03/15/2022, 00.00
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Saudi Arabia: 'god money', not Islam, driving force behind bin Salman's reforms

by Dario Salvi

Riyadh has freed a famous blogger and activist, almost simultaneously with the execution of 81 prisoners. The economy more than rights is driving the kingdom's reforms. Timid steps towards the emancipation of women. In Jeddah, a cosmopolitan and affordable neighbourhood has been demolished in the name of development and modernisation. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - The release of a famous human rights activists and execution, almost simultaneous, and in one fell swoop, of 81 death row inmates; the promotion of programmes devoted to technological innovation; building futuristic metropolises from scratch, like Neom; modernising entire neighbourhoods, as is happening in Jeddah, at the expense of tens of thousands of people who lose homes it took a lifetime to build; supporting a "secular" reform of the State and greater emancipation for women, without starting a serious reflection on religious freedom a: The Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (Mbs) is a contradictory mosaic. Today, more than in the past, the "god of money" seems to have supplanted the radical Islam and Wahhabi faith as the glue of the State, all the while continuing to use religion - and the holy places in Mecca and Medina - to maintain a sort of moral supremacy in the Sunni Islamic world, and to oppose the Iranian Shiites. 

Badawi, freedom and executions

After a decade in prison, blogger and activist Raif Badawi was released from prison on 11 March. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, who had been in exile in Canada for some time with their three children, confirmed his release. However, the release is not the result of a concession by the Saudi authorities, but rather the expiry of the time limit for custody based on the 10-year sentence imposed in 2014 and following his arrest in 2012. The deadline had expired on 28 February, but it took a few days - fuelling uncertainty and fears among the family members of the 2015 Sakharov Prize winner - for him to be released from prison. While he was spared a few hundred lashes out of the 1,000 he was sentenced to and only partially received, he will have to pay almost €300,000 in fines to the state and will not be able to leave the country for a decade, dashing any hopes of being reunited with his family. 

The 50 public whippings inflicted on Badawi on 9 January 2015 in front of a mosque in Jeddah are still etched in the memories of activists and citizens. Many spoke of the "medieval" nature of the punishment and elevated the activist to a symbol of the struggle for rights in the Wahhabi kingdom.

This repression still continues today under the leadership of the "reformist" bin Salman, who is said to have loosened the grip of fundamentalist Islam and the radical religious fringe on the social and civil life of the country. In reality, behind the attempt to improve the country's international image there remain many grey areas.

At the same time as Badawi's release, the authorities armed the executioner's hand, executing 81 prisoners in one fell swoop. Among them are seven Yemenis and one Syrian, accused - according to the official Spa agency - of "heinous crimes" including terrorism.

However, numerous activist organisations report convictions in sham trials in which the rights of the defence were violated and people were punished with death simply because they belonged to the Shiite minority. Inès Osman, activist and co-founder of Mena Rights, attacks: "A mass execution like this is unprecedented and shows that the efforts to modernise are only a cosmetic change". Riyadh is thus confirmed as one of the nations in the world with the highest number of executed people, together with China, Iran, Egypt and Iraq. 

Rights, Islam and the "god of money"

On 22 February, Riyadh celebrated the founding of Saudi Arabia with a "secular" festival in a "modern" key, distanced from the Islamic-Wahhabi heritage. The event was carried out in the wake of the Mbs' economic and social reforms, which allowed the celebration of Valentine's Day without naming him. Included in the "Vision 2030" plan, these reforms have sanctioned a "liberalisation" of customs, which has been counterbalanced by a tightening of political and institutional rules. Bin Salman has limited the power of the religious police, opened up concerts and cinemas, removed driving bans and launched a full-fledged entertainment industry. He also announced four new framework laws: on personal status, first to come into force within 90 days; the law on civil transactions; the Criminal Code on discretionary punishment; and the rule on the burden of proof. 

The reform of personal status, in particular of women, should change some established norms linked to patriarchy, such as male guardianship. Women should no longer have to ask permission from men - father, husband or brother - to travel or marry. Compared to the past, women should be given guarantees in the event of divorce with recognition of emotional suffering and financial hardship, childcare and support in the care and upbringing of their children. They themselves can become legal guardians of their children, claiming the right to alimony and childcare. The law also preserves the bloodline of offspring and regulates marriage, from engagement to divorce to khul'aa [divorce by the wife].

The Saudi economic and cultural renaissance also passes through the reconstruction of entire territories, as is happening in a large area of Jeddah after fierce and rare protests. Last week, the inhabitants of a district razed to the ground to make way for a multi-billion dollar development project demonstrated, complaining that they had not received adequate warning and compensation. The administration had classified the area - which includes part of the old city - as a "slum" and a reservoir of "crime and vice". The inhabitants' version was different, according to which the housing was affordable for the less well-off, Saudis or immigrant foreign workers. And the discontent turned into a social campaign with videos and hashtags.

Several videos posted online show the rubble left behind by the bulldozers, with scenes that some consider to be comparable to the devastation of a war. One video shows citizens waving goodbye to monuments and houses before they are demolished; an online activist known by the nickname Wajeeh Lion points out that the project - with a total value of just under €19 billion - is "uprooting" the soul and history of Jeddah. On the other hand, supporters believe that it will restore the true face of the city, enhancing the artistic and cultural heritage of a place that has been, for millennia, a bridge between East and West and a crossroads for pilgrims heading to Mecca for the Hajj.

The plan calls for the construction of a theatre, an oceanographic museum, public beaches and 17,000 housing units. All at the expense of the less well-off, who are forced to emigrate to the countryside where prices are lower. Also lost will be the mixture of races and cultures that had been created, its cosmopolitan nature, which over time has also been a source of pride. The feeling is one of injustice perpetrated on the backs of those who are left without a home or identity, in a nation that aims to rival Dubai and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in becoming an economic reference point for the region, at the expense of the weakest.

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