quotes Riyadh’s book fair reflects extent of Saudi reforms

17 October 2021
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Updated 17 October 2021

Riyadh’s book fair reflects extent of Saudi reforms

The 10-day Riyadh International Book Fair was no ordinary event this month. It has become one of the most important Arab exhibitions for publishing houses due to the growing turnout of visitors, purchasing power and the vast network of relationships that participants build during the exhibition. Previously, during the era when radical Islamists were active, the exhibition was the scene of many conflicts, with the fundamentalists searching among the books and inciting against certain publishing houses because of what they considered to be “deviant” tendencies or because they were selling Shiite, Sufi or Zaidi books.

Many of the publishing houses, particularly those with a liberal orientation, suffered from the Awakening (Sahwa) movement due to pressure from mostly informal clerics who volunteered to carry out what they believed to be an immunization of society from Western and secular ideas.

The mere presence of works by prominent Saudi writers such as the late government minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, Dr. Turki Al-Hamad, and Abdullah Al-Qasemi caused anger among the hard-liners. Videos circulated on various media platforms with readings from Al-Hamad’s books that they considered “apostasy,” commenting, “Is it possible that such books are present in the land of the Two Holy Mosques?”

Many were not comfortable with this crude rhetoric, yet few of the exhibition’s officials would confront the hard-liners with firmness because there was a kind of courtesy toward religious discourse. Moreover, these officials feared being stigmatized as heretics or seculars.

Now, the situation has completely changed. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been committed to opposing radical ideas, confronting the armed terrorism as practiced by Daesh and Al-Qaeda and the hard-line ideology that fuels this terrorism and tells young people to hate the other. He knows very well that Vision 2030 does not merely aim to promote the economic development of the Kingdom. It is a process of social, cultural, and religious change. He wants to get the Saudis out of the cloak of extremist ideas and make them more open and in harmony with humanity while encouraging them to worship naturally and simply.

Vision 2030 is not a doctrine founded on hating religion, but it does seek to prevent the exploitation of religion in politics and reduce sectarian and racist rhetoric. Therefore, it was necessary to carry out strict and swift corrective measures.

The problem with radical Islamists is that they do not accept the other or recognize the human right to free thought. For years, therefore, their behavior has aimed to prevent people’s access to different modern and philosophical books and to stir up trouble at book fairs, creating a negative impact.

The Ministry of Culture’s interest in the Riyadh book fair, the large number of events that accompanied it and the holding of a publishers’ conference are all indicators of the Saudi government’s approach that believes in pluralism, the right to differ and respect for cultures and religions. The goal is to establish a civil state whose citizens live without religious or intellectual conflicts among themselves.

The presence of Iraq as a guest of honor, with Iraqi Minister of Culture Dr. Hassan Nadhem appearing in an extended dialogue on Saudi state television, is also a clear indication of the significant change in the Saudi cultural scene. These factors send a political message indicating the Kingdom’s openness to Iraq and Riyadh’s desire to improve its relations with Baghdad. This step complements those taken by the two countries’ governments toward reintegrating Iraq into its Arab surroundings and neutralizing it from regional conflicts, thus qualifying it to play more pivotal roles, such as in the dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Women have been an essential part of the Saudi modernity project over the past few years, despite the Awakening movement confronting them violently and denigrating some of them. Women were also present at the Riyadh International Book Fair, whether as authors, readers, or critics. This shows that today they are no longer on the margins of the cultural movement but are at its core. Today, by surfing the many photos taken by news agencies or videos posted on social media, we can see many Saudi women visiting the exhibition and touring its various pavilions. This indicates their social and intellectual emancipation, their desire to chart their path and lifestyle away from guardianship. Indeed, the Riyadh International Book Fair is not the entire landscape of Saudi society. Still, it is a mirror that reflects the changes taking place in the community daily, thus helping us to understand what is happening in the Kingdom.

The focus by some observers on Saudi Arabia from specific classical angles, in a politically oriented way or perpetuating the stereotype image of the Kingdom as a rigid state that only changes for the worse, is wrong. The changes taking place are significant, essential, and happening faster than many Saudis expected.

Indeed, there is still a long way to go. There is a lot of work to be done to promote the civil aspects of the state, the freedoms of expression and belief and consolidating universal citizenship and the culture of human rights. But they are steps that are undoubtedly coming, and some of them have already begun. However, change needs to be made slowly and steadily, in a wise, gradual way that maintains the cohesion of state institutions. Saudi Arabia is moving toward further reforms at the social, religious, cultural and economic levels, and these will gradually reach other fields. Civil society institutions will take part in this reform journey alongside government agencies and national elites.

• Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse, and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa