As part of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative, a robot named Sophia was placed onstage, and to the amazement of all in attendance was granted Saudi Citizenship.
This was incredible, but not for the reasons you’d think—like, Saudi Arabia is moving towards techno-progressivism, or because the robot is female and was allowed outside without her cousin Ahmed Ibn-Google accompanying her.
The nifty robot-turned-citizen trick raises a big question. And that’s whether Saudi Arabia’s current efforts at modernization will kick-start reactionary bloodshed someday, as similar efforts did in 1979 when Juhayman al-Otaybi and other Salafists stormed the Grand Mosque in protest of liberalization in The Kingdom.
The coverage for the Future Investment Initiative (FII)—the Kingdom’s newest PR effort at battling back against the anti-modern clerics constraining them—runs from pure state-sponsored drivel to, more simply, unquestioning praise.
Beirut Institute founder Raghida Dergham’s description of the FII as “fearlessly embracing pioneering futuristic technology unprecedented in the Arab region” left me skeptical for two reasons. First, because saying that Saudi Arabia fearlessly embraces a bunch of brand new toys for its spoiled, keffiyah-wearing, royal dilettantes is like saying I fearlessly embrace fried chicken and foot rubs (a perfectly relaxing combination for a Sunday, in case you’re wondering). Second, saying that some technology is unprecedented in the Arab region is like saying that guy is the best Jewish football player in the history of the game. Sort of a low bar, don’t you think?
But I digress…
In the meanwhile, the same tension that’s existed in Saudi Arabia for decades may, once again, bring the country to a boiling point. That tension is between a plutocracy of fat-cat oil-sheikhs and faint-hearted Wahhabists on the one hand, and the true believers and hardliners on the other.
As a glittering construction of new buildings—hotels, shopping malls, skyscrapers—coruscates with every stack of prism glass that migrant crews layer onto the gleaming new towers stretching heavenward, frustrated masses of fundamentalists wallow into the dusty streets below, muttering Bid’ah: blasphemy. To them, these new-world innovations profane Islam.
Still, Dergham can’t be all wrong, can she? And, one must admire the independent-mindedness of a woman wily enough to end up charged with treason by the Lebanese government for simply arguing with an Israeli. (Her alleged crime was “participant[ing] as a journalist in a debate that was arranged by a member of the enemy at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy.”) I mean, if arguing with an Israeli could get you charged with a crime, then I think you’d have to arrest everyone in Israel, or really anyone who’d spoken with an Israeli… anywhere… ever.
Ms. Dergham cites a few anecdotes to back up the premise that Saudi modernity is just around the corner, just a few inches of public support away from crossing the finish line into a brave new world—a dentist who’s also an Uber driver is in favor of the Kingdom’s modernization; another Uber driver is in favor of modernization; and also, there’s another Uber driver who feels the same way. These guys are Uber-pumped about progress.
Then, I noticed that the opinions surveyed were all from Uber drivers—men whose livelihood depends on technology moving the ball forward, men who would likely never say what’s really on their minds—when I see a female passenger, I want to run away and cry in a corner, or at least hold hands with another man!—for fear that their ride-hailing behemoth of an employer might decide this guy’s a little crazy to be chauffeuring tourists around.
Underneath the synthetic skin of the Silicon-Valley-soliciting Saudis, a rather different sentiment sleeps within their citizens’ hearts. Sami Angawi, an expert on Islamic architecture, would tell you as much if you asked him about the changing face of their holy city: “This is an absolute contradiction to the nature of Mecca and the sacredness of the house of God.” Dr. Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, likes a little more blood on his knuckles when he smack-talks: “No one has the balls to stand up and condemn this cultural vandalism.”
But that’s sort of the point in all this jabber-jawing about republicanizing Saudi Arabia with robots and stacking Mecca with reams of rebar: it’s all just talk. It’s fugazi reform. The crown princes and their coteries, the King in the castle; they like to look at schematics and talk to think-tankers, play-acting the part of a Westerner. All the while, they’re oblivious to the anger bubbling up below the surface, the fury building in a country where the anti-modernists are still as powerful a force as they’ve ever been.
Therein lies the rub. The Kingdom’s royalty never really asks what their people want, and that’s why they end up blind-sided by events like the 1979 Raid on the Grand Mosque. Information is key, and the Saudis can’t get a real grip on what their people think if they don’t let them think freely, let alone speak freely.
And all this internal discord—a decades’ long animosity between the Saudis who want condos and consumerism against the Saudis who want Islam to dominate society so everyone can return to the ways of the salaf—is supposed to be forgotten because of a weekend confab where a guy in a burnouse announces that a toy she-Replicant is a citizen now?
I don’t think so. The FII might be offering up a new slab of futurist meat, but the same old beef is still cooking in the Saudi kitchen.
Views expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.