From Jidda, Nicolai Ouroussoff reports on a Saudi governemnt plan to engineer four new urban centers—what the planners are calling “economic cities”—in the Arabian desert, all to be completed by 2030. This massive endeavor is projected to create over a million new jobs and four million new homes. These new cities, the government claims, will pave the way for a less-oil dependent economic future and will open space for a new class of doctors, engineers, and businessmen to flourish, but the cities have also been designed to effect another sort of social change:

To accomplish this feat the Saudi government says it needs to crack the door open to some sort of Western-style modernity—or at least a softer version of the Islam practiced here, with its strictly enforced separation of the sexes, its severe restrictions on the public lives of women and the ever watchful eye of the religious police.

The idea is to create islands from which change would seep out, drop by drop, without antagonizing powerful conservative forces within the country.

If the plan works, at best it would transform Saudi Arabia into a technologically advanced society controlled by a slightly more tolerant religious autocracy. Or it could provoke militant violence and government crackdowns.

“What they are trying to do is very difficult,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University who has written extensively on Saudi Arabia. “Someone telling you to go pray — that in-your-face religion — that’s not going to be permitted in these cities. It’s a more ecumenical Islam. But it’s a slippery slope. Once you start, you’ve basically opened up the door to a certain degree of diversity and tolerance.”

Read the full article here.