The World is Watching, Saudi Modernization: A Conversation with Samar Fatany

Published: December 9, 2013

Editor’s Note:

Ten years ago when the SUSRIS project was created there were still questions about whether or not the social, political, education and economic reforms, the modernization programs, being touted in Saudi Arabia were genuine, but doubts were being erased. One of the earliest of the scores of articles and interviews SUSRIS produced on reform in the Kingdom was the remarks of distinguished Saudi businessman and member of the National Consultative Council, the Majlis Ash-Shura, Usamah Al-Kurdi, in which he shared his thoughts on the viability and pace of reform.

“Well, reform is serious business in Saudi Arabia. Very few people actually know that it started in 1993 when the four famous laws were issued. The law to create the Shura Council. The law to create regional councils in the 13 different regions of Saudi Arabia. What we call the Basic Law of Governance of Saudi Arabia was issued that year. And, the new law stipulating a term of four years for the ministers in Saudi Arabia. So, these four laws were issued in 1993 and ever since I have been following the different reform steps that were taking place in Saudi Arabia very closely. About two years ago, I think the word reform, in Arabic of course, was used in the King’s address to the Shura Consultative Council, making it a fact in Saudi Arabia. Again, if you look in the past 10 years, the reform that has taken place in Saudi Arabia, in my opinion is very impressive.. ..But, many people think that reform is not going as fast as it should in Saudi Arabia. I really am bothered about this. I don’t know if we are going fast enough or whether we should be going slower or not. But, judging by the experience of other countries, I don’t think we should be going too fast. We need to judge the pace that we need to follow. We definitely do not need a lot of external pressure. We already have enough pressure of our own. I do not believe in what I call “mass reform.” These are what I refer to as the reform initiatives that are being promoted around the world. For reform to work, it needs to be discrete and individual if it is to work. But at the same time, we are learning from the experience of others. We are trying to proceed again at a pace that is acceptable to our society.” [The Dynamics of Economic and Commercial Reform: Near-Term Prognoses – Usamah Al-Kurdi – SUSRIS – Sep 27, 2004]

In the years since, SUSRIS has chronicled modernization progress and obstacles in these pages. Among the voices we have heard is Samar Fatany of Jeddah. She has been a consistent, persistent, thoughtful, insightful and clear champion of modernization in Saudi Arabia. Through columns and conversations she has shined a light on the spectrum of change issues that she believes are necessary for her country to serve the best interests of its citizens, all of them. Samar has been much more than a constant, wise, People USSBOF Outreach Church Visitforthright voice for change. She has also been an ambassador for Saudi Arabia in word and in deed, tirelessly traveling and talking with people to debunk misinterpretations of her country and to build bridges of understanding. This editor has seen her first hand as a member of numerous Saudi delegations organized by the Committee for International Trade (CIT) in places like Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and more, participating in community outreach programs to breakdown cultural barriers. Indeed, our family had the opportunity to host her and her daughter Sarah in our home state of Tennessee in 2005 for a three-day journey, organized by CIT, to talk to people from all walks of life about Saudi Arabia and the American ties to that country. It was obvious that those she talked to at civic organizations and small group meetings across Middle Tennessee would never again have the same stereotypes of Saudi Arabia or of Saudi women that they may have previously held.

Today we have a special opportunity to share with you SUSRIS’ exclusive interview with Samar Fatany. It is a conversation about her new book on “Modernizing Saudi Arabia” which will provide the insight and context necessary to digest the drum beat of news stories about reform and modernization in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Just last week SUSRIS shared Samar’s column on judicial reform and its implications for society in these pages.

I commend Samar’s “Modernizing Saudi Arabia” to your reading list and suggest you order a copy for your friends and colleagues so they too will have an understanding of what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, why it’s happening and what more they can expect to see happen. [SUSRIS is providing excerpts from Samar Fatany’s “Modernizing Saudi Arabia” in a separate item today.]


The World is Watching, Saudi Modernization: A Conversation with Samar Fatany

[SUSRIS] What inspired you to write the book “Modernizing Saudi Arabia”?

