Saudi Arabia: reality check
The recent meeting between the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah confirmed the solid relations between Riyadh and Washington. Most Saudis, however, care more about the situation at home, under a new ruler who claims to want to change society and the role of women, to combat poverty and to promote greater freedom.
By Alain Gresh
WHEN the deputy minister of information asked me in 2002, “Will you talk about Saudi Arabia objectively?” the question seemed almost menacing. A few years later, journalists enjoy much greater freedom to travel across the country and meet anyone they wish, even intellectuals the authorities have forbidden to speak to the press.
This time a female journalist in the Jeddah head office of the English language Saudi Gazette asked: “Will you talk about Saudi Arabia objectively?” She wore a headscarf and the lower part of her face was concealed, but there was nothing timid about her attitude or the way she forced me on the defensive. She had just upset the authorities by publishing an article on choppy relations between Saudi Arabia and Libya; they put diplomatic relations on hold for several months. She was covering the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit meeting in Mecca, talking to heads of state and political leaders.
So how do I answer the question? How can I be sure of giving an objective picture of a country that is culturally so different, with so much regional diversity and so many identities? The language is not an obstacle for me, but how am I to rise above deep prejudice and facile simplification?
However eager I may be to highlight social and political change, progress and growing debate, the facts can’t be disregarded. Saudi Arabia has a set menu for foreign journalists. They meet political leaders well versed in empty language, westernised academics and business executives who speak English and share the visitors’ world view. These encounters result in articles that all say the same thing. So how to give a true account?
Islam is at the core of Saudi Arabia, influencing its way of life and its world outlook. Superficial observation may suggest that Wahhabism is adequate as an all-encompassing description. But the country is home to religious schools representing a wide range of traditions, including Sufis, and has a lively Shia minority. Far from being uniform, even Sunni Wahhabism has its own internal debate and discord, which has developed in recent years. But to appreciate the diversity, one must listen carefully to men and women who operate inside another system of values, use different words from ours, and are understandably wary of the western media which they consider, sometimes rightly, to be hostile to Islam.
Saudi Arabia, which has just joined the World Trade Organisation, is surfing on a wave of rising oil prices. Earnings in 2005 reached almost $0.5bn a day. The prosperity and economic drive is palpable. The value of the stock market doubled in 2004, doing just as well last year (1), and it now represents a source of income for many families. By December 5.7 million Saudis had spent almost $2bn on shares in the national oil company Yanpet (at Yanbu).
The upper and middle classes are reasonably accessible to westerners. But we know almost nothing about the others, especially the poor, whose existence the government has finally acknowledged. There are 6.3 million immigrants (to 19.7 million Saudis), and they represent most of the workforce.
It is hard to grasp the scale of social problems. Without detailed statistics, a trade union movement or even the beginnings of indigenous social sciences, it is difficult to assess poverty, although the press provides unexpected help. Over recent years - more since King Abdullah came to the throne on 1 August 2005 - the newspapers have started to provide regular cover of unemployment, poverty, prostitution and drugs. The Aids epidemic has prompted several public initiatives; on 1 December, World Aids Day, health workers were spotted handing out leaflets in Jeddah.
Will the durable influx of oil revenue enable the country to solve problems in the labour market, education and healthcare? The first challenge will be to find work for everyone, especially tens of thousands of young people and the growing number of women looking for jobs. Their demands and frustrations will be important in the future.
The spectacle in the streets of Riyadh on Wednesday evenings is impressive. There are thousands of listless youths with nowhere to go, in the absence of theatres, cinemas or anywhere to meet females. They are obviously bored, all the more since the internet and satellite television have opened their eyes to international culture. It is hardly surprising that problems of delinquency and drug addiction are rising. At the weekend some seek an outlet in Bahrain, the island kingdom connected to Saudi Arabia by a gigantic bridge; 11 million travellers crossed it in 2004 and the number increases steadily. They go in search of entertainment they cannot find at home.
Some youths, and not necessarily the most underprivileged, have chosen a more dangerous route. In the 1980s many answered the call to arms in Afghanistan, responding to appeals by their own government and assisted by the United States. Their younger brothers followed, outraged by massacres in Bosnia or Chechnya, and trained in the Taliban camps. Several thousand more are now in Iraq.
