Tuesday 18 October 2011

Arab Spring: Is there a critical Islamic discourse in Saudi Arabia?

On 17 October 2011, my colleague Madawi al-Rasheed, Professor of Social Anthropology at King's College London, gave a talk in the Middle East Seminar convened by the London School of Economics (LSE), under the title 'A Saudi Spring of Sand Storms; Signs of Domestic Turbulence'. The chair of the event, Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at LSE, introduced Prof. al-Rasheed as one the most renowned scholars on present-day developments in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, and certainly the foremost critical voices on current affairs in the Kingdom. She is the author of a number of books on Saudi Arabia.

Madawi al-Rasheed
In her preliminary remarks, Prof. al-Rasheed already foreshadowed a more pessimistic account when compared to seismic shifts which have occured elsewhere. Alluding to the metaphoric associations employed by Egyptians and Tunisians, who refer to the Spring as the season of blossoms and jasmine flowers respectively, in Saudi Arabia the arrival of Spring is accompanied by often vicious sand storms. Accordingly, the trajectory of the Arab Spring in the Arabian Peninsula in general has been less than promising. The Sunni-controlled government of the neighbouring miniature island state of Bahrain has clamped down, without mercy, on expressions of dissent by its disenfranchised majority Shi'a population -- rapidly and readily assisted by Saudi troops in armoured vehicles sent across the strategic King Fahd causeway by the government in Riyadh. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia' s southern neighbour Yemen teeters on the brink of civil war as the protests against Abdullah Ali Saleh are turning increasingly violent and bloody.

Saudi Arabia itself, like many other Arab kingdoms (Jordan, Morocco, Oman), makes every effort to present the monarchical system in the most benign ways, alleging it offers a favourable contrast to the nasty republican regimes that seem to be falling like dominoes. As a critical note, Prof. al-Rasheed observes that this rosy image is swallowed without question, and even spread further, by external stakeholders in regional Gulf stability. these interested parties are no longer confined to America and Western Europe, but now also include Russia and China. Their willingness to side with the incumbent regime is motivated by the need for access to Saudi oil reserves and the prospects of lucrative arms deals.

But, the sand storms of the Spring of 2011 are harbingers of growing domestic turbulence, Prof. al-Rasheed insists. As one of her informants has it: 'The events of early 2011 have propelled Saudi Arabia ten years ahead of its own pace of development'.

There is widespread dissatisfaction in Saudi Arabia, but Saudis express their grievances and frustrations differently than elsewhere. Again, al-Rasheed refers to the explanation offered by a disaffected activist within the Kingdom she is in contact with: If Saudis would be confronted with the kind of humiliation suffered by Egyptians or Tunisians at the hands of security forces, their temperament and cultural conventions would force them to respond in kind. In a country where weapons are readily available, violence would rapidly spirall out of control. So instead, critics of the regimes and opponents of the present political order have taken recourse to their conventional way of addressing complaints to the government: sending petitions.

Since the mid-1990s, when foreign troops taking part in Operations 'Desert Shield' and 'Desert Storm', assembled on Saudi soil to fend off the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi opposition has issued a dozen or so petitions demanding reforms and change. In general, these addresses studiously avoided any direct criticism of the king or other members of the royal family. And whereas, the ruling monarch, the crown prince, and the grand mufti -- as leader of the religious establishment -- still retain near sacred status, the latest petitions contain thinly veiled criticisms of the highly umpopular minister of interior, Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz. Heading a vicious security apparatus and himself an epigone of political conservatism and authoritarian repression of any democratic reforms, Nayif is nevertheless best positioned to succeed the aging king and ailing crown prince -- both of whom have spent extended periods of time in hospital during the last few years.

The government, in turn, has responded with its time-tested counteroffensive: financial mumificence. This time around the key beneficiaries were, first of all, the armed forces. All serving members were promoted one rank, while also receiving the cocomitant rise in pay. In addition, another 60,000 new positions will be created. Whereas this will only lead to a further militarization of Saudi society, Madawi al-Rasheed took care to note that the armed forces are by no means a united front. In fact, the loyalty of the various branches is fragmented and divided between key senior members of the royal family. The religious establishment too benefited from royal generosity, receiving additional budget for its activities. Combined with the third strategy: a further curtailment of the press, the Saudi regime has -- for now -- taken the sting out of the protest movement.

But aside from a combination of repression and largesse on the part of the government, there is another reason why protests in Saudi Arabia have remained relatively subdued when compared to other Arab countries. Calls for a 'day of rage', scheduled for 11 March, were generally ignored because there is no consensus among the protesters on the agenda for reforms. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has no tradition of civil activism. In order to prevent the development of such a sense of civil society or the articulation of shared citizens' concerns, the government also plays up tribal belonging and sectarian divides: pitching regions and tribes, and Sunnis and Shi'ites, against each other.

