Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom Divided
by Alain Gresh
The Nation magazine, May 22, 2006
The presence of fifteen Saudis among the
nineteen 9/11 hijackers marked a turning point in the way Saudi
Arabia was perceived in the United States, a shift perhaps best
summed up by the expression "Saudi bashing." Books about
the country, which till then had been rare, multiplied, and showed
more propaganda than serious study. After arduous researches,
American investigative journalists discovered that Saudi Arabia
was a theocratic country, that women were segregated, that fundamental
freedoms weren't respected, that there were no elections. One
neoconservative actually called for military operations against
the country, which was regarded as the main propagator of "Islamic
terrorism," and even suggested partition, with the eastern
region--oil-rich and mainly Shiite--to be placed under US control.
Abdelhamed al-Ghathami, a professor of
literary theory at King Saud University in Riyadh who readily
quotes Derrida and Foucault, is still surprised at what he discovered
while teaching in the United States in the 1990s. "Americans
didn't know anything about Saudi Arabia. They thought the country
was just a desert and some Bedouins. They didn't know we had cities,
or that middle classes existed. After September 11 they saw us
as the quintessence of evil. Our entire society is identified
with terrorism. When the Japanese Red Army carried out its attacks,
did people make Japan bear all the responsibility? This simplistic
view feeds terrorism, since radical groups can claim that the
United States is targeting not terrorism but our society as a
whole--Arabs, Islam itself. Even more so when we hear Americans
calling for the nuclear bombing of Mecca, or denouncing the Prophet
Muhammad as a terrorist."
Saudi Arabia deserves better than this
simplistic treatment. One must be aware not just of its political
system and of the place of Islam but also of the changes the country
is undergoing. To understand Saudi Arabia, one must first examine
the society and its complex relationships to power.
The accession to the throne of Crown Prince
Abdullah last July, after a long period of regency during King
Fahd's illness, has raised people's hopes greatly, all the more
so since the country is riding a wave of rising oil prices: Revenue
from oil more than doubled between 2003 and 2005, to more than
$500 million a day. The stock market, which shot up by 100 percent
in 2004 and by another 100 percent in 2005, has become a source
of income for a growing number of households (even if the index
has fallen 32 percent from its February peak, and 22.5 percent
from its close at the end of 2005). In December 2005 5.7 million
Saudis bought shares in the National Petrochemical Company in
Yanbu, for a total of almost $2 billion.
The country has changed profoundly since
the first oil crisis, in 1973-74. Each day, Riyadh nibbles up
a few more acres of sand. Its wide avenues, almost highways, unfurl
in every direction. "Just a few years ago there was nothing
here," people will tell you in the heart of an ultramodern
neighborhood, a carbon copy of an American one, with huge malls,
luxury boutiques, Internet cafes and McDonald's. In a few dozen
years real estate prices have multiplied many times over. Tall
buildings are rare; those who have the means--and there are many--prefer
the open spaces around detached houses to highrise apartment buildings.
Only mosques raise their minarets to attack the sky. No statue
of an "immortal leader" or "supreme savior"
breaks the symmetry of the crossroads; here, only God is worshiped.
Day after day, a thousand more people
crowd into the kingdom's capital. It has grown from 111,000 in
1950 to 5.5 million today. In two generations urbanization has
changed the face of the Arabian Peninsula and has transformed
its nomads into a sedentary population: In 1970 49 percent of
the inhabitants of Saudi Arabia lived in cities; by 2005 almost
89 percent did. Thanks to its oil resources, the kingdom has undergone
other mutations. Infant mortality, which was almost 170 per thousand
at the beginning of the 1960s, has fallen to 10.8 per thousand
in 2006. Whereas only 2 percent of girls went to school in 1960,
by 2000 94 percent of young women aged 15-24 were literate, and
they now constitute more than half of all students--even though
they are confined to single-sex universities.
