Change in the Saudi birthplace of Islam is eyed warily worldwide

As the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia is a symbol of purity for many who direct their prayers toward Mecca wherever they are in the world. The latest in a series of liberalizing reforms attributed to the modernizing influence of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman runs counter to that reputation for religious conservatism. As they awoke to the news on Friday that women from outside the kingdom would no longer be required to wear the flowing abaya that’s been mandatory for decades, Muslims in Asia broadly welcomed the shift. But many also expressed misgivings about the overall direction of the lodestar of the Islamic world, and wondered just how far the changes would go. “I view Saudi Arabia as the most sacred place for a Muslim,” said Amirah Fikri, 30, an administrator in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, who called the kingdom “an example of a Muslim country in the eyes of the world.” While reforms such as allowing women to drive and to travel without a guardian’s approval are positive, some things “are better left unchanged,” she said. The risk is of “harming the purity of Saudi when new, non-Islamic practices start to spread in the holy place.” Khashoggi Murder The Saudi bid to appeal to tourists with a relaxed dress code for foreign women and the promise of easier access to the country is aimed at diversifying the economy away from its overwhelming reliance on oil. But it also serves to present a softer image of the kingdom to the west at a time when its reputation is distinctly mixed. The crown prince was excoriated internationally over the gruesome murder in Turkey last year of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and his prosecution of a bloody war in Yemen resulting in famine and thousands of civilian casualties prompted Germany and other countries to halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. At home, the kingdom’s extensive use of the death penalty, torture, arbitrary detentions of rights activists and “severely restricted” freedoms are among the issues cited by Amnesty International in its overview of Saudi Arabia. “Despite limited reforms, including allowing women to drive, women faced systematic discrimination in law and practice and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence,” Amnesty says. Yet that evidence of the country’s deeply conservative nature and its rigid interpretation of Islam helps to give a sense of the potential for domestic resistance to any kind of modernizing reform -- and the risks to the crown prince in pursuing change. “Tourism of course will help the economy, but if it involves anything that goes against our religious beliefs then it will not be accepted,” said Sultan, a 33-year-old resident of Riyadh, who only gave his first name. “Our religion is more important than anything.” Foreign tourists will “import their culture” and “over time, these ethics and values will be stripped away from our conservative society.”Yet for many in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, Saudi Arabia has no choice but to open up. “Change is a necessity,” said Nasaruddin Umar, Grand Imam of Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. “There will be pressure from the traditional clerics group in the country. But I see what MBS is doing as a smart move because he does so in a measured way.”




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