ABHA, Saudi Arabia—Arwa Alneami wanted to be an artist ever since she was a child. But growing up in the conservative region of Asir, she was constrained by a rigid strain of Sunni Islam that has long defined life in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s image to the outside world. When she drew a bird, Ms. Alneami recalls, teachers would scold her and cross off its head, saying only God can create life.
Now that religious control is coming under its sharpest challenge in modern times. Saudi leaders, spurred by the need to diversify the oil-dependent economy, are moving faster than any of their predecessors to unravel the legacy of Islamic conservatism that had taken hold of the country four decades ago and shaped the education of generations.
Spearheading the transformation is 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who sees social liberalization as a vital part of his radical economic modernization plan and has vowed to return his country to a more tolerant form of Islam.
“We are only going back to how we were: to the tolerant, moderate Islam that is open to the world, to all the religions and traditions of its people,” Prince Mohammed said during an investment conference in Riyadh in October.
Ms. Alneami, 32, today is a rising star of the kingdom’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. “Before, I had a love-hate relationship with Saudi Arabia,” she says. “I used to think a lot about leaving the country. I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a normal life. Now, normal is coming to us.”
In September, Saudi Arabia announced the world’s only ban on women driving will be lifted this summer. Cinemas will soon open after a 35-year ban. Music, widely considered taboo and until recently rarely even played in the background in restaurants, is making a comeback. On Friday, for the first time, women will be allowed into a stadium to watch a soccer match.
These efforts have prompted resistance from those wary of undoing decades of edicts woven into the Saudi social fabric, in particular from religious conservatives, who remain a powerful constituency.
Sheikh Saleh al Fozan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s top religious body, reiterated a common argument against women driving. “If women are allowed to drive,” he said in a statement published on his website, “they will be able to go and come as they please day and night, and will easily have access to temptation, because as we know, women are weak and easily tempted.”
Among those who support aspects of the changes, such as encouraging more women to join the workforce, some find the speed of liberalization unsettling, saying they don’t want Saudi Arabia to lose its defining religious identity as the birthplace of Islam.
Many restrictions still apply, and it’s unclear if they will ever be lifted. To this day, women are required to wear floor-length robes; shops close several times a day for prayers; gender segregation is widely practiced in restaurants and workplaces. Women are required to have a male guardian, whose permission they need to travel abroad or marry. Non-Muslims are still banned from practicing their faith publicly.
The roots of conservative Islam run deep in Saudi Arabia, and are intertwined with the kingdom’s ruling family. In the 18th century, the House of Saud struck an alliance with the preacher Mohammed Ibn Abd al Wahhab, who demanded a return to what he saw as the pure faith practiced by Prophet Muhammad and his companions. That intolerant strain of Sunni Islam, dubbed Wahhabism by critics, became the dominant doctrine in Saudi Arabia, inspiring generations of jihadists at home and abroad.
The partnership between the descendants of Abd al Wahhab and the royal family helped create the modern Saudi state in 1932. Since then, the monarchy has ruled with the backing of the religious establishment, which controls the justice system, based on Shariah, or Islamic law. Wahhabi clerics have helped legitimize the rule of the House of Saud, casting obedience to the ruler as a religious obligation.
Over the decades, the desire to alter Saudi Arabia’s social dynamics had to be balanced against tribal traditions and religious considerations. That has long made Saudi Arabia one of the most conservative places on earth. Nevertheless, Saudi rulers were able to introduce innovations such as television and opened schools for girls over the objections of religious conservatives.
After 1979, religious conservatives gained an upper hand when two events challenged Saudi Arabia’s role as the cradle of Islam: the Islamic revolution in Iran and the weekslong siege by armed extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.
Saudi leaders took steps to appease the kingdom’s ultraconservative fringe, which they perceived as the biggest threat to their rule.
In so doing, the monarchy gave the kingdom’s clerics free rein to enforce a strict moral code in public, to reshape the education system and to export their intolerant views abroad. The country’s newfound oil wealth meant the government could afford to prioritize religion over productivity.
