Saudi Arabia Sees Little Progress on Religious Freedom Despite Claims of Reform
10/15/2019 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Saudi Arabia’s much-lauded Vision 2030 fails to bring any meaningful progress on the issue of religious freedom—an essential freedom that all countries must guarantee their citizens if they hope to build a fair and prosperous society. Vision 2030, a project spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, was rolled out in 2016 and aspires to bolster Saudi Arabia’s economic and geopolitical influence by not only diversifying its economic assets but modernizing its culture as well.
Saudi Arabia may have an uphill battle on its hands as it attempts to modernize while only paying scant attention to the issue of religious freedom.
There is a strong association between religious freedom and economic growth, according to a 2014 study analyzing the economies and religious freedom of 173 countries around the world. In fact, out of the 12 markers of global economic competitiveness used by the World Economic Forum, 10 showed a distinct positive relationship with religious freedom. Innovation, for example, is twice as strong in countries with high levels of religious freedoms as in countries where religious restrictions are high.
Saudi Arabia comes in fifteenth in Open Doors’ World Watch List of the worst violators of religious freedom worldwide and is listed as a Tier 1 Country of Particular Concern by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom for its systematic and government-sponsored intolerance of religious minorities like Christians.
The U.S. Department of State has regularly designated Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern,” most recently in 2018. However, it also issued an indefinite waiver for Saudi Arabia in 2006 thereby releasing the United States from having to pursue any actions against Saudi Arabia as a consequence of its status as a country of particular concern.
The Crown Prince has made little to no concrete progress on the issue of religious freedom, despite several well-publicized meetings held between himself and groups of American evangelical leaders, most recently in September of this year and previously in November of 2018. These meetings, while they may have been pleasant, produced no real progress on the issue of religious intolerance in Saudi Arabia. No activity on that front seems to be forthcoming at the present time either.
Saudi Arabia is familiar with multi-year reform plans. In fact, the country has operated in a continuous series of five-year plans since 1970. Vision 2030 takes that familiar concept and stretches it out over a longer period of time, but beyond the difference in time it also claims to be a different type of reform package altogether—one that reforms Saudi Arabia comprehensively, addressing issues of culture and the economy at the same time. Yet, despite these grand claims, religious freedom remains an unpalatable topic for the Crown Prince and others in the Saudi administration.
The Crown Prince in a statement vowed to strengthen private business in Saudi Arabia, promising cooperation and mutual responsibility. He notably did not make any mention of religious freedom as a means of pursuing that end despite empirical evidence demonstrating that it is a significant tool in the fostering of private enterprise. The Crown Prince also promises cultural reform, but has failed to remove textbooks inciting violence against religious minorities from Saudi schools.
Corruption is another major topic addressed in Vision 2030. The 2014 study cited earlier also considers corruption, finding laws burdening the free exercise of religion to be strongly correlated to increased levels of corruption. In fact, eight of the world’s ten most corrupt countries are also, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, countries with high or very high levels of government restriction on religious freedom.
The positive effects of religious freedom do not themselves give religious freedom its inherent value, but they do provide a powerful argument for it in Saudi Arabia and everywhere else around the world.