Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), the son of the king and second in line to the throne, has staked his future on the success of his Vision 2030 transformation plan. Already in charge of prosecuting the Yemen war, an undertaking itself embroiled in controversy, and heading newly-constituted bodies overseeing both oil production and the broader economy, Muhammad embarked on a vastly ambitious project to modernize the Kingdom. Couched in terms of weaning the economy off its addiction to oil, Vision 2030 represents a true societal upheaval. Besides the expected scrutiny and skepticism, it also faces significant opposition from the religiously conservative, who see an insidious Western influence overwhelming cherished Saudi traditions.
In anticipation, Muhammad has laid out a three-pronged strategy to deal with any backlash from those opposed to his vision, involving punitive measures for any clerics who incite or resort to violence. Though confident he will be able to deal with any hurdle, he recognizes the size and potential danger of opposition from the most conservative elements. Saudi's top religious authority, however, has responded in kind.
Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh, wrote that he considered cinemas and certain cultural events "harmful and corrupting". In comments on his website, he made clear that he believed Western-style entertainment would open the door to "atheistic or rotten" foreign films and encourage the mixing of the sexes. These are not the comments of a backcountry cleric; the fact that they were spoken by the most revered religious figure in the Kingdom sets the stage for a protracted battle that could not only derail government efforts to introduce cultural reforms but threatens to derail Muhammad's plan before it begins.
The Al Saud have always been more progressive than the population at large (a fact not easily grasped by Western activists who bemoan the "imposition" of a repressive culture on an unwilling people) and one of the themes running through the Kingdom's history is that of a country being brought, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. The founder Ibn Saud was forced to resort to artifice to convince the clerics that the telephone could not be an instrument of the devil if the wires were able to carry the sound of the Qur'an, and King Faysal overcame significant hurdles to establish women's education (his assassination was also the indirect result of violent opposition to the introduction of television during his reign). More recently, King Abdallah struggled to overcome deeply held beliefs that men and women should not mix when he founded a co-educational university. King Salman may be more of a traditionalist, but his son Muhammad has clear views on what society should look like going forward.
The royals must walk a fine line - if things are allowed to become too liberal and secular, they face the possibility that emboldened activists will demand greater political freedoms and a European-style constitutional monarchy, spelling the end of their rule; if society leans too conservative, they risk empowering fundamentalists who see the royal family as illegitimate. So far, the latter has been the main concern, and explains the willingness of Western powers to maintain unequivocal support, and swallow their discomfort at the lack of rights enjoyed by Saudi citizens. Fundamentalist terrorism has already caused havoc, and though largely under control, still remains a threat. The general feeling at the moment is that the religious establishment (whose support is essential for royal rule, it must be remembered) has been allowed far too much latitude since the early 1980s. It is not simply a question of making way for social reforms, there is a sense that the conservatives need to be put in their place, and accept their subordination. Though a partner in rule, the implicit understanding has always been that they were a junior partner.