The representative of the Egyptian Rose Alyousef Magazine and the Kuwaiti Al-Rei AlAam newspaper in Egypt made a comprehensive interview with Jafar Alshayeb over the recent political developments in the region. It included sectarian tensions issues, Shiite political progress, Shiite- Salafi relations and political reform in Saudi Arabia.
In the beginning, we would like you to provide us more details about your academic interests.
I studied Economics in the United States, I am a writer, and activist in human rights and civil society issues, as well as concerned with political development in Arab societies; especially in Gulf states. I was the Chairman of Qatif Municipal Council in Saudi Arabia for the first session since 2005, also I am a member of the National Society for Human Rights, and a regular participant in many conferences concerned with human rights and civil society issues in general.
About sectarian dialogue in Saudi Arabia, how do you evaluate the progress of such dialogue that aims for the Kingdom success?
For a long time, there was not any kind of dialogue or communications between the followers of different Islamic sects, and it is worth to mention that there are seven different sects; three of them are Shiite and the other four are Sunni. The absence of interfaith dialogue in Saudi Arabia was because there was no need for it due to harmony and coexistence throughout the history between the followers of those different sects.
However, since the dominance of one single sect that did not deal with other sects in moderation, everyone, lately, sensed the importance of openness to other groups in order to create a state of social stability which encouraged making initiatives in this field.
Who sponsored this initiative?
Actually, this idea was introduced by some Shiite leaderships to establish dialogue with different religious figures; whether Salafis or others, from various Saudi regions. Then, the National Dialogue initiative came up which was approved by King Abdullah Al Saud; the Crown Prince at that time. This initiative contributed in setting
common grounds for communications between different parties. Because of regional political developments, all parties felt that there is a press need for communications and rapprochement in order to maintain a state of stability in the society.
So, this step was made before more than two years. How do you evaluate what was accomplished in this phase?
Yes, those initiatives for dialogue started since 1995, and included many intellectual figures in different life aspects; whether social, political or religious. I think that it had contributed in reducing the tension of sectarian discourse, highly minimized the verdicts; fatwas, against others, and set common grounds for dialogue, communications and even cooperation.
Some of the most distinctive outcomes to these initiatives are making common programs and activities like issuing books and studies concerned with national issues as tolerance, sectarian dialogue and national unity. Those programs and activities were conducted by intellectual writers and researchers of various sects.
Beside that, there are ongoing meetings between intellectuals, and several cultural forums around the Kingdom in which social issues are discussed with frankness and transparency. I think that these initiatives really have an effective role in Saudi Arabia, and I can say that the state of sectarian tension outside Saudi Arabia is more intense; which is contrary to the past situation.
How is that?
It is noted that the statements of Sheikh Alqardhawi; for example, were not from inside Saudi Arabia and resulted in many provocative attitudes towards Shiites. Although those statements left negative impacts among the Saudi society, the reactions were less intense than they were outside Saudi Arabia. This condition indicates that such meetings and dialogues really have an effective role in reducing tension within the Saudi society.
Is the dialogue is just about discussing Islamic jurisprudence differences or is it interested in national and political reform?
Some people are trying to devote it for discussing doctrinal issues only which leads to more complications whereas the aim is to find a state of harmony, consistency and acceptance between various social groups despite the differences between the diverse religious sects.
In order to make dialogue succeed, it is important to overstep sectarian and doctrinal discussions. It is, also, very essential to accept the others and admit their rights in order to activate a constructive dialogue disregarding unproductive sectarian discussions.
Achieving this was not that easy, how long did it take?
Of course it was not easy at all. Even today, there are still some people from both parties who try to make it about doctrinal and historical issues, but intellectuals and active religious figures seek to overstep all of this. I believe that all intellectual and cultural contributions that have an effective role in forming cultural discourse among Shiites were very significant. The local movement of issuing cultural works and publications has been very active lately. Most of those publications call for openness and expanding the domains of dialogue to deal with the current political developments in the region effectively.
