When the car was considered witchcraft
. Saudi society, like other Muslim societies, has experienced transformations, but the nature of societies is that they change without feeling it
Hadi al-Mansour, who lived through the era of late Saudi King Abdulaziz, narrates how society back then received the invention of the automobile. Mansour says when people saw the king ride one for the first time to tour Riyadh, they were worried about him because they thought the car was some sort of witchcraft that would take him to an unknown place.
Such incidents happen in any society, but manifested more so in Saudi Arabia because of its geographic location, and because its society at the time was still new at engaging with technological transformations. The Muslim world’s problems are similar as they relate to the current era. The crisis in religious rhetoric, education, relations with others, and perceptions of reality and modernity are common problems for Muslims from Indonesia to Morocco.
The economy influences the transformation of societies, and oil contributed a lot to improving awareness, education and happiness. However, wealth may contribute to slowing down change due to financial breakthroughs that contribute to decreasing people’s competency in managing their resources and revenues.
Breakthroughs have caused corruption as much as they have yielded benefits, and have produced good results as much as they have destroyed essential values in Arab and Muslim societies.
Oil will not continue to control the economy and society, as “oil addiction” - as Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman described it - will be overcome. There will be structural changes to find new resources that bridge the major gaps caused by absolute dependence on oil, which is a depleting resource and a source of dependency.
In his book “The Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles,” Thomas Sowell talks about social transformations. “Social change includes an expanded series of things, from language to wars and from emotional matters to economic systems. Each issue is manifested in several and diverse ways,” he wrote.
Saudi society, like other Muslim societies, has experienced transformations, but the nature of societies is that they change without feeling it.Turki Al-Dakhil
“However, general social transformations have single common characteristics, whether we look at them from the perspective of a restricted vision or a free vision. There’s a special nature to these transformations, i.e. they have a specific sequence, whether this sequence is designed on purpose or not. Social transformation operations also take time and they yield several results.”
Any society can transform via economic foundations that the political command sets. This is the main point - cultural elites cannot direct societies. For a half century now, movements have failed to direct or influence society. Here comes the leading political role in cultural change, but this is done in more than one way.
The economy is the best means to convince society to change some of its convictions. This is where we achieve acceptance of leisure-related affairs, women’s rights, and changes to the structure of education. There is a correlation between what is economic and cultural, but social transformations are not only managed via books and theories.
It has been a century since that story about King Abdulaziz and those who feared for him from the witchcraft of the automobile. Saudi society, like other Muslim societies, has experienced transformations, but the nature of societies is that they change without feeling it. This is a sociological nature. The difference is that the forthcoming change will be more serious, solid and interconnected within political, economic and cultural balances.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Aug. 2, 2016.
Turki Aldakhil is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. He began his career as a print journalist, covering politics and culture for the Saudi newspapers Okaz, Al-Riyadh and Al-Watan. He then moved to pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat and pan-Arab news magazine Al-Majalla. Turki later became a radio correspondent for the French-owned pan-Arab Radio Monte Carlo and MBC FM. He proceeded to Elaph, an online news magazine and Alarabiya.net, the news channel’s online platform. Over a ten-year period, Dakhil’s weekly Al Arabiya talk show “Edaat” (Spotlights) provided an opportunity for proponents of Arab and Islamic social reform to make their case to a mass audience. Turki also owns Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre and Madarek Publishing House in Dubai. He has received several awards and honors, including the America Abroad Media annual award for his role in supporting civil society, human rights and advancing women’s roles in Gulf societies. He tweets @TurkiAldakhil.