To mark Women’s Day on March 8, a group of Saudi women jogged on the streets of Riyadh. In two weeks’ time, the oil-rich Arab state will have its first-ever fashion show. For a while it looks unreal that such a transformation is taking place in Saudi Arabia.
The fashion week or allowing women to jog on the streets is part of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s efforts to do away with the more conservative outlook of his country. Since his dramatic ascent to the top position, the defacto monarch of Saudi Arabia, the crown prince has introduced a number of reforms that include allowing greater freedom to women. In January, Saudi women were allowed for the first time to enter a football stadium. From June this year, Saudi women have been allowed to drive cars. They have also been given permission to run their own businesses.
But why is the new look of Saudi Arabia critical for countries like Pakistan. It is because many of Pakistan’s current security challenges can easily be traced back to Saudi Arabia. It is not that the problem of religious extremism was not prevalent in our society before Saudi Arabia funded seminaries and patronised clerics who follow a certain ideology. But the magnitude of the problem was not as huge as it is today. The 1979 Iranian Revolution had triggered fears in Saudi Arabia that the Persian state might stretch its influence to other countries, including Pakistan. Saudi Arabia with an abundance of financial resources thanks to the discovery of massive oil reserves had started pumping petro dollars into Pakistan to fund seminaries. And that prompted Iran to lend support to groups that espoused its ideology, making Pakistan a battleground for proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. What amplified and compounded Pakistan’s problem was the so-called Afghan jihad. The former Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave a free licence to Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies to further deepen their linkages with seminaries. Within no time, groups on the fringes had assumed a central role. Pakistan certainly has had its fair share. It was part and parcel of arming young seminary students to take up the fight against the Soviet forces. Little did they realise at the time that the monster they created would eventually haunt them. And this exactly happened years later when same students, who were indoctrinated by state with generous support from Saudi Arabia and others, turned against the state. Pakistan is still struggling to emerge from that disastrous policy.
No doubt, the overall security situation has considerably improved in recent years after a series of military campaigns, coupled with targeted operations against terrorist groups. But the challenge to stem the tide of extremism is not over by any means. As part of efforts to achieve that daunting task, Pakistan is trying to introduce a series of reforms, including mainstreaming seminaries. One key aspect of the policy is to ensure greater scrutiny of funding for these seminaries as well as bringing changes in their curriculum. But Pakistan needs support from outside in this endeavour. The reason is Arab countries have been one of the major sources of funding as well as inspiration for these seminaries.
But with MBS at the helm, Saudi Arabia is gradually moving away from conservative policies. This means that even in Saudi Arabia now there is little appetite for propelling religious groups. As a result of this paradigm shift, one hopes that Saudi Arabia would not only stop funding seminaries in Pakistan but also exporting its extremist ideology. The reformed and moderate Saudi Arabia is surely a blessing for Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2018.