate the impact of uncertainty in the oil markets.
“If I were an adviser to the crown prince, I would say let’s create sustainable and genuine jobs for the people through local investments in the industrial and services sector in the short term, and focus on a quality education system in the mid-long term,” says Eid Al Shamri, chief executive officer of the investment bank Ithraa Capital, at his office in central Riyadh. “A backlash will not happen as long as our economy is strong. All other factors, such as social and religious factors, are excuses rather than causes.”
It’s not like everyone has cast off their traditional, religious identity. Saudi Arabia is still very black and white, abayas and thobes. Even in Jeddah, a city which always had a reputation for being a little freer, women with their husbands and families taking a sunset stroll on the corniche were more likely than not to be wearing a black niqab face covering.
And among the young, there are a few who are outright against the changes or worry the kingdom is moving too fast. Saudi Arabia is potentially at the “gates of too far,” says Zaid, the man looking for funding for his sandboarding business. From the eastern city of Dammam, he spent seven years in the U.S. and graduated in chemical engineering before returning home in 2017. “The whole society has loosened up. Loosening up is good, but we don’t want to take it to an extreme. You have to keep your culture.”
For now, those opinions are peripheral, casual asides in the vast, visible rush to new riches. Hotels in the capital have added a 5% tax for the duration of “Riyadh Season,” a two-month gala of expos, concerts, and art fairs. Ads for it are daubed on national carrier Saudia’s airplanes, and visitors are invited to attend on arrival by text message. (It was marred on Nov. 11 by the stabbing of three performers, though the attacker’s motive remains unclear.) Concerts are held in al-Ula, home to ancient Nabatean ruins that few had heard about because of past sensitivities around pagan, Jewish, and Christian sites that predate the founding of Islam.
Instead of the pious silence imposed by the religious police, there’s rock, jazz, and Turkish pop songs. Instead of edicts against befriending foreigners, shunning the minority Shiite population as heretics, and burying relics, there’s an open-door policy that welcomes tourists, extends a shy hand to Shiites, and proudly showcases old treasures, seeking to make money from what had been buried and banned.

There are scenes previously unseen on the streets: Women in face covers on bicycles with their abayas gathered around their seats and their jeans-clad legs exposed. Couples at bars imbibing alcohol-free cocktails. Mariah Carey, South Korean boy band BTS, and popular Arab singers perform for Saudi fans who scream and sway to the music. Sitting on a rug for an evening picnic with female friends and family in King Abdullah Park in Riyadh, housewife Reem bin Mahfouz, 37, remembers what it used to be like. “A year ago, the fountain was dancing to religious chants,” she says.
At the hopping bar Venue 12 in Jeddah, the weekend is getting going, with people sipping juice and puffing on shisha water pipes. Business is brisk, but only about 80% of where the manager says he’d like it to be. “We were expecting the changes, because the economy cannot take off without them,” says Ibtihaj al-Zahrani, 18, sipping a blueberry mojito, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail.
In Qatif in the Eastern Province, the change of mood is also noticeable. The checkpoint at the entrance to the mainly Shiite city is unmanned. The frequent clashes at the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011 have tapered off. The conversation in gatherings among Shiites is focused on the economy and the challenge of finding good jobs rather than on the once-constant attacks against them by radical clerics. “This is the golden version of Saudi Arabia,” says one Shiite woman. “Sometimes I say to myself: Is this the same country?”

Noora al-Qahtani with her painting on the last night of the art fair in Riyadh on Nov. 2.
Photographer: Rodney Jefferson/Bloomberg

At the age of 50, Noora al-Qahtani finally feels empowered and liberated as an artist in Saudi Arabia. Speaking around midnight on the final day of a packed art fair in Riyadh, her eyes light up as she points to a painting in the kiosk that’s served as her gallery for a week. Prince Mohammed, she says, purchased the artwork, depicting a woman with a long neck, bare shoulders, and a gray-green dress, for 20,000 riyals ($5,300). That he bought a painting that violated the Wahhabi rule against depicting the human form was an overdue validation for al-Qahtani. The artist struggled for years to fight the stigma of drawing portraits both in college and at the school where she taught. Conservative students would urge her to “slash” the heads off subjects with a red line around their neck.
“That religious mindset killed our ambitions,” says al-Qahtani, who was swathed in a black cloak and niqab that left only her eyes exposed. “I have no fear that anyone will take this away from me,” she says. “In a small period, Mohammed bin Salman made us feel we are born again in an open society.” Yet she is wistful. “Those wasted years,” she says. “I could’ve become famous in my 20s. It’s so