When one thinks about Saudi Arabia, the largest Middle East country, images of ultra-conservatism and gender inequality pop up. The country enjoys a reputation for implementing a stricter enforcement of Shariah law. But the truth is it wasn't always like this. The notion that Saudi Arabia was conservative can easily be debunked if one takes a look at Saudi History. There was a time when Saudi promoted modernity, independent thinking, and openness.
Before 1979 Saudi was a traditional yet tolerant state where clerics did not dictate daily lives, women were allowed to drive; movie theatres were opened, gender segregation was not common, men and women were allowed to interact with each other in public. Things took a wrong turn when in 1979, the holiest site of Islam, the Grand Mosque, was attacked by 200 radical Islamists led by 40-year-old preacher Juhayman Al-Otayabi.
The insurgents belonged to an association called al-Jamaa al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba, which condemned what it perceived as the degeneration of social as well as religious values in Saudi Arabia. They were armed with handguns, rifles and the insurgents stayed at the mosque for two long weeks and were later killed and executed by Saudi forces. This siege of 1979 coupled with the Shia Revolution in Iran drove Saudi Arabia to adopt an ultra-conservative path of Islamic revivalism and fundamentalism to restore "pure monotheistic worship" for most of the next four decades.
The siege led the House of Saud to suspect that the end was near. In order to portray themselves as protectors of the Islamic faith, the state took refugees in Wahabism and renewed their ties with Wahabi clerics. Soon after the siege, Saudi Arabia restricted civil rights, appointed religious clerics in top administrative positions, barred women from almost all walks of life and rolled back social liberties.
As part of their stricter enforcement of Shariah law, Saudi banned photographs of women in newspapers and then women on television. Movie theatres, along with music shops, were shut down. The School curriculum was changed to eliminate non-Islamic history and prioritise Islamic religious studies. Gender segregation was strictly enforced from small cafes to huge malls, and religious police became more assertive than ever before. The country also didn't refrain from spending millions to propagate the Wahabi tenets and export its hardline brand of Islam globally, giving birth to political Islam in West Asia.
There now exist signs of thaw as the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has come up with reforms to uproot the country from the Islamic extremism that took birth in 1979 and return to Moderate Islam. In a 2017 interview, he said
" What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle east. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them being Saudi Arabia. We did not know how to deal with it, and the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of this."
In a 2018 interview, he pointed out that before 1979 they were living a normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries, women were driving cars, and there were movie theatres in Saudi Arabia. Since coming to power in 2015, he reopened cinema halls, allowed women to drive, permitted women to enter stadiums, let women perform Hajj without the presence of a male guardian, and appointed the first Saudi Woman to head the Sports federation.
He also announced his plans to revive the Saudi Arabian school curriculum to tackle intolerance since most schools in Saudi operate on tenets preached by the clergy. The complete restoration of Saudi Arabia to the pre-1979 moderate Islam era will take several years, maybe even decades, but the Crown prince remains hopeful.