Change comes to Islam’s birthplace Saudi Arabia

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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.
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 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.”
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 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.”
Women in Saudi Arabia can now travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission, royal decrees say.
The new rule announced on Friday allows women over the age of 21 to apply for a passport without authorisation, putting them on an equal footing to men. Women are also being given the right to register births, marriage or divorce.
The kingdom has recently eased other long-standing social restrictions on women, though campaigners say more remains to be done for women’s rights.
Saudi Arabia has increasingly come under the spotlight over its treatment of its female citizens, an issue highlighted by several high-profile cases of Saudi women seeking asylum abroad.
The de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sought to relax prohibitions on women, including lifting a driving ban last year, in a bid to open up the conservative kingdom.
But he has also cracked down on women’s rights activists, putting a number of them on trial in recent months.
Saudi’s male guardianship system gives husbands, fathers and other male relatives the authority to make critical decisions about women.
Until now, this has meant women there were required to seek those relatives’ permission to obtain or renew a passport and exit the country.
But the royal decrees published in the kingdom’s official weekly Um al-Qura gazette on Friday stipulate that Saudi passports should be issued to any citizen who applies for it, and that anyone over the age of 21 does not need permission to travel.
The changes allow women for the first time to register their children’s births, as well as marriages and divorces.
They also cover employment regulations that expand work opportunities for women. Under the rule, all citizens have the right to work without facing any discrimination based on gender, disability or age.
Many Saudi women have taken to Twitter to celebrate the move, with prominent influencer and talk show host Muna AbuSulayman tweeting: “A generation growing up completely free and equal to their brothers.”
“If fully implemented [this is] a big step in letting adult Saudi women take control of their own lives,” Kristin Diwan from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington DC told the AFP news agency.
In a bid to open up the country, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled a plan in 2016 to transform the economy by 2030, with the aim of increasing women’s participation in the workforce to 30% from 22%.

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