Western absurdities and sinful projects. The Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) certainly had a colorful way of describing cinemas and concerts in a bulletin it issued on June 1st. The terrorist organization condemned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for “opening the door wide for corruption and moral degradation” with his plan of social reform. Although AQAP did not threaten the Kingdom for engaging in the very vices it condemns in the Western world, its statements highlight the sensitivity and danger of the quick cultural transformation currently under way in the home of Islam.
“The new era of [Mohammad bin Salman] replaced mosques with movie theaters,” AQAP stated, calling MBS and the Saudi government “corruptors”for introducing entertainment in a country which was a veritable vacuum of entertainment options up until the past year. The terrorist group’s condemnation of movies, musical concerts and circus shows sounds utterly ridiculous, medieval and backwards and is almost laughable. But this is Al-Qaeda we’re talking about, and while plenty of Saudis are overjoyed at the changes taking place in their country, that does not mean that others do not share AQAP’s point of view.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has shied away from the word “fun.” Amusements and arts were virtually non-existent: no movies, no concerts, no theatre, dance or live performances of any kind, save poetry readings. Home to the holiest places in Islam (Mecca and Medina) and under the influence of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam, Saudi Arabia promoted a rigid, religious society that made the country a social and cultural pariah unique among world nations. Saudis looking for entertainment had to literally leave the country, with nearby Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates the popular options.
It is not hard to see why the recent, rapid cultural explosion would spark the ire of AQAP and other ultra-conservatives, then, given the context in which they were introduced. The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event that took place in April in Jeddah incensed AQAP for all the predictable reasons: foreigner infidels who had cross tattoos? Check. Tight outfits that “exposed their privates?” Check. A mixed gathering of men and women? Check. Going from a society where all signs of other religions are stamped out, men and women were heavily segregated, and strict Islamic dress is imposed to one where young crowds cheer at a WWE event would definitely cause a form of culture shock, even though many Saudis have indulged in such entertainment abroad or via the internet.
Interestingly, this is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been accused of losing its morality and following Western ways by radicals. In 1965, the creation of Saudi television resulted in bloody riots by ultra-conservatives who protested the presentation of “graven images.” Their outrage over female presenters caused women to be banned from Saudi television for some time. The introduction of cinemas, art shows, Western books and TV shows further sparked the anger of certain ultra-conservatives who would later go on to stage the siege of Mecca in 1979 and form Al-Qaeda.
Cultural reform and progress will always be met with backlash by those who are resistant to change; this is to be expected. Fortunately, 70% of the Saudi population is under 30 years old, and therefore much more open to change than their elders. However, in a country where religion plays such a huge role and has served as a reason for barring cinemas and concerts, things become ideologically tricky. Why, all of a sudden, have religious underpinnings been ignored in the name of entertainment?
Conservatives in the Kingdom have indeed criticized the recent reforms. Residents of smaller towns are particularly vociferous: in the town of Huraymila, locals refused to attend a concert held by the General Entertainment Authority, the government entity responsible for organizing entertainment events. In September 2017, the website of the GEA was hit by an outside cyber attack. Yet criticism has not dampened plans but rather accelerated them: on June 2nd it was announced that a new Ministry of Culture will be formed.
When an ideology has been so ingrained in a culture for decades, suddenly reversing it without concrete reasons other than “progress for the sake of progress” must be done delicately. Perhaps Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the Crown Prince’s cousin who runs the Saudi General Sport Authority, put it best: “When you live in a community where, overnight, what was a ‘no’ is a ‘yes,’ it’s very hard to rationalize if there’s no ‘why.” The government needs to be able to give a “why” that goes beyond economic reform in the face of slumping oil prices, and this “why” must clarify recent events vis-a-vis religion.
Is Saudi Arabia’s boisterous cultural and social agenda too much too fast? Will it provoke a backlash that goes beyond private criticisms and Twitter rants and echoes previous reform attempts? Only time will tell, but it seems that this time around, the youth are more interested in Yanni and Black Panther than they are in religious fundamentalism. And this is what the government is no doubt banking on in order to avoid the “why.”