A recent 2019-2020 Arab Opinion survey conducted by Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies has bought out some revealing perceptions of the Arab citizens. The survey in its seventh year collated responses from 28,288 individual respondents based on 95 questions in 13 Arab countries.
The survey findings besides being a reflection of the common Arab insights were also able to bring out public perceptions of two Arab leaders, whom people feel will be able to lead the Arab region in a new direction. According to respondents Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, have gotten some things right, so far.
Most importantly, both men have to varying degrees replaced religion with nationalism as the ideology legitimising their rule and sought to ensure that countries in the region broadly adhere to their worldview.
The new Arab view
Arabs worldview rejects any political expression of Islam, propagates a religious duty to obey the ruler with no exception, represses freedom of expression and dissent, and leaves unchallenged religious concepts such as notions of infidels and slavery that are viewed by Muslim reformers as well as significant segments of Arab youth as obsolete or out-dated.
However, the Arab youth is sceptic of religious clerics and scholars who parrots the regimes and moves them away from religious establishments and leaders. Besides they are also disillusioned by zero efforts to recontextualise Muslim concepts that no longer apply in a modern and changing world or present them in a new paradigm. The researchers also found that youth favoured a reduced role of religious leaders in political life.
The changing youth’s attitude towards religiosity is evident in various public opinion polls and also expressed in mass anti-government protests in countries like Lebanon and Iraq recently. And this young view has also impacted on the two crown princes’ similar worldview.
In a commentary on the latest survey, scholar Eman Alhussein said, “Youth have…witnessed how religious figures, which still remain influential in many Arab societies, can sometimes give in to change even if they have resisted it initially. This not only feeds into Arab youth’s scepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanation or justifications to the changing reality of today”.
Both young rulers have initiated changes like relaxing of social restrictions in Saudi Arabia, including the emasculation of the kingdom’s religious police, lifting the ban on women’s driving, relaxed implementation of gender segregation laws, and greater professional opportunities for women, and a degree of genuine religious pluralism in the UAE, in response to youth aspirations. But they also face criticism on establishing ties with Israel.
The survey found that, despite 40 percent of those polled defining religion as the most important constituent element of their identity, 66 percent saw a need for religious institutions to be reformed. Similarly, 70 percent of those surveyed rejected the notion that democracy was incompatible with Islam while 76 percent viewed it as the most appropriate system of governance.
Arab public opinion appears split down the middle when it comes to issues like separation of religion and politics or the right to protest. Saudis, like most Gulf Arabs, are likely less inclined to take grievances to the streets. Nonetheless, polls by The Washington Institute of Near East Policy indicates that they may prove to be more empathetic to protests should they occur.
Taken together, the various polls suggest that at a time of economic downturn and inevitable transition that puts a premium on good governance, Arab and Muslim leaders could find changing attitudes towards religiosity to be a double-edged sword. Added to this is the challenge to boost the national economies in the time of a pandemic besides improving the image of the countries.
Changes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE
In the case of Saudi Arabia, its chairmanship of the G20 is proving to be a mixed blessing. The country and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saw the chairmanship as an opportunity to showcase the kingdom’s leadership and to be seen as a visionary global player.
The chairmanship had the potential to give the kingdom and Prince Mohammed a chance to project themselves as agents of change in a region which, with few exceptions, seemed incapable of liberating itself from the shackles of history, tradition, poor governance, and ingrained animosities and tribal rivalries.
Prince Mohammed initially appeared to have set the stage with his Vision 2030, which envisioned far-reaching social liberalisation and economic diversification.
Pushing ahead with big-ticket projects, including Neom, a US$500 billion futuristic smart city on the Red Sea; Qiddiya, billed as the world’s largest entertainment city; and a massive luxury tourism drive. All of which have raised questions about his priorities at a time when the kingdom needs to focus on structural economic and financial reforms and further social changes.
Though the G20 chairmanship gave a badly needed opportunity to Saudi Arabia, and to Prince Mohammed to better his image both at home and abroad, but it has thus far been a missed opportunity. A candid analysis of the forum’s recommendations reveals the crucial role played by Prince Mohammed for endorsing some of these recommendations. But he might have taken this stand due to the questions being posed by younger Saudis questioning both the role of the political leadership and why they should accept everything endorsed by the faith leadership at its face value. The results of his new initiatives mays start showing in a year or two and will also have a bearing on his own future.
Similarly, for UAE, which though has been much ahead of Saudi in terms of economic and trade development, much depends on the future actions of Prince Mohammed and his counterpart Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai. Though the emirate has normalised relations with Israel, keeping in view the economic and scientific cooperation with the Jewish state, yet how the young population takes to it is yet to be seen.
However, the strong grip with which both these nations are governed may not give much leeway to the young aspirations until and unless they are in consonance with the leadership’s views and this may increase societal tensions there.
The dilemma which these two young leaders face as per the demands of real politic and also keeping close to the western world, besides maintaining an independent Islamic posture are evident by the recent statement given by a prominent UAE minister calling on Muslims to accept the stance of French President Emmanuel Macron on his claims about the need for “integration” in Western societies. Obviously statements like these will not be taken kindly by the young Arabs, just like the manner in which the two young princes may not like the findings of the survey as it has been carried out by an organisation based in Qatar, their current sworn enemy.