People Samar Fatany[Fatany] After 9/11 there seemed to be many self-declared experts on the subject of Saudi Arabia and the country was in the news getting a lot of bad press. So I thought I should write something more balanced that would depict the present situation and what’s happening. I wanted to write about the challenges and the reforms being made and to analyze the reasons behind delays in progress.

[SUSRIS] You have been very active in commentary and dialogue on social reforms. Can you tell us about being a witness to unfolding history in Saudi Arabia? What got you so interested in becoming an advocate for change?

[Fatany] As a journalist and a radio broadcaster it’s part of my job. I always had first-hand information from many of the officials, from analysts, and from people in government about developments and I have worked to keep up to date. So, as a result I do have a lot of information and analysis from people who are in these situations, whether it’s people in government or activists or people in academia or wherever they may be. I felt that I needed to give voice to their work to address many of our challenges that we face in Saudi Arabia today.

[SUSRIS] You open the book with a chapter on terrorism and extremism. What is the connection with reform and modernization and what was it about that topic that made it important enough to be your opening chapter?

[Fatany] This is the main issue people need to learn about if they are to understand Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has pushed for modernity since the 1960s with King Faisal. However, there were always obstacles and resistance from the fundamentalists within the society. For example, girls education was resisted very strongly as was the introducing of television and so on. King Faisal was killed because of the resistance of extremists. Then after the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 we have seen how the hardliners have slowed progress in Saudi Arabia. The government had to give in to their demands even though the people who did the attack were arrested or killed. It had an influence on the direction of the country.

Book Modernizing Saudi Arabia by Samar Fatany
Click here for information and to order

When King Abdullah came to the throne eight years ago he addressed many of the restrictions that existed because of the extremists’ influence in society. Women in particular were given more freedom. They have been put in leadership positions like the 30 women members of the Shura Council. There are more job opportunities and there is a long list of improvements.

So I felt it was very important to start the book, the first chapter, analyzing this aspect of change. It was important to the struggle to stop the influence of the extremists and their control over the society. Theirs has been a mindset that made it very difficult for the government to initiate reforms and to modernize the Kingdom.

The population in Saudi Arabia is mostly young people. It is the influence of these people, of these religious ulema, who have influence on society. Whatever they say, given their influence and control over education and the judiciary, makes it very difficult to change the mindset and to modernize and influence change within the society.

So there has been a confrontation between the reformers and the progressive thinkers with these hardliners who refuse to give a chance for modernity. They label anything that is a different or anything that is a modern lifestyle as un-Islamic. They are not un-Islamic. So the confrontation continues.

[SUSRIS] The concept of modernization is sometimes confused with Westernization in countries that are developing. Does modernizing in Saudi Arabia mean something else? What do you say to those within Saudi Arabia who think that reform and modernization is adapting to the West?

[Fatany] We really need to make a distinction between modernization and Westernization. In the many newspaper articles, in talk shows, in many of the interviews that have been conducted with reformists and activists within the Kingdom, they always try to make the distinction that modernizing does not mean eroding our culture and our values or forgetting our roots.

To modernize is to adopt a modern lifestyle without forgetting our values. Western culture has its own values but there are universal values that are the same such as justice and human rights. As far as customs and traditions are concerned we have a conservative lifestyle in Saudi Arabia. However, the hardliners impose restrictions controlling the lifestyle of Saudi citizens and slowing the modernization process of Saudi Arabia. Hardliners are against the empowerment of women and the youth and they reject the culture of art, theater, sports, entertainment and innovation that can help Saudis adopt a modern lifestyle that is in tune with the 21st century.

Hardliners support imposing strict segregation laws, insist on women covering their faces, limit work opportunities for women, insist on a ban on women driving, deprive the youth from entertainment and sports, oppose theater, songs, and art. Above all they insist on the guardianship law that keeps women under the control of male members of the family treating them as minors and no freedom to lead their own life. They control education and the judiciary and have the power to impose their own interpretations of Sharia laws. They label any attempts to change the prevalent, rigid lifestyle as un-Islamic and a western plot to erode Muslim values.

Activists and reformers argue that demands to eliminate these restrictions are necessary for the progress of this country and there is nothing un-Islamic about wanting to live a more modern lifestyle.

