LAHORE - Saudi Arabia being the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and as the birthplace of Islam is the most important country of the Islamic world, and the world community is keenly watching the decisions being taken by the 31-year old Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), who has been given sweeping powers by his octogenarian father - King Salman.

The decisions taken recently by the budding leader will change the outlook of the ultraconservative kingdom and can lead to an unpredictable situation. It is difficult to believe that the society will digest all decisions, and at the same time it is not easy to foretell what kind of reaction they will trigger.

Under the policy decisions announced in the near past, women will be allowed to drive after a few months. Similarly, women will also have permission after some months to attend sports events at stadiums in the kingdom’s three major cities: Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam. Public cinemas would also be allowed in the kingdom for the first time in over 35 years, and that the first ones would likely to open in March 2018.

Cinemas were banned in the early 1980s under pressure from the Saudi society.

All this is being done to introduce what has been described as moderate Islam. The leadership is forgetting that there is nothing called militant or moderate Islam. Islam is what was preached and practised by Prophet Muhammad (PUBH) 1,400 years ago. True that Muslims should keep pace with the fast-developing world, but it certainly doesn’t mean that Islam’s fundamentals should be compromised. In fact, adherence to the religious values in all circumstances is the real test of the faithful. The above-mentioned measures would be routine and go unnoticed in any other country. But in Saudi Arabia they would be examined on a different touchstone because of the unique status of the country.

The writer during his recent Umrah pilgrimage came across senior Saudi citizens who did not like the measures being taken by the new leadership. The conservative Saudi society will not tolerate the kind of policy measures being announced by the new leadership, said a senior and highly educated Saudi national while talking to the writer in the Prophet’s Mosque.

But since criticism of the government policies is not allowed, opponents have to keep silent. And the praises or justification for the new policies come from the royal family members, or those who had played a role in formulating the policies.

For example, it was Minister of Culture and Information Awwad bin Saleh Alawwad who defended the decision to open cinemas. “Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification,” he has been quoted as saying. “By developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the kingdom’s entertainment options,” he said.

A media report said that by 2030, Saudi Arabia is expected to open over 300 cinemas with more than 2,000 screens. The government estimates that the cinema industry would contribute over 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the economy and create 30,000 permanent jobs by 2030. While Saudi Arabia remains a model for most of the Muslim countries, nobody can say the model MBS wants the kingdom to emulate. There is nothing wrong in modernizing the kingdom but any move to westernize it will be disastrous. MBS must keep the difference in mind while formulating new policies.

The new Saudi leadership must also bear in mind the results of the policies announced by Mikhail Gorbachev in 80s. Glasnost and perestroika were introduced for the sake of openness and to reform the society. Both the moves were welcomed by the West and others of the same mindset. But everyone saw how the Soviet Union disintegrated with a few years, changing the bipolar world into uni-polar. Thus, the only challenger to the US disappeared from the global map.

Three decades later, although China is emerging as a challenger to the US, it will take some more years to take the seat vacated by USSR’s downfall. The $350 billion arms deal Saudi Arabia signed with the United States during President Trump’s visit in May has also raised many an eyebrow. This is the largest in American history. The deal included tanks, combat ships, missile defence systems, as well as radar, communications and cybersecurity technology.

While inking the agreement the KSA leadership overlooked the fact that the US was the biggest supporter of Israel and it was because of its persistent backing that the Jewish state was keeping Al-Quds under its occupation.

If KSA had signed the deal to get closer to the US and persuade it to stop supporting the Jewish state on the issue of Al-Quds, it was the greatest miscalculation. Instead of urging Israel to end its occupation of Al-Quds, the US has decided to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that has angered all Muslims.

The US has given no importance to the recent OIC summit in Turkey that condemned in strongest terms the provocative US move.

One doesn’t have to be Aristotle or Plato to assess that the vested US interest lies in stoking tensions between Israel and the Islamic states to sell its defence equipment to as many states as possible. Interestingly, Israel’s intelligence and transportation minister Yisrael Katz has asked King Salman to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to Riyadh and to send Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Tel Aviv in return, some unthinkable for any Islamic country.

But this shows the expectations Israel has attached with the Saudi leadership.

The permission to open cinemas will also have far-reaching consequences. After this step filmmaking will also start.

In this universe the KSA should be the country true reflective of Islamic values. And if values are compromised or diluted one by one, the KSA will bring itself down to the level of other states, losing its distinct status. This must be avoided at all costs.