They originally took up arms to fight the Soviet or US enemy but some subsequently turned against the Saudi regime, particularly after it appealed for US help in August 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Since then there has been more talk of extremism, jihad and the role of Islam, particularly after May 2003 when a wave of attacks hit the kingdom (2). The final communiqué of the OIC conference in Mecca, on 7 and 8 December, stated that “Islam is a religion of moderation (wassatiyyah) which rejects bigotry, extremism and fanaticism”.
Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, one of Saudi Arabia’s most popular preachers, embodies this change more than anyone. During Ramadan his daily broadcast on the MBC satellite channel proved a huge success, particularly as he did not restrict himself to religious matters. He addressed more personal topics such as beauty, prompting criticism from conservatives. We met him outside his house, on his return from the afternoon prayer meeting he leads in a nearby mosque. In the hall a private tutor was instructing the sheikh’s three young children: “Education is the most important thing,” said al-Awdah. His office is sparsely furnished with a prayer mat, a bookcase and some drawings of trees hanging on the wall.
His charisma was apparent as he prepared unroasted coffee, dates and chocolates, all part of Saudi “tradition and civilisation”, as he put it. Al-Awdah was one of the clerics behind the sahwa (awakening) movement. At the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s it contributed to renewing Islam, enabling it to wrest the initiative from the liberals and modernists who seemed to have gained the upper hand at the beginning of the 1980s.
With the first Gulf war, in 1990-91, the focus shifted from culture to politics, and the sahwa turned its attention to relations with the US and the situation in Saudi Arabia. The authorities finally arrested al-Awdah in 1994 and he spent five years in prison. He has changed since, though it is hard to say whether it is because of his detention, the suicidal tendencies of the jihadists, the 9/11 attacks or the more liberal attitude adopted by Abdullah, then crown prince, well before he came to the throne. Although he is still deeply attached to his dogma, the sheikh’s sermons are more moderate.
He was critical of the warlike spin that some put on religious texts, and said: “The Qur’an offers guidance on relations with non-Muslims, but ordinary people sometimes misread words or take them out of context. In the sura entitled ‘Muhammad’, verse 4 reads: ‘If you encounter those who disbelieve, you may strike the necks.’ But it is impossible to understand this passage outside the context of war. Here ‘encounter’ means to fight. We should remember the history of Islam. At the time of the prophet . . . Muslims were under attack. But they had a guide and did not seek vengeance, as it was contrary to the teaching of Islam. Do you know how many people were killed in the fighting during the 23 years he preached? Between 250 and 300 in 20 battles. Nowadays the tiniest skirmish claims many more victims.”
IN JULY 2003 al-Awdah took part in the first national dialogue instigated by Abdullah (3). He met Shia religious leaders in public, a brave gesture because many Sunnis see them as heretics, even as non-Muslims.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Gassim is another example of the same tolerant attitude. He contributed to the sahwa but has since gone further along the road towards reform. The French academic Stéphane Lacroix refers to him, among others, as an “Islamo-liberal” (4), but most of those concerned reject the term, reluctant to distance themselves from the Islamic consensus. Al-Gassim is an inspiration to the young, who after flirting with radicalism, are now looking for ways of mixing Islam and political liberalism.
He runs a law firm which publishes studies on law and sharia. He spoke calmly but with conviction: “The most important [change] is that religious matters are now open to debate. The state has always wanted to control the religious institution, now it is keen to open it to the outside world. All the more so because the death of Sheikh bin Baz and Sheikh bin Uthaimeen, two ulema of undisputed authority, created a vacuum that no one else can fill. It makes it more difficult for the authorities to use the institution (as they did in 1990 when they appealed for US military assistance) because it has less credibility. The Council of Grand Ulema had to agree to some of its members retiring, before their death, which was unheard of.”
Khaled works at the ministry of religious affairs. He runs an advertising agency and works as a journalist in his spare time. He belongs to a new generation of orthodox Muslims who seek change. A year and a half ago, with friends, he started Al-Sakina (tranquillity), an internet-based campaign aimed at young people who had yielded to radical ideas.
