According to several observers, the plan’s goals, although positive for Saudi Arabia in the long-term, are not compatible with country’s political, social and economic context. “Basically, the regime could collapse by implementing their own plan, but they might also collapse if they don’t,” Kirkegaard explained. “They are in deep structural trouble, and that’s not counting the geopolitical pressure they face over their continued involvement in Syria and Yemen.”
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The new freedoms covered in the decree are activites that most of the rest of the world regard as basic human rights: Go to the hospital, get a job, study, appear in court and file a police complaint without male permission. Despite those advances, Saudi women and girls still live with pervasive discrimination. They cannot study or travel abroad without approval from a husband, father, son or another male relative.
Anything that challenges the Wahhabi understanding of the Islamic faith (such as the sanctity and holiness of the Prophet’s companions) is subject to criminalization under the banner of sacrilegious behaviour. Punishments for blasphemy and apostasy include lengthy prison sentences, physical torture in the form of public flogging and, occasionally, death sentences.
While historical and theological antipathies do exist, it is rather Saudi Arabia’s political expediency that both prevents and advances equality between Shia and Sunnis. For the last decades, Saudi Arabia has allowed its government-sponsored Sunni clerics to demonize Shia believers, associate them with polytheists, therefore consolidating a history of oppression and ostracism from basic civil rights.
Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness has been linked in the first place to the growing influence of the king’s 30-year-old son and deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. Prince Mohammad has been accumulating power since he was appointed minister of defense immediately after his father became king. He has also dominated economic policies, rocking the commodities world by announcing the creation of a $2 trillion megafund to make the country less depend on oil.
The Saudi Majlis al-Shura or consultative council is a body of appointed members whose primary task is to study and propose laws. The council has the authority to interpret existing legislation, as well as to demand and audit annual performance reports referred to it by state ministries and agencies. While expectations for the Shura Council to represent people’s needs and wants remain high, it is worth bearing in mind that in an absolute monarchy, the Shura is currently the closest thing the Kingdom has to a democratic body.