Saudi Education Reform: Bin Salman’s Risky Option

SHAFAQNA – On May 7th, the Saudi royal court released 52 royal decrees that would be consistent with the Saudi Vision 2030 declared on April 25th by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

The 48th decree released by the Saudi royal court stated that Musaid Al-Aiban, minister of state and member of the council of ministers since 1995, to be appointed as the chairman of board of directors for the “Education Evaluation Commission”. The Saudi low profile minister, as described in an article by Al-Arab London-based journal last year, is “one of the most prominent ministers in the Kingdom and the holder of secrets and details of internal and external policies”. The educated at Harvard University minister, worked on the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2014. Al-Aiban shared in foundingKing Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue”, and is considered as the King’s special envoy to foreign countries.

Rumors inside the Kingdom that the minister’s current mission isn’t that easy, knowing that Washington asked it’s gulf ally to work more on performing certain reforms. The Al Saud’s know very well how crucial, for the persistence of their ruling, to repair their macerated image worldwide. After Paris and Brussels’s attacks, fingers were directed towards the Saudi’s, blaming them for spreading the Wahhabi intolerant ideology. After 9/11, Saudi Crown Prince by then Abdullah, tried to absorb the US anger by declaring that Riyadh would work on having some reforms necessary to rein the Wahhabi school, responsible for producing radical terrorists. Abdullah experienced less success than expected in his approach, even after he officially became the King, but allegedly kept on blaming Wahhabi clerics for failing to solve the radicalization problem.

Last February, the Saudi authorities decided to reduce the activities or close most of branches of the “World Assembly of Muslim Youth” and the “Muslim World League”, except the two ones in the cities of Jeddah and Riyadh, claiming that most of the branches were not licensed. The campaign was started last December right after the Paris Attacks that took place in November. On May 10th, the Saudi Consultative Council issued an act called “Fundraising System Act” that would ban any fundraising and spending of charitable donations not being licensed and monitored by the official authorities. “It’s just the beginning”, a source says, adding that “Mohammed Bin Salman will impose much more steps to tell the westerners he’s working on reforms through drying up the sources of terrorism ideologically and financially, especially after U.S. Lawmakers issued JASTA Act last Sept.”. As claimed by Politico’s May 19th exclusive report, Saudi Arabia distributed to the members of Congress a white paper that details its counter-terrorism efforts in the fields of: security measures aimed at terrorists, financial controls designed to disrupt their funding, and efforts to end radicalization in mosques, schools and other public forums.

On May 2007, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) visited Saudi Arabia and raised the issue of textbooks being used at Saudi schools as an inciting material that teaches intolerant version of Islam. The USCIRF repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia to hand some textbooks to be checked. Later on, the Islamic Saudi Academy in North Virginia was found to be using the same Saudi textbooks promoting violence, discrimination, and intolerance based on religion or belief. Following a concentrated campaign by USCIRF, the ISA was forced to alter the textbooks, removing all of the intolerant teachings in it. Last May, USCIRF issued its annual report. It states that “On Jan. 2016 Saudi officials claimed that some of the requested high school-level textbooks were still in the process of being revised”.

In an interview with Dr. Dwight Bashir, The Co-Director of Policy & Research at USCIRF, he said that “a 2014 review found significant improvements in Saudi textbooks and while some passages remain that cause concern, we understand that an ongoing effort is underway to transform the learning experience for young people in the Kingdom”. Dr. Bashir stated that his commission requested 6 textbooks to be revised but didn’t receive any of them, adding that “we were told these books are available online, but we have been unable to access them”, adding that “it is never easy to confront the pressures from those who will resist change”. The change that Bin Salman is seeking, was subject to examination last April, when the Saudi Cabinet issued a decree which restricts the “Saudi Committee of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” (Religious Police) to pursue and arrest “violators”, and instead the members of the Commission are ought to report violations to the police. The decree was faced by a number of Wahhabi clerics’ objections, where some of them posted on their twitter accounts tweets criticizing it ;thus, two of them were sent to jail for defying the royal decisions.

On the other hand, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef seems to be facing a diminishing heroic image throughout the Kingdom and Washington as well. The terrorist activities that took place in Saudi Arabia this year, and the year before, triggered a big question about the efforts made by the future king in the field of counter-terrorism, knowing that he gained his position and reputation after succeeding in fighting Al-Qaeda cells in the mid-2000s. The prince’s “Mohammed bin Nayef Care and Counseling Center” is supposed to rehabilitate Al-Qaeda and ISIS militants captured in the Kingdom. It turned out his center failed to keep “rehabilitated terrorists” from re-engaging in terrorism following their release. On May 5th the Ministry of Interior officers conducted a security operation in Makkah that claimed the lives of 6 terrorists, two of them were involved in mosque attacks. Adel Al-Mejmaj, the suicide bomber who blew himself during the operation, was a prisoner of conscience who had no previous criminal record, was released last year after passing through the rehabilitation process at Bin Nayef’s center. Last October, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a mosque in the southern Saudi city of Najran that killed one and injured several others, the bomber was described as a graduate of the Bin Nayef Center.

Despite Bin Salman’s failing outcomes of his war on Yemen, the 31-year old prince seems to be gaining attention more than his 56 year old cousin. Taking into consideration that Bin Salman released several decrees through the Royal Court to fortify his growing ambitions to depose Bin Nayef and gain his father’s succession. Bin Salman’s vision “2030” is based on inducing investments into the Kingdom. Those investments can’t be measured as in his vision without reforms. Eventually, Bin Salman knows that reforming education would enhance the kingdom’s reputation, which is necessary to gain both: Washington’s contentment and investors’ trust.


Ali H. Mourad exclusively for Shafaqna – Lebanese Journalist – Researcher (Saudi Affairs) – Political commentator at several Arabic TV channels Twitter: @alihmourad

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