Saudi Arabia's 'day of rage' (11 March 2011)
However, it cannot be denied that Saudi society is sick, and the key ailments include not just the repression of the Shi'ite minority (not only 'Twelvers' or 'Imamis' in the Eastern Province, but also the often forgotten Ismaili community in the southern border province of Najran). Then there is the denial of equal rights to women; the continued detention of large numbers of political prisoners; and -- above anything else -- the rampant unemployment of the Saudi youth. According to some estimates, the level of joblessness in Saudi Arabia is only topped by Gaza and Iraq. In the face of such challenges, Saudi society increasingly resembles a pressure cooker ready to explode.

Shi'ites protesting in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province
External factors also play a role in defining the future prospects for a Saudi Spring. According to Prof. al-Rasheed the world is rapidly moving, if it has not already, from a one-super power post-Cold War order to a multipolar world, in which varies powers are vying for influence, including orchestrating developments in the strategically so important Persian Gulf Region. On a global level these include the USA, Russia, China and India, on the regional level Saudi Arabia itself, Iran, and Turkey. Each of these players tries to direct developments into a direction that serves its own interests.

Whereas some Arab countries are looking to Turkey for inspiration, it is highly unlikely that this will be a useful model for Saudi Arabia, at least in the short term. Its lack of a sense of civil society and tradition of feminist activism currently deprive it of the necessary preconditions. This lack of civil action also severely limits the likelihood of a 'facebook' or 'twitter' revolution -- which al-Rasheed also considers a misnomer in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.

However, what is not an unlikely scenario is that continuing turbulence and the persistence of critical questions being directed at the government could destabilize the regime to such an extent that a fragmentation of the Kingdom is not entirely inconceivable. Most likely candidates for a breakaway would be the oil-rich Eastern province and the Asir and Najran provinces on the border with Yemen.The lack of a tradition of civil disobedience also makes a violent turn of events a very likely option.

According to Prof. al-Rasheed the current initiatives of the government to respond to the demands of the protesters are insufficient. Although Saudi Arabia's economy continues to expand it has never managed to absorb the country's rapidly growing population; for that the government has always relied on expanding the civil service, which is seen as inefficient and corrupt. Women's issues are primarily addressed in response to foreign criticism, but Madawi al-Rasheed is adamant that the kind of emancipation introduced by the Saudi regime will not undermine its authoritarian grip on power. Playing up sectarianism often expressed by pandering to a sense of 'Iranphobia' will also not contribute to the creation of a sense of nationhood. However, according to al-Rasheed there are signs that leading figures among the citizenry in the Western Hijaz province, a more cosmopolitan region with a historical tradition of plurality where also the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina are located, are trying to build bridges between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Even though the Saudi government has been pushing for years for a military intervention in Iran, al-Rasheed thinks that in the current multi-polar world a sustained military campaign against Iran is highly unlikely, and Saudi Arabia definitely lacks the means to go it alone.

King Abdullah
However, the key to any future scenario for Saudi Arabia is the succession question. At present there are five key princes, representing various factions within the royal family. Aside from the King and Crown Prince, and their sons, there is the governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, the oldest surviving son of the late King Fahd (1982-2005), and the governor of Mecca, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, as the most senior member among the descendants of King Faisal (1964-1975). However, as she mentioned earlier, at present Madawi al-Rasheed considers the powerful interior minister, Prince Nayif -- a half-brother of King Abdullah and full brother of Sultan, the ailing crown prince and defence minister -- as the most likely future king. This does not bode well for the prospects of any drastic reforms.On the other hand, it is never certain what the 33 most senior members of the royal family will decide. What is certain is that the opportunities for a horizontal succession -- for brother to brother -- will soon be exhausted. How this will play out the next level, the sons of the leading royal members of government, is anybody's guess.

Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayif
In Madawi al-Rasheed's mind, for any drastic change to occur -- and this is only likely in the long run -- it will be absolutely vital that freedom of expression and organization are widely expanded; without the creation of a viable public space any attempts for real political reforms are doomed. That is exactly why the regime continues to stress tribal and sectarian affiliations;why it makes sure to kepp foreigners away from the native population by confining them to their walled compounds and labour camps; and why universities are closed enclaves keeping young Saudis isolated, under strict surveillance, while exposing them to skills training rather than an education which would enable them to articulate their critical faculties. Critical Muslims are the nemesis of a regime composed of a well-entrenched royal family and collaborating religious establishment as the self-appointed custodians of a narrow-minded intolerant interpretation of the Islamic tradition.

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