Saudi women will be legally allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia from 24 June, and in parallel with this long-awaited event the authorities in the kingdom have released a group of political activists on a “temporary basis” with Saudi King Salman also ordering a limited cabinet reshuffle and the establishment of a new ministry for cultural affairs.
According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), eight activists accused of contacting anti-regime organisations have been released, while nine others remain in detention. The activists have confessed to the charges, the SPA reported the office of the Saudi prosecutor-general as saying.
The statement said the detainees had admitted recruiting elements to obtain secret information that could harm the kingdom, in addition to offering financial and moral support to anti-regime elements.
It did not provide information on the detainees, however, and the Saudi press did not give the names of those released or still detained.
The prosector-general’s office said that of the 17 men and women detained, five women and three men had been released pending further investigations. Still in detention are four women and five men against whom there is “conclusive evidence”, it said.
Last week, the UN requested the Saudi government to provide information on the detained activists and to guarantee their legal rights. At the same time, the kingdom’s religious police warned against groups and individuals who “are against the security and stability of the kingdom”.
International media reports have said that the arrested women were advocates for the right of Saudi women to drive. The US had earlier hailed the Saudi decision to reverse the country’s ban on women driving, but the recent arrests risk harming the kingdom’s image as it enters into a period of reform.
The latest batch of released detainees puts the total number freed at 12, most of whom are women.
Western diplomats who have served in the Gulf said the arrests could have been aimed at calming conservative currents in the kingdom unhappy with the present reforms, according to the Reuters news agency.
Others said the arrests were a message directed to liberals in Saudi Arabia not to raise the ceiling of their demands beyond what the authorities dictate.
Those questioned by Reuters said the Saudi reform process would not now take a step back, however. They said the process was important politically because it pulled the kingdom away from extremist groups.
It was also in the interest of Saudi Arabia economically because it was preparing the kingdom to receive much-needed investments to diversify its economy, long dependent on oil revenues.
At the same time, King Salman announced a limited cabinet reshuffle that included changes in the ministries of labour and social development and the introduction of a ministry of culture to the Arab world’s most conservative state.
Businessman Ahmed bin Salman Al-Raghi was appointed minister of labour. According to a government statement, the ministry has been charged with creating 1.2 million job opportunities by 2022 in order to alleviate youth unemployment and lower it from 12.8 per cent to nine per cent.
More than 60 per cent, or 24 million people, of the oil-rich kingdom’s population are young. Many believe this youth majority is supportive of the reform process initiated by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
The choice of Al-Raghi, an influential banker and head of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, as minister of labour aims to create trust among investors and in international financial circles.
After a spate of arrests that targeted princes, powerful businessmen and a number of former and present ministers on corruption charges in recent months, rumours have spread that foreign investors have been wary about venturing into the Saudi market.
However, the anti-corruption campaign was hailed by many in Saudi Arabia who never expected the princes to be subjected to the law.
For months, Saudi social media sites were full of messages approving of the crown prince’s measures against “corrupt” elements in the kingdom.
Some requested that the officials and princes not be discharged and be taken to court instead. However, the Saudi authorities later released most of those detained on corruption charges after settlements that brought in $107 billion to the country’s treasury, according to figures released by the Saudi prosecutor-general.
Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al-Farhan has been appointed the new minister of culture.
Previously, cultural affairs were part of the Saudi Media Ministry, and the new culture portfolio is believed to further support the kingdom’s path to reform.
Al-Farhan graduated from the Faculty of Law at the King Saud University in Riyadh, where the crown prince also earned his degree. He was founding chairman of the Royal Committee in the Al-Ula governorate, which was established in July 2017 to manage archaeology and tourism in the Medina area.
Al-Farhan has also been head of the Saudi Establishment for Research and Marketing since December 2015, where he signed agreements to develop archaeological sites in Al-Ula with the French government, the Arab World Institute in Paris, and Harvard University in the US.
He is a member of many organisations working in the cultural sector and wanting to develop this sector vital for the reform process.
Saudi newspapers reported the news with the headline “the king’s eyes on culture”. Especially after 1979, the cultural sector in Saudi Arabia has been of secondary importance, serving the interests of the conservative currents in the country that have manipulated religious edicts, the judiciary and education.
“Today Saudi Arabia ushers in a new era, and I hope we will learn from the mistakes of our predecessors,” said Turki Al-Hamad, a Saudi commentator who has long opposed conservative policies and supports the reform measures.
“Seminars, literary dialogue and cultural activities were condemned for decades by the extremists who controlled society. Finally, the cultured now have a home.
Now we can develop our cultural festivals, such as the Jenadriyah [a two-week event held near Riyadh] and the folk heritage festivities of King Abdel-Aziz,” he said.
Some years ago Saudi Arabia restored a number of its archaeological sites that were then included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Saudi intangible heritage such as handicrafts and traditional building methods in the areas of Asir and Al-Ahsa were also added to the UNESCO List.
Extremist elements in the kingdom are thought to oppose the development of cultural and archaeological monuments in the country, especially if they include statues, carvings or paintings of royal figures.
The SPA reported that a royal decree has been issued to establish a Royal Society for Environmental Affairs to aid the kingdom’s endeavours to create green technologies and encourage environmental tourism. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide.
This week’s reshuffle also included a number of deputy ministers in the ministries of the interior, communications, transportation, energy, industry and mining.
New heads for the Royal Authority of Jebeil and the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy were also appointed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Saudi reforms continue