“We have had 63,000 hours’ debate involving 1,000 people. We managed to change 590 of them to different degrees. Most of the time discussions are anonymous, for obvious reasons of security. Some of those involved are scared. We explain the concept of jihad, what sharia means, and the attitude Muslims should adopt to others. Unfortunately even liberals sometimes see everything in black and white. According to them, we have to choose between liberal values and Islam. But we disagree. We are Muslims and liberals.” However, it is hard to convert people to dialogue. The fifth national dialogue forum, “Us and the others: a national vision for interacting with international cultures”, was set up by Abdullah when he was still crown prince. The meeting in Abha in December brought together several dozen intellectuals and heads of NGOs and religious bodies. For the first time the discussions were broadcast live on television.
“We will have to start by learning to talk to each other,” said Suhayla Zayn al-Abidin, shortly before she left for the conference. “It’s not for us to decide who is kafir [an unbeliever] and who is not. Only God can decide that.” Critics have accused her of being secular, tantamount to being an atheist. Yet it would be difficult to find anyone more traditional, both politically - she condemns “Zionist plots” - and in her respect for religious rules. But when she starts talking about women’s rights there is no stopping her.
“Islam”, she says, “gives women substantial rights, more rights than western women have. But traditions and patterns of thought that have nothing to do with religion are predominant in Saudi Arabia. Women are entitled to use their money. That was already the case with the wives of the prophet. They carried out transactions without consulting him, but we need a tutor (mahram). What we demand is a return to true Islam. The government is on our side. The resistance comes from society.”
The position of women is changing, but Saudi Arabia is still lagging. Nowhere else is there such rigid gender segregation. Only a tiny proportion of women are in work and, for many formalities, they need to be assisted by their father or husband. Still, some real progress has been made over the past two years. Women can obtain an identity card without their mahram’s authorisation. They are also better represented in business and lead official delegations on foreign visits.
The recent election at the Jeddah chamber of commerce and industry was a historic moment. The vote was originally set for September but, after his accession, the new king postponed it several times so that women candidates could compete. Two months later than planned, despite a hostile campaign by several imams, two women were elected (out of 12 representatives). The minister for trade and industry appointed two more women to sit on the board (out of six appointed members).
Dr Hatoon al-Fassi, a liberal intellectual, was delighted. She works at the university but has been banned from teaching for the past five years, without knowing why. She is a regular contributor to the press and speaks English and French. She spoke about her trips to France, where she decided to wear a headscarf when travelling abroad. She said: “We have a positive opinion of the new king, who has made some important gestures. On coming to the throne he met two women’s groups, about 40 people on each occasion. The first group was of officials from the ministry of education, the second of intellectuals. They came to swear a baya [oath of allegiance]. It was unprecedented and they even broadcast parts of the ceremony on television.”
Saudi society is growing more transparent and problems of marital violence are slowly surfacing. A report published by the National Human Rights Association noted that out of 5,000 cases brought to its attention, a third concerned marital violence, now reported in the press. Newspapers in Jeddah have started reporting cases of mothers abandoning their newborn babies, a disturbing trend.
Although the scope of social debate is broadening, political change is proving more erratic. It depends on the goodwill of the king, but the rules of political process are so vague that any gains may be lost tomorrow. The municipal elections are a good example of uncertainty. After being announced several times in recent years the elections were finally held between February and April last year in the regions, with voters electing half the representatives on the 178 municipal councils. The authorities appointed the other half.
The Eastern Province witnessed the liveliest campaign. Qatif, an old port on the Gulf, is a Shia political and religious stronghold. A total of 148 candidates competed in five constituencies. Out of 120,000 potential voters, 44,000 registered and 35,000 voted, one of the best showings. This area, which is close to Iraq, has longstanding political traditions, in contrast to the rest of the kingdom. In the 1950s all the political trends that affected Iraq also left their mark here: Arab nationalism, communism and Islamism.
