Saudi cinema move tests reform

Low-key return to the movies could signal bolder reforms

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia's decision to allow a low-key return of cinema after a nearly 30-year hiatus is more than a symbolic gesture and could eventually see the conservative kingdom's rulers contemplate bolder reforms.

A locally produced comedy premiered in two cultural centers before mixed-gender audiences this month, a taboo in Saudi Arabia, where strict Islamic rules ban unrelated men and women from mixing.

Allowing the screening indicates the progress made by the kingdom's absolute monarchy in taming the once omnipresent influence of the religious establishment, the main obstacle to reforms, analysts say.

"(It shows) the erosion of the religious establishment's influence, who realized they have to concede," said Khaled al-Dakhil, a political sociology professor at King Saud University. "It is a giant step for the Saudi society as a whole."

A senior Western diplomat said that Saudi officials acknowledge that the influence of Sunni Muslim clerics has declined, giving authorities room to relax some restrictions.

"This should encourage ordinary Saudis to zero in their expectations on the monarchy, and these (expectations) abound," the diplomat said.

Saudi Arabia, the biggest and most populous Gulf Arab state, has the lowest gross domestic product per capita among its neighbors and most of its 17.5 million citizens share little of the ruling elite's fabulous wealth.

The kingdom banned public movie screenings and other types of entertainment to pacify clerics after a siege of the Muslim holy site Mecca in 1979. The clerics blamed the rulers for allowing Western ways of living during the oil boom of 1970s.

The view that the government, which has fought anti-monarchy militants since 2003, is now prevailing over the clerics was boosted by a top cleric's abrupt turnabout on the film issue.

Ibrahim al-Ghaith, head of the hardline morality police and the second-highest ranking cleric in the kingdom, initially rejected the screening but backtracked 24 hours later.

Many believe the cleric changed his line after a call from a senior royal. But analysts note the monarchy will be reluctant to appear to be marginalizing clerics in favor of a reformist agenda that could prove even more difficult to deliver.

Saudi Arabia's booming population -- more aware of what is happening in the world thanks to the Internet and satellite television -- has made the task of challenging clerics on cultural issues easier.

But in the long run, analysts say, the kingdom will have to enact deeper reforms than cinema -- including fairer wealth distribution as well as improved public and political freedoms -- to ensure young people do not fall under the sway of religious militants.

"Allowing cinema now is an easy thing to do. The challenge is to have the will to do the difficult things," al-Dakhil said.

Stability in the kingdom is of global concern because the Islamic state -- formed in 1932 as an alliance between the al-Saud clan and puritan clerics -- is the world's largest oil exporter and a linchpin of U.S. power in the Middle East.

Clerics in the kingdom, which does not have an elected parliament, were allowed to maintain an austere form of Islam that imposed gender segregation, banned many forms of art and barred women from driving, among other restrictions.

"The least moderate of clerics will not remain silent. Losing battle on the cultural ground may lead them to take it to the crucial political ground to win disenchanted supporters," the diplomat said.

The pressure is on the governing royals to create a more representative and legislative entity -- instead of the current appointed Shura Council -- improve women's rights, allow freedom of speech and boost citizens' economic and social rights.

"They all are expecting changes. Unfortunately they (clerics and reformers) don't meet on any of them," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Saudi al-Watan newspaper, noting that would force any reform to be slow.
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