Saudi seeks religious reset as clerical power wanes
Muezzins issuing high-decibel calls to prayer have long been part of Saudi identity, but a crackdown on mosque loudspeakers is among contentious reforms seeking to shake off the Muslim kingdom's austere image.
Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest Muslim sites, has long been associated with a rigid strain of Islam known as Wahhabism that inspired generations of global extremists and left the oil-rich kingdom steeped in conservatism.
But the role of religion faces the biggest reset in modern times as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, spurred by the need to diversify the oil-reliant economy, pursues a liberalisation drive in parallel with a vigorous crackdown on dissent.
Chipping away at a key pillar of its Islamic identity, the government last month ordered that mosque loudspeakers limit their volume to one-third of their maximum capacity and not broadcast full sermons, citing concerns over noise pollution.
In a country home to tens of thousands of mosques, the move triggered an online backlash with the hashtag "We demand the return of mosque speakers" gaining traction.
It also sparked calls to ban loud music in restaurants, once taboo in the kingdom but now common amid liberalisation efforts, and to fill mosques in such large numbers that authorities are forced to permit loudspeakers for those gathering outside.
But authorities are unlikely to budge, as economic reforms for a post-oil era take precedence over religion, observers say.
"The country is re-establishing its foundations," Aziz Alghashian, a politics lecturer at the University of Essex, told AFP.
"It's becoming an economically driven country that is investing substantial effort in trying to appear more appealing -- or less intimidating -- to investors and tourists."
In the most significant change that began even before the rise of Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia neutered its once-feared religious police, who once chased people out of malls to go and pray and berated anyone seen mingling with the opposite sex.
In what was once unthinkable, some shops and restaurants now remain open during the five daily Muslim prayers.
As clerical power wanes, preachers are endorsing government decisions they once vehemently opposed -- including allowing women to drive, the reopening of cinemas and an outreach to Jews.
Saudi Arabia is revising school textbooks to scrub well-known references denigrating non-Muslims as "swines" and "apes".
The practice of non-government advisor Ali Shihabi recently told US media outlet Insider that allowing a church was on "the to-do list of the leadership".
"It's not an exaggeration to say that Saudi Arabia has entered a post-Wahhabi era, though the exact religious contours of the state are still in flux," Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told AFP.
"Religion no longer has veto power over the economy, social life and foreign policy."