RIYAD (AFP) – Two decades after Saudi activists organized and carried out the 9/11 attacks, the desert kingdom is striving for change as part of a reform campaign to update its ultra-conservative image .
Women can drive, and cinemas have reopened in the “new” Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, among many modernizing reforms that some say may be linked to the trauma of 9/11.
These initiatives are “one of the long-term consequences” of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Ms. Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told AFP.
Fifteen Saudis were among 19 hijackers in the airstrikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which left nearly 3,000 dead and were planned by Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader Osama ben Laden.
The kingdom, a longtime US ally, has denied any involvement but faced harsh US rhetoric over its social and educational systems that critics say encouraged extremism.
More pressure could follow in the coming months after US President Joe Biden ordered the declassification of secret documents from a US investigation into the attacks.
Mr Biden was responding to pressure from the families of some of those killed on 9/11 who have long argued that the classified documents may contain evidence that the Saudi government had links to the hijackers.
In a statement released Wednesday (September 8) by its embassy in Washington, Saudi Arabia said it “welcomed” Mr. Biden’s decision.
He said he “can only reiterate his long-standing support for the full declassification” of all documents in the hope that they “will end the baseless allegations against the kingdom once and for all.”
Saudi Arabia‘s austere image was rooted in the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, a Puritan doctrine it was accused of exporting around the world.
The country, home to Islam’s holiest sites and the world’s largest oil exporter, initially resisted pressure for reform.
But the rise of Prince Mohammed, or âMBS,â who was appointed crown prince in 2017, and the need to diversify as demand for oil cools has resulted in a series of economic, social and religious changes.
Prince Mohammed has sought to position himself as a champion of “moderate” Islam, even as his international reputation was affected by the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The kingdom’s heavily criticized driving ban was lifted in 2018, mixed music concerts are now allowed, and businesses can remain open during the five daily prayers.
Saudi Arabia has also sterilized its once feared religious police, which hunted people out of malls to pray and berated anyone mingling with the opposite sex.
The Gulf country, a destination for millions of Muslim pilgrims every year, has also opened its doors to non-religious tourism.
The kingdom “is a profoundly different and better place,” Saudi government adviser Ali Shihabi told AFP.
âThe (reforms) have dismantled the structures and networks of radical Islam inside the country.
“Terrorists who plan an outrage similar to 9/11 will have to go elsewhere than the kingdom to fish for recruits, as the pool of young Saudis indoctrinated into reactionary Islam is shrinking rapidly.”
But some Saudis warn that swift and sweeping reforms carry the risk of backlash, with popular sentiment hard to gauge when authorities continue to crack down on any opposition or activist.
In 2019, a Yemeni resident engaged in a series of stabbing during a live musical in Riyadh and, in another incident that year, a Saudi man shot dead three people at a naval base. from Florida.
Ms Farouk said it was in many ways a “new Saudi Arabia”, but warned that the reforms are “not enough” to eradicate extremism.
“They do not involve a dialogue with society that would address extremist arguments,” she said. “Dialogue is very important to achieve goals and not just to force changes on people.”
Reform must focus on the education system that has long been associated with Wahhabism, said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Reforming an entire education system – programs, instructors, institutions – is a huge task akin to remaking society itself,” she told AFP.
The kingdom is currently revising textbooks that label non-Muslims as “kuffar” or non-believers, while the education ministry has announced that it is working on a new curriculum that promotes “the values ââof freedom of thought and of tolerance â.
In 2018, Prince Mohammed told CBS television that he aimed to remove all “extremist” elements from the education system, in which die-hard Islamists were widely employed.
âThere is no doubt that the intention is there, but effective execution will take time,â Ms. Diwan said.