It is difficult to measure the extent
of Saudi Arabia's social problems. The absence of detailed statistics,
the ban on organized trade unions and, more generally, the confused
stammerings of the local social science institutions make the
evaluation of poverty difficult, even if the press provides unexpected
aid. For some years now--even more so since the accession to the
throne of Abdullah, an apostle of moderate reformism--the daily
papers have regularly reported social problems: unemployment,
poverty, prostitution, drugs, family violence and so on. Even
AIDS has been the subject of public initiatives: On December 1,
the worldwide day to mark the fight against the disease, ambulances
could be seen in Jeddah distributing information pamphlets. The
place of the royal family and its monopolization of power remain
taboo subjects, as does religion to a lesser extent. But satellite
television--especially the Al Jazeera network, based in nearby
Qatar--and the Internet have opened a huge window for Saudi subjects
and have made them more open to controversial debate.
Despite the new wealth, a major fraction
of society, both Saudi and immigrant, have trouble balancing their
budgets at the end of the month. Saudi cab drivers, especially
"clandestine" ones, allow one to grasp a chunk of this
reality. They allow one to see the country from below, to glimpse
the lives of people who can't dream of traveling abroad or speculating
on the stock market, who don't own any of the fabulous detached
houses that line the cities' avenues, hidden from view by high
walls. Those who accost potential customers at the airport generally
have other jobs: as civil servants, white-collar workers, even
Ahmed is a first-year economics student.
Originally from Jizaan, in the south, he came to Riyadh to live
with an uncle and some cousins. To make ends meet, he drives a
taxi whenever he doesn't have classes. "Life has gotten harder
the past few years," he complains. Although he misses his
native region, which he revisits regularly, he is clearheaded.
"Here, lots of things are free, especially schooling and
health insurance," he tells me. He has great confidence in
King Abdullah, whose popularity is at its height (his renunciation
of the title "His Majesty," as well as hand-kissing,
were greatly appreciated). The new king increased the salaries
of employees and civil servants by 15 percent when he came to
the throne, an indispensable measure, because salaries had been
trailing far behind inflation. But even now a civil servant cannot,
in general, live on his salary alone.
In Riyadh the official taxis are many;
it's probably the only capital in the world where one can haggle
over the fare on the meter. The drivers are mostly Pakistani or
Indian, and have lived far from home for many years, without being
able to bring their families over. They complain more about the
contempt to which they are often subjected and the total dependence
in which they are kept by their employers--who decide whether
they can obtain temporary residency status--than about their wages.
Their problems, however, are starting to be discussed openly.
The National Association for Individual Rights, founded two years
ago by the authorities, proposes that immigrants who have been
in the region for more than ten years be naturalized. One of its
leaders, Hammad Suhail Abidin, explains that some of them "have
always lived here, don't speak any other language, don't know
any other country. It is unfair that they risk being expelled."
Discussion of this issue has permitted the adoption of new legislation
protecting domestic servants, all of them foreign, but it has
also evoked racism, especially in Jeddah, where many illegal immigrants
arrive under cover of pilgrimage to Mecca. And repression has
intensified: In Jeddah, during October alone 14,000 illegal immigrants
Moreover, a new sword of Damocles is held
above immigrants' heads: the "Saudi-ization" of manual
labor, which aims to replace foreign laborers with Saudi citizens.
This plan is now being systematically implemented: Businesses
must hire an increasing number of Saudi employees. These plans
are being fought by businessmen and -women, who complain that
young Saudis are not well trained and above all are not ready
to subject themselves to even minimal work discipline. Some business
owners report that they have Saudis on their payrolls simply to
meet the quotas. One businessman from Jeddah, aware of his responsibilities
toward the country's future, found an original solution: "Since
we don't pay taxes, we created a fund for young Saudis. So we
pay about a hundred of them simply for coming in and getting trained."