Saudi moderates and progressive thinkers are not advocates of Westernization. They support the true Islamic values which include, condemning blasphemy, respect for family ties and the marriage institution, opposing gay rights, support of the ban on alcohol and pork products, respect for hijab and modest dress, and rejection of promiscuity and free sex.

[SUSRIS] In “Modernizing Saudi Arabia,” you say that reforms continue despite the confrontation between tradition and modernity. Is there common ground between conservatives and those who seek to modernize Saudi Arabia?

[Fatany] The government started by first trying to reform the judiciary and that is the key to change and progress. Many of the rigid laws and the rigid interpretations of Islamic laws are behind all these problems that we face today. A large budget was allocated to reforming the judiciary so that we can have more flexible laws – family laws, business laws, labor laws and so on and so forth. Take for example the issue of home loans, the mortgage system. For a very long time there was no chance of allowing it or discussing it. As a result the housing problem remained a big issue in society and not many people owned their own homes as a result. Now things are beginning to change and the government is looking into flexible laws and rules that will allow people to own their own house and to have the loans available for the public.

[SUSRIS] In conversations about reform and modernity you know from talking with American audiences the first question that comes up is the women driving issue. Is that an Islamic issue? Can you comment on what seems to be a favorite question among Americans?

[Fatany] Yes, of course. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s not an Islamic issue at all. That’s why today women continue to demand the right to drive. It’s merely an issue of maintaining control by the hardliners who refuse to give women the freedom of choice. They impose the guardianship law that keeps women subservient to a very male-dominated society and many of the women are speaking out against it. Women who have knowledge of Sharia are debating the hardliners saying that they have no religious backing at all. Some of the hardliners have said absurd things in the case of driving that they are against it because it will damage women’s ovaries and ridiculous assertions like that. So bit-by-bit they’re being exposed. They have no substantial evidence or argument to the religious hard-line lifestyle that they want to impose on society.

[SUSRIS] You make the points that the judiciary and the education systems are primary impediments and the changes are coming too slowly. Can you comment on what progress has been made and expectations for future reforms in these areas?

[Fatany] Definitely. With the new graduates and the new people who are more exposed to the world – more scholarly, more learned, not narrow-minded in their thinking – these young graduates will have a great impact and great influence on our judiciary. They have started a new department in Mohammed bin Saud University where law students are studying international law and Sharia law as well to be more in tune with modern lifestyle and demands for a more progressive and productive community.

[SUSRIS] Can you elaborate on your point that empowerment of women and the development of youth are the leading factors for change in the Kingdom?

[Fatany] Definitely. In the past the failure to modernize the position of women in society and the lack of attention given to the youth were reasons behind the backwardness and the unproductive society that we had. Women are half of the population and 56 percent of them are graduates with high qualifications. They have proven their ability to be productive and to share in the development of the country with their qualifications and according to merit. It is ridiculous to marginalize them and deprive the country of their expertise and service. It is the same thing with our youth as well. When there was little attention given to them they were idle, frustrated, unproductive, and indifferent. They were not interested in sharing in the development of the country. King Abdullah has changed all that. We have youth who are determined and enthusiastic to be a part of the progress. We have women who are grateful and excited for the challenge to prove their worth and to contribute as equal citizens in this country.

[SUSRIS] You credit King Abdullah as a main force in the reform movement. Can you talk about his impact on modernization?

[Fatany] He has had a great impact especially after 9/11 when we saw the spread of terrorism and extremism and Saudi Arabia was accused of supporting these terrorists because fifteen of the 19 were Saudis. I think King Abdullah played a great role in correcting this misconception.

He has supported delegations including Saudi women to different capitals of the world. He expanded the opening in the country for foreign investment. He initiated the interfaith dialogue to show that Islam is not against other religions. Islam is a peaceful religion that promotes tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

Within the national dialogue in Saudi Arabia he has worked to unify the Kingdom and to prevent sectarianism and extremists from influencing our youth leaving them prey to influence of the terrorists that have hijacked Islam. They have, in the name of Islam, committed all these heinous crimes that Islam does not support or condone.

At the same time he has been pressing forward for reforms including the role of women in society. They had very bad press in the international community that women were oppressed and there was no justice. So women have been encouraged and given leadership positions in society. As I mentioned thirty of them today are part of the Shura council, the country’s Consultative Council to the government. Many of them today have been received in the Royal Court and given national awards. All these are great initiatives have been appreciated by the whole of society and represents women and the youth in Saudi Arabia today.

