Twenty years after its terrorist attacks September 11th, committed mainly by Saudis, the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom is trying to project the image of an open and tolerant country by adopting a series of economic and social reforms.
The attacks, claimed by al Qaeda, claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people. At the time, Saudi Arabia fell out of favor before re-establishing ties with its ally, the United States.
The rich Gulf country, the world’s largest crude oil exporter and longtime American partner, has denied any involvement in the attacks. 15 of the 19 perpetrators were Saudi nationals.
But it is only in recent years, under the rule of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that the kingdom has embarked on a series of reforms to end its dependence solely on oil for revenue and to correct the image of a country that is being criticized for exporting. the strict Sunni doctrine of Wahhabism.
Now women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to drive, cinemas have opened in the country and pop concerts have been attended by men and women.
These reforms are “a long-term consequence” of 9/11, says Jasmine Farouk, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
According to the families of the 9/11 victims, secret documents may contain evidence that the Saudi government had links to the perpetrators of the attacks. US President Joe Biden announced a few days ago that these documents will be declassified.
The Saudi embassy in Washington on Wednesday welcomed Biden’s decision, “reiterating Riyadh’s long-standing support for the complete declassification of all documents,” in the hope that all his baseless allegations against him would be stopped forever. “
“Absence of dialogue”
According to Farouk, the world is now dealing with “a new Saudi Arabia.” With the rise to power of the successor prince, changes were made in the country that until recently seemed impossible.
The government reduced the powers of the moral police, which expelled customers from malls during prayer or prevented people of the opposite sex from being at the same place at the same time.
Shops and restaurants can now operate even during the five daily prayers, whereas previously they were forced to close.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, has also attracted tourists thanks to its picturesque landscapes.
The kingdom is now “a very different and better place,” said Ali Sihabi, an adviser to the Saudi government.
According to him, these reforms dealt a blow “to the structures and networks of extremist Islam in the country. “The number of young Saudis who are attracted to extremist Islam is declining rapidly.”
But Farouk notes that these reforms are “not enough” to eradicate extremism, as there is no “dialogue with society that could refute the extremists’ arguments.”
“Dialogue is very important to achieve the goals, instead of just imposing changes on people,” he said.
However, the adoption of reforms has not stopped the suppression of any opposition in Saudi Arabia or activism, as the country remains very hostile in public debate.
International non-governmental organizations have welcomed Riyadh’s reforms, but continue to denounce violent crackdowns on dissidents, such as the imprisonment of women’s rights activists or the assassination of Jamal Kasovi Σα’s journalist, Jamal Kasnovi, in the pre-war.
After all, despite the fact that Riyadh has taken action against extremist Islamist preachers, it has not been able to eliminate extremism in society.
According to Christine Diwan, a researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C., the reforms should focus primarily on Saudi Arabia’s education system, which is directly linked to Wahhabism.
“Reforming the whole education system – the programs, the teachers, the institutions – is a colossal project that will reshape society itself,” he said.
The Saudi authorities are currently reviewing textbooks that demean non-Muslims, and the Ministry of Education has announced that it is working on a new program that will promote “the values of freedom of expression and tolerance.”
In 2018, the Crown Prince stated that he wants to eliminate all the “extreme” elements in the education system.
“He left no doubt about his intentions, but the implementation of this plan will take time,” said Diwan.