The 1990s and the beginning of the twenty-first
century, when oil prices had collapsed, were lean times for Saudi
Arabia. The education and health infrastructures, which were constructed
in haste in the 1970s, entered a period of crisis. There are not
enough universities for the tens of thousands of kids pouring
out of the high schools each year, and youth unemployment has
grown as a result of an unprecedented demographic explosion: By
2006 the population exceeded 27 million, with more than half under
19 and more than a quarter foreign laborers (who represent two-thirds
of the manual labor force). The 2006 budget, which has just been
adopted, aims to tackle these problems. Exceptional efforts are
planned in the realm of public investment, especially in education,
which absorbs more than a quarter of the total budget (construction
of three universities and 2,673 schools, renovation of 2,000 others),
and health (creation of twenty-four new hospitals, which will
be added to the eighty-nine in the process of completion). The
first challenge will be to provide a job for everyone. At the
beginning of January the Labor Department claimed that unemployment
among men was only 5 percent, far from the current independent
estimates of about 20 percent. The expectations, desires and frustrations
of tens of thousands of young men who enter the labor market every
year, and of the hundreds of thousands of young women hoping for
employment, will in part determine the future of the country.
It's enough to watch these thousands of
idle young people hanging out in Riyadh on Wednesday night, before
the Thursday-Friday weekend, with no meeting places that can be
shared by both sexes, to get a sense of their boredom. Although
international culture is flooding the country through the Internet
and satellite television, there's still not a single movie theater
in the kingdom. Here too the debate is fierce, with one editorialist
recently wondering: "Is no one watching the satellite channels,
financed by Saudi funds, that broadcast films twenty-four hours
a day, Arab and foreign, old and new?... Will projecting them
in movie theaters make us into a 'modern' society?"
There is nothing surprising in the fact
that, with boredom never far away, juvenile delinquency and drug
addiction are getting worse. On weekends many young Saudis go
to Bahrain, an island kingdom connected to Saudi Arabia by a giant
bridge, for the entertainment they are deprived of in their own
country. Eleven million travelers crossed the bridge in 2004.
"In neighboring countries a family has enough options to
attend movies and theaters, or book fairs, while we invent new
ways to smuggle in entertainment magazines," wrote a journalist
in the Saudi Gazette.
Other young people--not necessarily the
most disadvantaged--have taken a much more dangerous path. Many
left in the 1980s to go fight the Communist enemy in Afghanistan,
in response to a summons from their government and with the help
of the United States. In later years people who were outraged
by the massacres in Bosnia and Chechnya followed them, often to
train in Taliban camps. Some of these "Afghan Arab"
mujahedeen--estimates range as high as several thousand--are fighting
the US occupation in Iraq today. Mobilized in the beginning against
the foreign, distant enemy--first the Soviet Union, then the United
States--some later turned against the Saudi regime, whose legitimacy
they questioned in the name of Islam.
We should remember that the kingdom was
born of a desire to reform Islam. In 1744 Muhammad Ibn Saud, a
local emir from the Nejd region, signed a pact with a religious
reformer, Muhammad Ibn Abdel Wahhab, to make "the reign of
the word of God" triumph, "even if it's by means of
weapons," as the French Islamic scholar Henri Laoust writes.
Wahhab wanted to restore Sunni Islam to its primal purity, at
a time when the Ottoman Empire was becoming increasingly fragmented
and Shiism was growing in Persia and Iraq. Wahhab rejected all
non-Sunni sects, and he condemned the worship of saints and what
he considered to be dangerous innovations. His doctrine, which
became known as Wahhabism, would become the basis for state-building
by the Saud family, an alliance of the sword with the Koran. After
several failures the kingdom as we know it today was built at
the beginning of the last century by Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud, who
widened its borders and made the country a founding member of
the United Nations in 1945.
Despite numerous challenges, including
one posed in the 1960s by Arab nationalism led by Egyptian President
Gamal Abdel Nasser, the monarchy maintained the stability of its
reign through this alliance with the religious hierarchy. The
ulemas, as guardians of dogma, watched over the religious conformity
of the king's decisions, but they also legitimized the Saud dynasty.
When they did try to oppose the government (by, for example, rejecting
the introduction of the telephone and television and the education
of girls), they were forced to yield.
In the 1980s, in an attempt to co-opt
an Islamist wave stemming from the Iranian revolution of 1979
and the occupation of the Great Mosque in Mecca by a radical Islamist
group, the government developed a much more Islamist rhetoric,
imposing stricter rules concerning the segregation of women and
emphasizing the closing of the country to foreign influences.
