Saudi reforms meet resistance

Reforms in Saudi Arabia
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Some business owners in Saudi Arabia are refusing to follow out the Crown Prince’s relaxation of laws, according to reports from visitors to the kingdom. A 42-year-old female teacher from Canada, who recently visited the country, said that a security guard at Dhahran mall in Dhahran, northeast of Riyadh, stopped her friend from entering because she was not in full Islamic dress. The guard said that he would follow his employer’s rules and not those of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.‘No abaya, no entry,’ the guard was reported as saying.

Malls and other private businesses are able to set their own regulations for what they consider appropriate dress. This can include adhering to the absolute Shari’ah that was – until the end of last month – applied to both foreigners and locals in the country. The Saudi Commisson for Tourism responded to a request for clarification of the law by confirming that businesses are able to decide what is worn on their premises: ‘As is the case in businesses across the world, businesses may set their own dress codes. ‘The new guidelines are being issued to businesses clarifying public policy and encouraging them to provide clear information to their employees and customers,’ they said. At the end of September, Saudi Arabia announced it would throw open its doors to foreign tourists from 49 countries, including the UK and US. The introduction of the Saudi E-Visa for 49 countries is an attempt to diversify the country’s economy and to prepare it for a post-oil future. Up until recently, men and women caught mingling in public, even foreigners, faced severe punishments. Further announcements in the following days promised a series of dispensations to relax foreign women having to wear Islamic dress in public. This, paired with allowing unmarried foreign couples to sleep in the same bed in hotel rooms, hopes to attract people who may have been put off in the past. Premarital sex falls under the category of adultery according to Shari’a law and, for unmarried Saudis, having sex outside of wedlock risks imprisonment, stoning or the death penalty. Up until the recent announcements, these laws also applied to tourists.

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For decades Saudi Arabia has been a closed country with visas only awarded to those on business or attending pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In line with MBS’s 2030 vision plan, the de facto ruler of the country aims to diversify Saudi’s economy in preparation for a post-oil future. He hopes to achieve 100 million annual visits by 2030. At present, the country relies on oil for 70 per cent of its export earnings.

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A 28-year-old IT developer from Riyadh, who has spent 10 years of his life living and studying in France and the UK, said that the older, more conservative generation, are those who are resisting the ‘badly needed’ reforms. ‘People who are opposing it [the new laws] are old people who have no idea what’s happening now,’ he said. ‘And they better accept the new changes and not disagree with it because it is badly needed.’+5 The Saudi source added that Muslim clerics – the source of religious guidance for many Saudis – have ‘acknowledged that we were too extreme’ and are modifying their prescriptive sermons to ‘stay in power’ and keep favour with the royal family. This has included preaching that it is okay for tourists to ignore some religious customs because they are not Muslim. To achieve the staggering number of visits needed to move away from oil-dependence, MBS is trying to brush up Saudi’s reputation to make it more appealing to the rest of the world.

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