The government funded religious causes at home and abroad and it didn’t desperately need foreign investors, who were put off by harsh rules like the ban on men and women mixing in the workplace. It could also afford to neglect industries like tourism and entertainment, opposed by religious hardliners.
Saudi Arabia’s sharp turn was felt across the country, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in the region of Asir, historically one of the kingdom’s most open societies. A mountainous region in the southwest, Asir is more fertile than most of the country. For as long as residents can remember, men and women had worked in wheat fields side by side, often breaking into songs. A combination of religious fervor and a flood of oil money put an end to that by the early 1980s.
“Women had much more active lives in the past. We would work side by side in the fields. I would sing, and they would sing,” recalls Mohammad Torshi, 89, who lives in Asir’s village of Rijal Almaa. “Then the religious people came.”
The mixing of unrelated men and women, let alone singing and dancing, was no longer acceptable. Cinemas closed and music stopped.
In public, women were forced to wear face-covering veils, which in parts of the country such as Asir had been virtually nonexistent. The religious police, formally known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, was given the job of enforcing the new order.
Radical Islamists infused the school curriculum with the teachings of Wahhabi scholars. Textbooks instructed students to hate Christians and Jews and denigrated Shiite Muslims. Some of the more extreme views often came from teachers, who sometimes recruited students to extremist causes.
Saudi charities linked to the government helped spread that interpretation of Islam beyond the kingdom’s borders, inspiring generations of jihadists.
Asir proved a fertile ground for extremism. Of the 17 Saudi citizens who participated in al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, five were from Asir, more than from any other region.
One of them was a neighbor of Ms. Alneami. For someone growing up in Abha in the 1990s, having fun wasn’t easy. Ms. Alneami found ways. Although music was widely considered sinful, she collected audiotapes distributed by religious conservatives to circulate sermons and recorded music over them. She would spend hours in her bedroom with her Sony Walkman dancing to the likes of Michael Jackson and the Algerian punk rock star Rachid Taha.
Earlier this month, she attended the concert of Hiba Tawaji, the first performance by a female singer in the Saudi capital in recent decades. In a scene she had never seen before in Saudi Arabia, members of the audience rose from their seats, dancing, whooping and hollering.
“Growing up I was told that people who listen to music would be punished [in the afterlife]with hot metal poured into their ears,” said Ms. Alneami, whose work includes photography and installations that focus on the ways Saudis have fun despite restrictions. “I’m so happy I got to see the first party—it’s like an art installation.”
When King Salman assumed the throne in early 2015, few expected he would be the one to oversee rapid social change. Known as a pious Muslim, he cultivated close relations with the religious establishment in his role as governor of Riyadh, a position he held for decades. In fact, many analysts say this gave him and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed, greater clout to make changes compared with his predecessor King Abdullah, who was considered a liberal by Saudi standards.
In an era of cheap crude, loosening Saudi Arabia’s social rules has become an economic and political imperative for Prince Mohammed, the driving force behind an ambitious plan to end the kingdom’s dependence on oil. Saudi Arabia, where the majority is under 30 years old and 12.8% of the population is unemployed, is trying to become more attractive to foreign investors and to the country’s own youth. It wants to bring more women into the workforce. Failure puts at risk the country’s next generation, which could be lost either to opportunities overseas or to underground extremist groups at home.
House of Saud Timeline
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to move the country away from the religious extremism that took hold in the 1970s and seeks to return to the moderate society envisioned by King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud when the country was founded in 1932.
Religious conservatives are far less powerful than they were a decade ago. Thanks to satellite television and the internet, Saudis have been exposed to different ways of thinking. More than a hundred thousand Saudi men and women returned to the kingdom over the past decade after studying in Western universities on government-funded scholarships.
Last year, the government also began sending teachers abroad to see how Western schools function, a step partly aimed at tackling extremism among educators.