It also established more Islamic universities, which would become
the fermenting agent for future protest movements. It encouraged
jihad against the Soviets, but--just as in Egypt, where President
Anwar Sadat had favored Islamic fundamentalists--this Islamization
would come back to haunt the monarchy.
The Saudi government's appeal to the United
States for protection after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait was
met with protest from some of the clerics, even though the regime
had obtained an approving fatwa from the religious establishment.
From that day forward, it was the kingdom's relationship with
the United States and the presence of US troops on Saudi soil
(as well as the corruption and antidemocratic nature of the regime)
that would mobilize the Islamist opposition. This was severely
repressed in the mid-1990s, but in the prisons and under torture,
Islamist activists would become even more radicalized and go on
to violent rebellion, with the first attacks coming in 1995-96.
Muhammad Mahfoudh, a Shiite intellectual, noted, "The government
should have engaged in a national dialogue at that time, but it
did so only ten years later. Wasn't that already too late?"
During this crucial period, in 1995, King
Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke, and the kingdom itself was
afflicted with a certain paralysis of power. Crown Prince Abdullah,
commander of the National Guard, assumed the regency, but he was
seriously hemmed in by his half-brothers: Sultan, the defense
minister; Nayef, the interior minister; and Salman, the governor
of Riyadh. Each of them led a virtual state-within-a-state, with
tens of thousands of dependent civil servants. The fact that by
2000 Fahd, Abdullah and Sultan were all around the age of 75 did
not encourage innovation, even though Fahd affirmed his desire
for moderate reform.
September 11, 2001, marked a turning point
in the history of the kingdom. Not only did relations with the
United States, which had always been an ally, become strained,
but a part of the royal family became aware of the danger posed
by religious extremism, which until then had been encouraged.
The May 2003 attacks in Riyadh, in which thirty-four people were
killed, followed by a series of other Al Qaeda actions on Saudi
territory, intensified the internal debate and eventually forced
the clergy to choose between their allegiance to the regime and
their sympathy for Osama bin Laden. Although a small faction called
for armed opposition, the rest rallied to the side of the monarchy.
There followed an intense debate on jihad, the place of Islam
and the extremist quality of some religious discourse. At the
December 2005 summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference,
a declaration stressed that Islam was a religion of the center
(wassatiyyah), which rejects "excess, extremism and
narrowness of mind." The debate affected the entire Islamic
Described by scholar Stéphane Lacroix
as one of the "liberal Islamists," Sheik Abdelaziz al-Gassim
is a role model for young people who have flirted with radicalism;
from him they learn to reconcile Islam with political liberalism.
He heads a legal organization that produced studies on Sharia.
Gassim speaks with calm and conviction and talks with pleasure
about his travels to Europe. For him "the most important
change is opening up the field of religion to debate. The state
has always wanted to control the religious institution; now it's
trying to open it up. All the more so now that the deaths of Sheiks
Ben Baz and Ben Uthaymin, the two great ulemas whose authority
was undisputed, have created a void that no one can fill. That
makes it more difficult for the government to use the religious
institution, because the latter has lost some of its credibility."
The liberal Islamists are, however, subject
to harsh attacks, sometimes in the press but more often in extremely
animated forums on the Internet. Some have been intimidated into
silence, like the bestselling author Sheik Ayed al-Qarni, who
in December, in announcing his decision to abandon preaching (da'wa),
denounced the combined "slander" of the modernists and
the radicals. He seems to have recently gone back on his decision,
but the incident symbolizes the violence of religious polemics.
However, the key point is that this debate is now taking place
in the very heart of society, that it is public and that it allows
everyone to express himself freely. A culture of dialogue is beginning
to develop in this kingdom, which until now has been so closed.
The attack on oil installations in Buqayq
at the end of February shows that nothing has been settled, even
if the suppression of armed groups has made some headway. As Saudi
society changes, it will aspire to more freedoms, to a more certain
future, to transformation of the old structures. Will the new
king be able to answer these demands even as the entire region
is plagued by instability, and Iraq is involved in a war that,
sooner or later, will have repercussions for its southern neighbor?
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