You talked about the stands of both sects; Salafis and Shiites, towards dialogue and how they were complied with transparency and frankness. What are the most prominent obstacles that hinder dialogue?
One of the most prominent obstacles that hinders dialogue in Saudi Arabia is its confinement to elites without interacting public and intellectual individuals. I believe that the conservatives have an essential role in controlling communications and openness movement, and they, also, exert pressures on religious leaders to take up conservative stands. I think that it is necessary to frankly declare all effective initiatives in this field which would encourage leaderships to contribute more in promoting dialogue and communications in the society.
Do you mean that dialogue is now incapable of progressing?
Yes it is in some cases but, on the other hand, there are other cases in which clear statements were issued. Sheikh AbdulMuhsin AlObaikan who is a member of the Shura Council and adviser in the Ministry of Justice, for instance, talked about his ongoing meetings with prominent Shiite figures as Sheikh Hasan Alsaffar. He mentioned the issues that were discussed in those meetings and their anticipations to release a joint document to be presented to other prominent religious leaders. However, such stands must be adopted by the rest of religious figures; whether Shiites or Sunnis, in order to inform the society about the importance of such initiatives that contribute in rapprochement and stability of the society.
What do you think the impacts of some statements; such as Sheikh Yousef AlQardhawi statements, over the internal Saudi Shiite-Sunni dialogue?
Such statements, which absolutely I do not agree with, result in more sectarian tensions . These statements which rupture the society must be controlled by the grand religious leaderships in Muslims world. The region is subjects to political transformations which requires finding solutions to save the society from the dangers of political disputes.
Let's talk more openly. It is known that most Sunnis in the region fear of Iran exploiting sectarian disputes for spreading Shi'ism in the region, how do you view this situation?
I think that this topic has been over exaggerated. Shiites in the Arab World do not represent the majority, therefore, there is no need for fear from them and Shiites would not invade or attack Sunni regions.
New political powers had appeared in the region as in Iraq and Lebanon due to the political transformations. Unfortunately, Arab governments did deal effectively with such developments; they, always, tend to create obstacles that hinder any positive transformation like imagining the presence of enemies.
It is common that Shiites in different Arab states are disloyal to their countries and allied to their religious authorities in Iran and Iraq.
This is not true. It is necessary to differentiate between religious authorities in the Muslims world; whether for Shiites or Sunnis, like Alazhar in Egypt, the religious institution in Saudi Arabia and the Shiite religious authorities in Iran and Iraq. All of those are high religious centers which Muslims of different sects refer to.
Each sect; whether Shiite or Sunni, follows such authorities in religious matters but not in issues that have to do with political stands or allegiance. Moreover, there is no single incident in history shows that Shiites were not allied to their countries.
After the invasion of Iraq, Iraqi Shiites had a proponent stand towards Iran which used them in achieving its interests in Iraq.
Actually, this is not accurate. Iraqis, whether Sunnis or Shiites, were ruled by a repressive dictatorial regime and they resisted it using all of the available potentials. Iran was one of the notable states that supported the Iraqi opposition since its war against the former Iraqi regime. However, the opposition could not be significant political power until it had the chance to be so through the support of regional states as Iran and Turkey whereas Arab states did not had an influential role in dealing effectively with the developments in Iraq.
I agree with you that Iran has a major role in Iraq but I disagree with you in its effectiveness, what do you think?
I did not say that the role of Iran was effective or not, but I hoped that Arab states; especially the neighboring ones to Iraq, had an effective role in supporting Iraqis and strengthening its infrastructure. Many Arab states did not accept the success of Iraq transformation experience because they feared of being required to implement such democratic transformation by their populations.
You have indicated some Arab political systems that did not support Iraq. Do you think that the U.S made Iraq a great democratic state as it is perceived by some Iraqis?
No. As I said, the situation in Iraq was not endurable; it was a state where repression and tyranny were prevalent which developed a press need for change. Obviously, this situation caused many problems due to the mismanagement of U.S administration which consequently resulted in sectarian conflicts, regional tensions and local disputes.