“I polled 24,000 votes,” said Jafar al-Shayeb, a Shia and a successful candidate. “The election campaign was very short, but the preparations lasted longer. Some local committees made a genuine effort to explain to people how to register and vote. They picked them up at the mosque to register or took them to the polling station. About 100 meetings were held locally. In our constituency, at Tarut, we had three debates featuring the candidates. Each one presented his platform, then the public was able to ask questions. The authorities did not meddle with the vote at all.”
But once the poll ended all over the country, it took eight months to publish the regulations governing council proceedings and their largely advisory prerogatives. Two weeks later the government appointed the remaining members of the municipal councils, in many cases selecting public figures on the basis of their ability. The council in Qatif elected al-Shayeb to chair proceedings (the mayor is appointed). Elsewhere the appointed mayor also chairs council meetings.
Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar wears the white turban of Shia dignitaries. Though youthful in appearance he can look back on a long career as an activist. He fled in 1980, after the Shia insurrection that followed the 1979 Iranian revolution. He only came home in 1995 after signing an agreement with the monarchy. His freedom of movement has improved but he is still subject to changes in the political climate. Some of his books are published in Saudi Arabia, others only in Lebanon.
AL-SAFFAR emphasised his concern at the discrimination the Shia community still suffers. “It must end. The national dialogue certainly removed some barriers between Sunni and Shia but we went no further than debate. There is a lot of pressure from conservatives in the religious institution to oppose such meetings. Sometimes on our side too. I have met important Sunni sheikhs, such as Salman al-Awdah. He has adopted a positive attitude and I think he has changed. But he is under pressure from the conservatives and he does not want to lose the influence he enjoys. We need joint initiatives to facilitate change, both among the Sunni and Shia.”
He concluded: “We are not advocating rapid change. We have no desire to turn the country into another Algeria. But the authorities must allow the groups to voice their concerns, creating a situation more conducive to reform. They must establish rules for political life and let in any forces that wish to take part, which in turn will make them act more responsibly. For the time being there is no definite project and the few positive signals we have seen are no more than ink marks on paper.”
Many intellectuals and militants share this gloomy outlook. At the end of 2003 a largely Islamist group published an appeal for constitutional reform. Professor Abdullah al-Hamed, one of the group’s spokesmen, acknowledges that the aim was to assert their existence as an independent movement. He said: “We were asking for a shift from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The Riyadh appeal was a call for tolerance, unity and humanitarian values. It was mainly the work of people inspired by Islam, because I thought it was important that a religious group in favour of democracy should state its case. The aim was to pull the rug out from under the feet of those calling for the overthrow of the regime and to quell the violence. We consider that a state cannot be Islamic unless it is democratic and governed by a constitution.”
But did the calls for constitutional reform go too far in the eyes of the authorities? The movement, formed in 2002-03 with the tacit support of the crown prince, paid a high price for its appeal.
The poet Ali al-Domaini said: “They had no right to arrest us, because we had not broken any laws. They disregarded the rights of the defence and the police even confiscated from our prison cells the texts we had prepared for our defence. Fortunately our families had copies. Then the judge insisted on the trial being in camera.” The first day of proceedings prompted articles in the press that were highly critical of the government. Some were posted on the internet.
Three members of the group received heavy prison sentences: six years for Professor Matruk al-Falih (an Arab nationalist), seven years for Hamed (an Islamist) and nine for Domaini (a former communist). None had committed a crime, none had fomented violence; all had advocated peaceful reform.
Why did the crown prince allow this to happen? The most common explanation highlights the power struggle within the regime and the difficulty Abdullah had establishing his authority. The question is whether, now that he is on the throne, his position is any stronger, boosted by his enormous popularity (his decision to drop the title “His Majesty” and the custom of kissing his hand was much appreciated).
“After our release,” said al-Domaini, “we wanted a private meeting with the king. We wanted to establish a stronger relationship with him, to encourage him to carry on along the still uncertain road to reform. We were only able to see him in public.
“Each of us spoke briefly to say we were travelling along the same road to reform, hand in hand, heart to heart. The sovereign replied that we were good citizens, that we were his brothers and his sons.” Al-Domaini hopes he will soon be able to obtain a passport and travel again.