Saudi Arabia Keeps Eye on Religious Ball in Global Competition for Talent
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has tamed his kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, and made hyper-nationalism rather than religion a pillar of a new 21st century Saudi identity.
The crown prince issued a recent decree to give citizenship to high-end achievers in law, medicine, science, technology, culture, and sports. The fact that approximately one-quarter of the 27 new citizens are Sunni as well as Shiite religious figures, some of whom are not resident in Saudi Arabia, telegraphs the significance that MBS attributes to the religious soft power rivalry between Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states, as well as a powerful Indonesian civil society movement.
The newly minted citizens include former Bosnian grand mufti Mustafa Ceric; the bulk of the new citizens are prominent medical doctors and researchers, scientists, engineers, and historians. The religious scholars, with exception of Mohammed al-Husseini — known for his hostility towards Iran and advocacy of relations with Israel — were either signatories of the 2020 Mecca Declaration that called for cultural and religious tolerance and understanding, and/or members of the supreme council of the Muslim World League.
MBS has turned the League, which was until 2015 a prime vehicle for the global spread of Wahhabism, into his main tool for spreading a message of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
It is a message that has translated into the infrastructural and economic development of disadvantaged Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, and the appointment of Shiites as CEOs of key companies, including Aramco, the state-owned oil company.
It has not translated into allowing Shiites or anyone else in the kingdom to express themselves freely or criticize the crown prince or government policy. Nor has it prompted the government to allow non-Muslim worship in public or the construction of non-Muslim houses of worship.
Saudi Arabia is the latest state to announce citizenship or permanent resident programs designed to attract global talent. Qatar became the first Gulf state to do so in 2018, followed by Singapore in November of last year and the UAE in January.
Saudi Arabia, in a gimmick that sparked discussion as well as mockery, granted in 2017 citizenship to Sophia, a robot with the form of a woman. Mimicking a human, Sophia told a high-brow investor conference that it was honored to be the first robot to acquire Saudi nationality.
The UAE has taken the lead in liberalizing socially in its effort to remain attractive to expatriates and others. Racing ahead of the kingdom, the UAE has in the past year laid out plans that give residents the time to look for a new job if they become unemployed rather than force them to leave the country immediately, allow parents to sponsor their children’s visas until the age of 25, and ease visa restrictions on freelancers, widows, and divorcees.
The Emirates further ended lenient punishments for “honor” killings, lifted a ban on unmarried couples living together, and decriminalized alcohol. It also reformed personal laws to enable foreigners living in the Gulf state to follow their home country’s laws on divorce and inheritance, rather than being forced to adhere to Emirati legislation that is based on Islamic law. Saudi Arabia has yet to adopt similar reforms.
More than 40 companies are expected to move to Riyadh within the coming year, according to Fahd al-Rasheed, president of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City. Al-Rasheed hopes to have attracted 480 companies by 2030. Saudi officials are reportedly attempting to persuade some 7,000 foreign companies to set up shop in the kingdom.
The competition for foreign talent raises potentially explosive demographic issues, particularly in Gulf states with a citizen deficit where more than half of the population is made up of non-nationals. To some degree, the Gulf states’ efforts to attract foreign talent addresses questions raised several years ago by Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, an erudite Emirati intellectual and art expert, at a time that discussion of the subject was taboo.
Al-Qassemi sparked controversy by advocating a rethinking of restrictive Emirati citizenship policies that were likely to exacerbate rather than alleviate long-term problems associated with the demographic deficit. Echoing a sentiment that was gaining traction among internet-savvy youth,
By the same token, controversy erupted when Qatar granted 23 athletes from 17 countries citizenship in advance of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. They constituted the majority of the Gulf state’s 39-member team that won Qatar’s first-ever gold medal. It was a debate that made clear to Qataris that there were no easy solutions to a demographic deficit that could prove unsustainable in the long term.
Qataris worried that naturalised citizens could upset their carefully constructed apple cart.
One group whose citizenship ship claims should be relatively easily resolved are the Bidoon, or Without, in Kuwait and some other Gulf states. A stateless nomadic minority that failed to register for citizenship at the time of independence, the Bidoon are denied access to public services and often exist in relative poverty.
A student using the handle @_Itsaja_ on Twitter said she and other students had been expelled last Sunday from Kuwait’s Al-Jahra High School when it was discovered that they were Bidoon. Several students sent almost identical tweets.
“I am a student in my last year of science, I study in the evening, I got 98% last year, and today I am expelled because I am from #البدون (#TheBidoon) even though all the required documents are complete.,” tweeted Adin Shamseddin, echoing similar words tweeted by others.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.