Linda Anderson, the well-known American researcher, had stated in the conference that possessing oil and ensuring the security of Israel are the essential motivators to the U.S in the region after the demise of the Soviet Union. In the light of this recognition, what you think about Iraq invasion, and to what extent do you agree with this statement?
Absolutely, the presence of American forces in the Gulf region; particularly in Iraq, would make it easy to the U.S to reach the sources of oil, and eliminating a system that used to threaten Israel would, also, serve its interests.
Some believe that Iraq wants to run an Islamic project whereas others believe that it is a regional Persian project, to what version you tend to believe in?
I think that every state in the region has its own strategies; especially if it was under the siege and international pressures. In such situation, the state would develop various means to achieve its interests and ambitions, and this is applied to Iran and any other state in the same situation.
The kingdom was known of being so conservative, how do you evaluate political reform in Saudi Arabia today?
Many significant development have occurred during this period. Some of them were the result of social developments which began since the seventies of the last century during which education had progresses and groups of businessmen and various social potentials had emerged. Moreover, openness in media had developed a set of transformations in different fields whether in culture, media or in the field of women work.
Many contemporary issues were discussed and a remarkable transformation in freedom of information had occurred.
Reform in the Saudi political system; whether in the State's institutions or in its legislative, legal and constitutional structure, is the slowest field that is being developed in the Kingdom, do you agree with me?
This is true. political development is still the least field developed among other fields in the life of the Saudi society; reform progress in the political field is way too far from other fields whether economic, educational or social. They are all clearly imbalanced which hampers the march of political reform.
When expression means are limited and incapable of comprehending social transformations, this may lead to the emergence of repression and protest cases, and, sometimes, result in cases of violence and tensions.
Therefore, it is necessary to have a balanced reform plan that could comprehend all transformations and that might provide various channels for participating in decision-making.
Some refer to the vitality of the legislative field in regard to economic matters in compare with the insignificance of legislations regarding political conditions; especially in human rights organizations, do you agree with this?
The Kingdom seeks to achieve more openness and participation, but administrations of different governmental institutions hinder the implementation of those goals. There are many decisions were made by the Saudi leadership but executing them were hampered which led to loss of many economic opportunities.
It is worth mentioning that the initiative of establishing human rights institutions like the National Society for Human Rights was a significant step. They play a major role in documenting complaints, studying some social phenomena and monitoring governmental agencies to avoid violations.
You have talked about some human rights organizations. I believe that there is one society in Saudi Arabia that hold the responsibility of such matters, do think that it is adequate?
No, of course not. There are the National Society for Human Rights and Human Rights Commission. The Society was established before the Commission, and it has an effective role in spreading the culture of human rights beside reporting complaints and visiting detention centers and prisons whereas the Commission works particularly on monitoring the performance of governmental agencies in regard to human rights issues.
Those tow establishments perform a significant and great work; however, it is not enough because there are a tremendous number of cases which must be addressed. Moreover, there are many social phenomena and serious violations which requires establishing specialized institutions like domestic violence, foreign labor issues and discrimination. This matter was discussed in the meetings of the National Society for Human Rights with officials in order to have other societies and legal institutions that could help in achieving the goals.
Do what extent do you believe that Shiites in Saudi Arabia feel that they are marginalized?
I must confirm that ethnic and religious diversity faces many problems in all of the Arab World; not only in Saudi Arabia. However, in the Kingdom, it is more clear due to the absence of the principle of citizenship and ignorance of minorities rights. Therefore Saudi Shiites have a set of concerns and problems which require to be addressed by adopting the principle of citizenship and equality for all.
Do you think that the international role of Saudi Arabia equalizes its reformative role inside the Kingdom?
There are many significant steps made inside Saudi Arabia but it might not be equal to its foreign initiatives.
However, as I said, there is a social and cultural movement in Saudi Arabia but it needs to be employed properly to ensure the progress of the society and the stability of social conditions in the kingdom.