“We are moving in a new direction for education and a new direction for the country,” said Saudi Education Minister Ahmed al-Eissa. He added that new textbooks, scrubbed of vitriol, will be rolled out in the next academic year.
In 2016, the Saudi government stripped the religious police of its power to arrest, the most consequential result of the eroding alliance between the monarchy and the clerical establishment.
The Muslim World League—a body that was once the key vehicle through which Saudi Arabia spread Wahhabi ideology beyond its border—is now led by a moderate cleric, who says promoting greater understanding among faiths is a priority.
“In 1979 our religion was hijacked,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, a former minister of justice, who in a gesture of tolerance routinely encourages the non-Muslim women he meets to remove their headscarves, “Now we are eradicating the roots of extremism.”
During a trip to Europe earlier this year, he became the first head of the Muslim League to meet the pope and visit a synagogue.
Royals have also been targeted. Last month, authorities detained a senior prince, Khaled bin Talal, for opposing the government’s reforms such as the decision to curb the power of the religious police, according to people familiar with the matter.
“He was complaining about the reforms. He thought that would give him [political]credibility,” said a person briefed on the event. The prince, who has limited political clout, is kept at the high-security prison of al-Ha’ir.
Since the clampdown, many clerics have publicly endorsed the social reforms, while others have kept silent. “They are government decisions and it is part of our religion to accept that,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Hodithy, 87, who until his retirement was the chief justice in Asir region.
The government is also setting up a new center to vet the interpretations of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, or hadiths, in a bid to prevent the teachings from being used to justify violence.
“It will purify Islam from any inventions, clean the hadiths from the liars’ deliberate misquotations and present Islam in a better image,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Hassan al-Sheikh, the chairman of the new entity and a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdom’s highest religious body.
In major cities like Riyadh, more Saudi women are choosing colorful robes, known as abayas, instead of the all-black ones they typically wear. Many are allowing headscarves to slip to their shoulders. In the more liberal city of Jeddah, all-female jogging groups run on the waterfront wearing leggings under their tunics.
Alia al-Azmi, a 24-year-old lab technician based in Riyadh, says she hopes to soon be able to discard the face-covering niqab she always wears. “In the future, we’ll look more like Dubai,” she said, as she scrolled through pictures with no covering during a trip abroad. “But here, I have to wear a niqab. I don’t want any of my colleagues to see me.”
After 30 years of religious conservatism, there are still deep pockets of resistance to change. In the Asir region, nearly all single Saudi women appear in public with a black face-covering veil and a black abaya. In Abha, the regional capital, a teenage boy said what mattered to him were jobs, not cinemas, even if they will only screen movies that comply with Shariah, or Islamic law.
“Anything that touches religion, I don’t want to see changed. Men and women mixing, for instance, is not acceptable,” a 55-year-old man from Abha who declined to be named said at an all-male picnic. “Opening up society is dangerous. Everyone is unhappy, but people are too scared to talk about it.”
Even in a conservative enclave like Abha, however, many see social change as an economic necessity.
For Umm Jaber, who sells woven baskets and dried herbs from a stall she runs in Abha’s outdoor market, obtaining a driving license is more about making ends meet: She currently spends around $400 a month on a driver, her biggest expense after rent.
“I just make enough money to cover costs,” says the 58-year-old, who plans to drive herself as soon as she can.
Away from the city, in her home village in southern Asir, she regularly gets behind the wheel to help out with chores like carrying water, dry wood and livestock.
For others, change isn’t coming fast enough. “I haven’t seen any real change in Abha,” says Saeed al-Bishry, a 50-year-old art teacher. “Concerts are happening in Jeddah and Riyadh, not in Abha.”
He said over the past decade the ban on drawing animate beings has gradually loosened. Still, earlier this month, Mr. Saeed asked his 10-year-old students to draw camels. One of them refused. “He drew a landscape instead.”
Write to Margherita Stancati at email@example.com