Friday, June 14, 2013

Modern Saudi Arabia and the challenges it faces.

It's been over two and a half months since I returned from India after a relatively relaxed holiday in March/April. This time around, although I did not go on any long vacation on account of my younger daughter's final exams for the second semester, I did manage to take my family out to Matheran, a lovely hill station near Mumbai. My regular readers might have already seen the post relating to this that I posted in April.

In the last two months, what has changed is my appreciation of this country that I am working in. There are problems, of course, but which nation does not have problems? Look at India ... our problems seem insurmountable, and yet, we find that despite the poverty, the corruption, the misrule of all the incumbent governments in the states and at the Center, and so on, we all seem to be progressing on the financial front. Our GDP this year is at a low of about 5 % (projected), but even this is better than more than 4/5ths of the world's countries!

Saudi Arabia is blessed with Islam, but what is its blessing could also be seen as its bane. As Islam is founded on the principles of the inviolate nature of the Holy Qur'an, the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) and the guidance of the scholars, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is obliged to follow the Islamic way of life, and also the principles of justice as guided by the Holy book and the precepts of the prophet. This has led to an altered perception in the Western nations' collective thought. Even those who live in India perceive the Kingdom as a rigid nation that is unwilling to advance with the times. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. True, oil has brought tremendous wealth to the Kingdom. True, too, that the twin pilgrimages of Makkah and Madinah bring a lot of prestige and money to the rulers of this nation. However, had the nation persisted totally with a blinkered-eye view of a punishing, unforgiving Islam, it would have remained backward with respect to economic and social development. The truth is that Saudi Arabia has prospered and developed in all dimensions. 

Even the perception that there is no social development is incorrect. If one sees the country in the last years of the twentieth century and what has happened in the last twelve or thirteen years of the present century, there has been all-round change. Educational levels are rising, women are now attending university, there is increasing licence for women to join jobs in more and more professions, children are sent abroad for Western education, and so on. These are monumental changes. Recently, the government has taken cognisance of the fact that over 200000 Saudis are without a job, and over a million expatriates are working without a legal permit in their kingdom. They have thus initiated the "Nitaqat" movement which will enable unemployed Saudi men and women to seek guaranteed employment in various occupations. At the same time, the illegal expatriates will either be asked to return to their native countries or be legalised by paying some money to the Ministry of Labour.

If you go through "Arab News", an English daily that is brought out in the Kingdom, you can read progressive opinions from educated Saudi men and women who are advocating social transformation while remaining within the broad framework of Islam. 

What was built in 1400 years of Islam cannot be undone in a decade or two, But things are evolving fast. The present monarch is a benevolent person who the average Saudis are fond of. The future heirs of the throne are Western-educated, more forward thinking and are awaiting the role they are likely to play when they ascend the throne. The religious police is, for the time being, very potent, but I predict that over the next 10-15 years, their hold over the people and the rulers is likely to slip. They will have to see the writing on the wall and accommodate modern thought as long as this does not violate Islam.

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