The story comes from The Clarion Project.
Saudi Arabia: Islamists & Reformers on Collision Course
Saudi Arabia has fared well since the advent of the Arab Spring, but its divisions are deepening every day. It is a Sharia-based state, but is divided by ideology, tribe, sect and generation. The stability of Saudi Arabia is not to be taken for granted.
Saudi Arabia cannot be neatly divided into pro-Islamist and liberal camps. The ruling Saudi Royal Family itself is itself divided between reform-friendly leaders and Wahhabists. It is stuck in between this ideological divide.
Yet, the balancing act of appeasing both the youth who want reform and the Islamists who view every reform as a violation of Islam cannot go on forever.
Thrown into this equation is the fact that 90% of Saudi Arabia’s oil is located in the Shiite-majority Eastern Province. To put it another way: the country’s wealth is dependent upon the oppression of a minority. It’s hard to imagine a better opportunity for the Iranian regime to prey upon its enemies with a Shiite terrorist network.
Several incidents this year are glimpses of a clash that is brewing:
The most recent flashpoint took place on July 29. The Saudi government sentenced Raif Badawi, the editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website, to 600 lashes and 7 years in prison. He argued for “religious liberalization” and was charged with “insulting Islam” and “going beyond the realm of obedience.”
Also this month, a liberal Saudi named Dr. Tawfiq Seif appeared on television and argued in favor of equal citizenry, even for the non-religious and apostates. Under Sharia, Muslims who abandon the faith face the death penalty. His argument is in direct contradiction with the Islamist philosophy that governs the country.
Any incident like these could trigger the domino effect that the Saudi Royal Family and even its Islamist opponents fear. All it took was one “spark” in the form of Muhammad Bouazizi to set off the Arab Spring beginning in Tunisia. Bouazizi was a vegetable seller who set himself on fire after having his cart confiscated and, according to some accounts, was slapped by the security officer.
In May, a Saudi vegetable salesman did the same thing after he was unable to provide identification. He had previously been stripped of citizenship. The self-immolation of this Saudi was an unmistakable attempt to follow in Bouazizi’s footsteps. Over 100 Saudis protested outside a police department in Riyadh in response. Even though a wave of visible discontent did not follow, but there will be future attempts.
One of the main problems facing any Saudi opposition is that political parties and demonstrations are banned, thus there is no assembly point. In June 2012, the Saudi government prosecuted the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, a human rights group born in 2009 on charges of ranging from seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder to breaking allegiance to the ruler. The Saudi government dissolved the group and sentenced two of its leaders to prison for alleged sedition and disinformation.
In light of this, the multiple recent protests in Buraidah by men, women and children against the detention of family members are especially significant. Budaidah is a Wahhabist-dominated city, so any liberal demonstration there is a feat in itself, even though over 160 people were arrested in early March and dozens of male protestors were arrested at a demonstration in June.
The most important thing to note about these protests is the reaction of other opposition elements to the small Buraidah protests. Until now, the Saudi government has been succeeded in stopping the formation of any meaningful opposition organization, stamping out any demonstration before it spreads. But this time, liberals began protesting in Riyadh and Jidda and Shiites in the Eastern Province also joined in.
One interesting component of the opposition could be tribes that were defeated by the al-Sauds and Wahhabists. In 2006, the son of the last ruler of the Rashidi emirate (conquered in 1921) announced the formation of the Saudi Democratic Opposition Front in Paris. He is from the Shammar tribal confederation, giving his organization familial links inside the country. (But if you put in the name of the organization into a search engine, it seems like it has done nothing since.)
Dr. Ali Alyami, executive-director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told the Clarion Project in January that different elements of the Saudi opposition are overcoming their differences. He said:
“They are finding out that the system is dividing them along religious, gender, ethnic and regional lines in order to manipulate them and prevent them from achieving national unity and identity. They are finding out that they have common grievances that are caused by the same source, the Saudi/Wahhabi ruling dynasties and their rigid and rigidly controlled institutions.”
The use of Islamic doctrine against the Islamists is a particularly powerful tactic being increasingly used by Saudi reformists. The Political Union & Review of New York University has documented the spread of “Islamic Feminism,” where women’s rights appeals to a larger audience because it is argued from a religious perspective.
“By proposing alternate readings to the Quran, Islamic Feminism ultimately coerces reactionary elements of the ulema to confront themselves with women’s demands,” it explains.
The women’s rights movement is also growing for two reasons: women are climbing up the social ladder and the overall population in Saudi Arabia is becoming younger.
Over 70% of university students are now female and over 30% of the population is under the age of 30. Thanks to the presence of 5 million foriegn workers in a country of 24 million, unemployment of young adults is a serious problem that could eventually fester.
Yet, it important to note that not all elements advocating liberalization are necessary secular or interested in democracy. (Remember how the Muslim Brotherhood joined with liberal forces in the name of democracy in order to replace Mubarak in Egypt.) In Saudi Arabia, Saudi Prince Khalid Bin Farhan al-Saud recently declared his defection from the Royal Family.
Khalid said that the Saudi government is selfish, abusive and violates its not only own laws but those of Allah. He said that everything the reformists accuse the Royal Family of is true, but only worse.
While this sounds like the words of a moderate, the prince reportedly joined the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, an Islamist group. In 2004, the British government froze the group’s funds because the organization’s head was linked to Al-Qaeda.
Overall, Saudi Arabia has the social structure that is favorable to democratic development, as unlikely as that seems from the outside. Martin Sieff writes in The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East:
“Saudi Arabia has, in absolute numbers, the largest and wealthiest middle class in the Arab world. A large, stable, propertied middle class is the essential prerequisite for any country’s successful transition to a healthy democracy in the long term.”
This does not mean that the population is itching for a revolution with all its instability, unpredictability and negative economic effects. The monarchies of the Middle East have proven to be much more durable than secular dictatorships like in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
For now at least, the liberal Saudis prefer a supervised, incremental transition to a more open society. The theme of the protests is usually aimed at local officials and advocates policy changes, not regime change.
“It would be a mistake to think of [these recent protests] as some kind of festering bed of antipathy to the government just waiting to break out,” says Thomas Lipman, author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge.
The strategic importance of Saudi Arabia has led the West to overlook the liberal activists. As MSNBC observes, the country is a “human rights horror show” yet “in 2012, according to Human Rights Watch, not once did a U.S. official policy condemn Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses.”
The State Department has granted waivers to Saudi Arabia to avoid sanctions for its horrible record on religious freedom.
The West does not need to trade freedom and human rights for tyranny, nor does it need to accept frightening instability for the sake of democracy. In Jordan, the ruling government is working with its liberal opponents. The Saudi Royal Family should be pushed to implement a similar strategy.
A meaningful program of reform can improve the country, satisfy the liberal youth and provide time and space to gradually roll back the Islamist influence. A confrontation with the Islamists is inevitable, but time is on the moderates’ side.