[SUSRIS] Can you comment on the impact of the so called “Arab Spring” on modernization and reform in Saudi Arabia?

[Fatany] The Arab spring did have an impact on reforms in Saudi Arabia. The government needed to address the needs and public concerns to calm public discontent and frustrations over bad governance, corrupt courts incompetent judges, the inadequate municipal services, corruption, bureaucracy, unemployment, better school facilities, public parks and so forth.

The book includes details of anti corruption initiatives, new labor laws, serious attempts to reform the judiciary, vocational training, new job opportunities, King Abdullah’s scholarship program, monthly stipends for the unemployed, a new head for the “Hai’aa” – the religious police, women in the Shura and better job opportunities for women. Having said that, the challenges still remain and it is still to be seen if these initiatives are effective and can in succeed in delivering the much needed reforms.

[SUSRIS] You ended the book by saying the clock is ticking. What is it about Saudi Arabia that makes timely reform and modernization important? What do you say to those who think change is coming too quickly, and what do you say to those who say that change is not coming fast enough?

[Fatany] Well, I’m an optimist and I think change is unstoppable. I see no point to further delays because change is unstoppable and it’s going to happen anyway. Going too slow is such a futile way of implementing reforms. Why the delay? To me it doesn’t make sense.

If we support reforms then we should go all the way and make them real rather than be reluctant and do it in such a way that it appears to be just cosmetic and it seems that nothing is happening.

If the government believes that there is nothing un-Islamic about an issue and the society is very much in need of it I see no reason why that should not change. If women are to be allowed to be part of the workforce then they should remove the guardianship rule that is an impediment to women’s progress and contributions to society. So a lot of these issues that are just impediments that don’t make sense to me.

[SUSRIS] How has writing about “Modernizing Saudi Arabia” shaped your perspective on these issues?

[Fatany] I would stress the point that women and youth are the engines for change. Saudi Arabia needs to give them support and continue with their empowerment so that society can reach the levels of success and achievement of a more developed country. It would be very unbecoming if we do not show progress. Saudi Arabia is an important country not only for the region and the Muslim world but for the whole international community.

We should not let our youth down. So we should support a quicker pace of progress so that we will not disappoint our people, disappoint the Muslim world, and disappoint the world. We have a major role to play and the whole world is watching.SUSRIS-logo-100

About Samar Fatany

People Samar FatanySAMAR H. FATANY Former Head of the English Service and Chief Broadcaster at Jeddah Radio Station, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Culture and Information, Saudi Arabia. She has introduced many cultural, religious and current events programs over a period of 30 years. Samar Fatany has conducted many interviews with prominent local and international political personalities. She has participated in the media coverage of many regional and global economic conferences. She has made significant contributions in social awareness campaigns and participated in global interfaith dialogue events. In her previous books, Saudi Perceptions and Western Misconceptions, Saudi Women Towards a New Era, and Saudi Reforms and Challenges, Fatany has addressed the threat of extremism, and highlighted the new era of empowered women in her society. She has also covered the many challenges facing Saudi Arabia and projected the ongoing reform movement in the desert Kingdom. Fatany is an active member of several local organizations, including the Committee for International Trade, CIT, Riyadh, and the Committee for International Relations, IRC, and the Committee for Youth Forums of the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs promoting youth diplomacy and supporting youth initiatives in Saudi Arabia today. She is currently a writer and columnist for the Saudi Gazette.


Book Modernizing Saudi Arabia by Samar Fatany
Click here for information and to order

This book portrays ambitious government initiatives to implement reforms and describes progressive attempts to help Saudi Arabia meet the challenges of the 21st century. It gives an overall picture of the present situation and the progress achieved so far.

It also highlights the role of women and youth as the engines for change. The book identifies women professionals in leadership roles and projects the participation of the Kingdom’s youth in nation building.

The chapters outline the struggle of decision makers to deal with new realities and emphasize the process of modernizing the vast and both physically and culturally diverse region of this country.

Source: Introduction, “Modernizing Saudi Arabia”

For more information and to buy the book, visit


Additional Information:

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