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Opportunistic Steps

Among the Arab countries, Tunisia has focused on a reformist interpretation of Islam, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have generally adopted a selective approach that suits their political and economic objectives.

By Nikhat Sattar | February 2022

Saudi Arabia has given women more agency by letting them drive and travel alone (after decades of protests by women), as well as perform Hajj and Umrah without male relatives. These changes have been hailed both by Muslims and non Muslims, although sceptics say that this is merely aiming towards a softer image by the West. Eyebrows were raised, however, when the Saudi government lifted the age old ban on dancing and music and allowed music festivals where professional dancers perform in front of young women and men. Such a concert in Riyadh, in December 2021, brought 700,000 young people rocking together to Western music. While this may be seen as the government’s flexible response to the needs of the young generation, this free gender mixing and dancing is directly in contrast to the increasing separation of genders in the Ka’aba. The Kingdom has also seen fit to confer the highest civilian award upon Modi, who has consistently presided over systematic killing, torture and disenfranchisement of Muslims in India and Kashmir. The religious compass of the government is clearly differently calibrated here.

The UAE, too, has removed the condition of license for alcohol purchase: Muslims hitherto barred can now drink freely. Co-habitation without marriage is now allowed, presumably for the expat population that outnumbers the locals. Alongside these changes that have shocked many Muslims, some of the more repressive Gulf States have opened their arms (and frontiers, literally) to Israel and removed political and legal barriers in order to establish relations at diplomatic, economic and social levels. These major policy shifts seem to be targeting Israeli and American tourists, supported by extensive investment in tourism infrastructure and attractive tour packages.

The Arab public does not agree. At great odds with their governments, the majority of Arabs reject the idea of normalizing ties with Israel, according to a 2020 poll. They are strongly inclined towards the Palestinian cause and have opposed the Israel-Arab friendship from the beginning.

Fast rewind- the year 2011 was one of aspiration, hope and expectations for many Muslims, both Arab and non Arab. It was marked by a massive civil movement in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, beginning in Tunisia and expanding to Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt and then to Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan and Oman. Minor protests occurred in the remaining countries including Saudia Arabia and UAE. Protests, civil disobedience and resistance were people’s response to authoritarian regimes that had nourished widespread corruption and economic stagnation. However, over the span of the next two years, this indigenous uprising was mostly suppressed through the same government machines. Regime changes did occur in four countries, but conflicts, many initiated and stoked by foreign countries resulted in military action and civil wars. Only Tunisia has since transited to democracy while Syria and Yemen have been thrown into devastating wars. Many Arab countries still reel under extreme poverty and a return to authoritarian rule, as well as the stamp of terrorism caused mainly by resurgence of the ISIS and other extremist groups.

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The writer is a development professional, researcher, translator and columnist with an interest in religion and socio-political issues. She can be reached at

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