Social control and change in Saudi Arabia

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Middle East

By Laura Ulatowski, Analyst KEDISA




Early in December 2017 several videos capturing members of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), publicly assaulting a woman, went viral on social media. The tragic event attracted considerable media interest and the public outrage shortly after focused on the recurrent excesses of members of the religious police and now triggered discussions about the upcoming social liberalisation processes that are envisaged with Vision 2030.

Hegemony, Power and Social Control

Saudi Arabia’s religious police, also known in Arabic as the hayaa (the commission); mutaween (the pious) or simply as the morality police is a Saudi state agency that is tasked with policing public behaviour and asserting the social compliance with Islamic moral law, that includes proper dress and gender segregation (Abir 1993). The CPVPV acts as the executive arm of the ulama, the clergy, who are in a dual power structure with the state (ibid). Thus, the religious police is intended to exercise the clergy’s power as an informal complement to standard law enforcement. The partnership between Saudi political rulers and Wahabi clerics emerged from the early beginnings of the Saudi State when the kingdom’s founding family, the Al Saud tribe, adopted Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine as a tool for legitimizing the endeavours to expand their political power over the peninsula, which resulted in a symbiotic relationship that is still effective today (Detrick 2017:18). Since then, the governance of the Saudi royal family is guided by clerics, who legitimize their rule (Hubbard 2017:3). Ultimately, the CPVPV presence in Saudi society helps to project the clerical power and influence into the domestic population. However, the extent of the impact the CPVPV has on society fluctuates over time (ibid). First restrictions to the powers of the CPVPV were made in 2005 under King Abdullah, however the threats to the Saudi regime that emerged with the Arab Spring set back the previous series of reforms and further strengthened the CPVPV’s power in policing society (Detrick 2017; Kinninmont 2017). With the advent of social media Saudi citizens are now able to raise their voices and the subsequent domestic and international backlash to the CPVPV’s heavy-handed tactics in several high profile incidents lead to increased discontent over the harassment and violent behaviour of the religious police which urges the Saudi Government to reform their operating procedures (Kerr 2016). Saudi Arabia curbed the powers of the religious police in April 2016, that extends the regulations of a 2013 reform, now banning members of the CPVPV from detaining suspects or practicing any other form of law enforcement on them (Human Rights Watch, April 2016). The 2016 renewed restrictions constitute the most constraining series of reforms so far and were followed by the announcement of large modernization efforts. Newly promoted crown prince Muhammad bin Salman headed the launch of Vision 2030, a strategy plan which aims at revitalizing Saudi Arabia and turn the kingdom into a regional economic leader (Henderson 2017). However, it remains to be seen whether the recent reforms will persist as the CPVPV’s latest endeavours to widen their grip on social media shows that the commission will remain an important force in the near future (Detrick 2017:43). Furthermore, the symbiotic political-religious relationship of power in Saudi Arabia that produced the CPVPV also protects it (ibid.)

Vision 2030 and Saudi Arabias Shifting Social Contract

Curbing the power of the religious police may also be an attempt to win public support ahead of tough economic reforms (Widdershoven 2018; Kerr 2016). Saudi Arabia now generally acknowledges that in the future its oil resources will not play the crucial factor in the kingdoms economy anymore as in the past and the strategy Vision 2030 now envisions the restructuring of the Saudi economy by reducing its reliance on oil and boosting investments for the private sector (Kinninmont 2017:2). The strategy also entails an amount of social liberalization which aims at developing the entertainment and tourism industries as well as reforming the education system, which normally is under the influence of the clergy (ibid.). Even though Vision 2030 does not explicitly delve into the realms of politics, the envisioned economic reforms would change the relationship between the state and its citizens (Alkhalisi 2017). This transformation would ultimately change the power relations in the Saudi state with its citizens and the clergy in social, political and economic terms, which would also lead to comprehensive changes in the implicit social contract between the Saudi government with its key constituencies (Kinninmont 2017:2). Saudi Arabia has historically been characterised as a rentier state where the Saudi government is able to buy political acquiescence through the distribution of wealth emerging out of the oil economy to its citizens, which represents a key part of the underlying concept of its social contract (Bokhari 2017; Husain Syed 2017). The implicit arrangements of the Al-Saud family with its key constituencies is not static over time but rather contested and subject to change. With the change of the Saudi economic model away from the characteristics of a rentier state the royal family is in the need to find an alternative legitimacy base. The Saudi government is already conscious of these issues, and Vision 2030 therefore not only envisions changes for a renewed thriving economy, but also of a society that will still be rooted in their traditions and values (ibid.) The preservation of religious traditions and piety will likely continue to be seen as an important pillar of legitimacy for the royal family also in order to avoid a backlash from conservative religious authorities (Alkhalisi 2017).


Women and Social Change in Vision 2030

Since the establishment of the kingdom in 1932, the Saudi regime has continuously portrayed women as the holders of the moral integrity of the nation, who mark the kingdom’s commitment to Islam (Al-Rasheed 2017). Thus, women’s roles shape the social and political order as they are seen as the holders of culture and national identity, which renders the bodies of women a political terrain (Terman 2010:294). However, in Saudi Arabia women are frequently caught between the two contradictory frameworks of religious nationalism and cosmopolitan modernity (Al-Rasheed 2017:1). Consequently, as these discourses often coexist and collide, Saudi women are simultaneously pulled apart in opposing directions and are trapped in the competing visions in which their rights and citizenship could be comprehended and defined (Al-Rasheed 2017:1). In this regard, the imminent economic shifts as outlined in Visions 2030 will also entail changes in gender issues, which becomes already apparent by the increasing representation of women in political bodies, the recent restrictions of the religious police powers and the planned increasing number of women working in the private sector. By limiting the power of the clergy as part of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s efforts to bring the traditional sources of Saudi power under his control and to push for a more open brand of Islam, the space for women in public life will also get expanded.


Vision 2030 is the response to the structural problems the Saudi economy is facing and aims at bringing about sustainable long-term changes which ultimately will also involve some kind of political change even though it is yet not very clear how this would look like (Kinninmont 2017:40). However, the anticipated expanded social freedoms that will be brought about as a consequence of the altered economic relations between the state and its citizens are likely to disrupt some traditional patronage structures (Kinninmont 2017:26). The speed of social and economic change that will come hand in hand with the implementation of Vision 2030 will also lead to an altered social contract between the Saudi State and its citizens that will not only effect women’s roles but also the powerful religious establishment in Saudi Arabia and ultimately the mechanisms, such as the CPVPV, through which social control is exercised (Alkhalisi 2017; Kinninmont 2017).



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