The Saudi complex: power vs rights

Saudi Arabia's rulers are deploying a mix of force and largesse to contain the threat of democratic protest. But an emerging civic movement is determined to persist, says Madawi Al-Rasheed.

In the era of oil, voluntary servitude may become the only option for a people deprived of basic human and civil rights. But behind the scenes and prison-bars there is hope in Saudi Arabia: most of all in an emerging civil-rights movement that is attracting Saudis of different ideological, regional and sectarian backgrounds. The Saudi regime is responding with attempts to suffocate this young movement via two classic strategies - sectarian politics and heavy policing. There are growing questions over the effectiveness of each.

The government in Riyadh continues to devote huge resources to sustaining a vast religious bureaucracy, promoting its upkeep of the holy sites, and sponsoring transnational Islamic institutions. In fact, however, the Saudi regime has lost most of its religious legitimacy. Its intimate alliance with the United States, and failure to defend Islamic symbols when they are or appear to be under assault - from Jerusalem to the incident of the Danish cartoons and Pope Benedict XVI’s retrieval of disparaging medieval sources - leave the royal elite looking incapable of living up to its religious narrative.

Many Saudis see the regime as a puppet constellation of corrupt princes whose fate is determined in Washington rather than Riyadh. This view is partially accurate but also ignores the fact that the regime is capable of manipulating its western protectors. The main vehicle of this counter-twist has been the regime’s use of oil to transform itself into a powerful ally. Its Wahhabi religious tradition became important in defeating secular, leftist and national political movements in the Arab and Muslim world. This religion served the west well as it mobilised the vanguards of Islam to defeat communism in Afghanistan.

The fusion of oil interests and Wahhabi Islam became a form of blackmail of the west, extracting from it an eternal silence over the regime’s abuse of human rights. True, Riyadh's strategy of using Wahhabi Islam as an instrument of foreign policy backfired with the assaults on the high towers of New York; yet the west soon allowed the Saudi regime to move from being an incubator of terrorism to appearing a victim of it. Thus the regime seamlessly re-emerged as a strategic partner in the United States-led “war on terror”, a partner with whom the west shares intelligence and sells weapons of mass destruction and surveillance technology.

The vacuum

The core strategic calculation in Washington and London over Saudi Arabia invokes realism and pragmatism to argue that there is no alternative. But authoritarian regimes are not known for creating space where alternative political leadership grows - for if they do so, they would cease to be authoritarian. So the logic of western policy is permanent support for the Saudi elite and its guarantee of “stability”.

Saudi religion proved to be equally important when Iran moved from being a western island to an Islamic revolutionary hotbed in 1979. Saudi Arabia sponsored Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran (1980-88) and inflamed the imagination of its own people with sectarian rhetoric denouncing Shi’a heretics. The same religious hate-rhetoric is mobilised today to intervene in places like Yemen in support of Ali Abdullah Saleh against the al-Huthi rebellion in the north, and in support of the al-Khalifa rulers of Bahrain against the peaceful pro-democracy movement on the island.

In both these conflicts, the Saudis project themselves as defending Sunni Arabs against the alleged Safavid (Iranian) Shi’a takeover of the Arab world. The west watches the contest and confirms its old wisdom about those sectarian, tribal and essentially conservative religious fanatics. Few examine the political and economic contexts that fuel such conflicts; are willing to go beyond Islam to explain the flourishing primordial identities and their resurgence in every country in the region; or are prepared to see how the Saudi regime contributes to this resurgence by its deployment of a potent sectarian discourse.

The Saudi elite, having failed to defend Muslims in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, now pledges to guard its Sunni co-religionists against their historical arch-enemies: none but the Shi’a. The rising sectarian tensions in Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen, and the recent memories of sectarian conflict in Lebanon and Iraq, exemplify the dangers of this route. Yet Saudi Arabia’s rulers are prepared to risk conflict with Iran - and with its domestic “fifth column” on the Arab shores of the Persian Gulf, including in Saudi Arabia itself - as a means of salvaging its vanishing religious legitimacy.

The chasm

Saudi officialdom’s efforts to thwart an embryonic civil-rights movement inside Saudi Arabia have intensified since protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in overthrowing authoritarian rulers there, and spread across the region. The policy mixes scarifying propaganda about the prospect of an Iranian-backed Shi’a takeover of Sunni heartlands with emergency royal handouts worth $36 billion.

These have failed to defuse the widespread anger and frustration among Saudi young people especially: over crumbling urban infrastructure, unemployment, corruption and above all arbitrary detentions and abuse of human rights. Such sentiments emerged in the virtual world with the call for a “day of rage” on 11 March 2011.

Mohammed al-Wadani, an activist in his early 20s, posted a video-clip calling for the downfall of the regime. When he emerged from a central Riyadh mosque after Friday prayers with a small group of followers, he was arrested by plainclothes security personnel, and disappeared; his family was forced to issue a statement denouncing his actions and disowning him. Of nine founding members (including academics) of an Islamist political party, three disappeared.

On the so-called day of rage, the regime deployed its security forces on every major street in the main cities. A single protester, Khaled al-Johani, defied the show of force and marched into Riyadh’s city centre, telling a BBC interviewer: “I have had enough of this big prison. I have the right to demonstrate”. Both men were surrounded by security forces; Khalid joined thousands of activists and political prisoners held without trial.  

The arrests have escalated since 11 March, scooping hundreds more into the net. Some international and local independent human-rights organisations keep their cases alive though the regime’s oil-thirsty allies in Washington and London remain undisturbed. The conflict in the Libyan desert with another petro-state has in this respect proved to be a welcome excuse to ignore the problems of what the west routinely perceives to be spoiled and rich Saudi citizens.

Many Saudis do not fit this stereotype: they live on a meagre monthly salary of $800 in a country with no minimum wage. It’s true that many others are part-lured and part-forced into submission to royal power, with the promise and reality of royal largesse playing a big role. But the circumstances of most Saudis are very different from those of senior princes: a leaked document reveals that some of the latter were even in 1996 receiving monthly payments in excess of $270,000, supplemented by other handouts.

The opening

Many Saudi families use their resources to shelter their young members from the reality of marginalisation and unemployment. A small minority of young Saudis is searching for basic freedom from state authority, parental control, censorship, oppression and surveillance. Women, many of whom are educated and with rising expectations, are particularly active among this group. Indeed, women are the most frustrated category in Saudi society, and no wonder: 78% of unemployed women are university graduates (the figure among men is only 16%), and they are excluded from voting even in insignificant municipal elections.  

The internet provides a cathartic form of virtual escape for men and women alike. Some are courageous enough to go further. They include groups of veiled women that since 11 March gather in front of the interior ministry calling for their menfolk to be released from prison. The risks are great: an academic, Mubarak al-Zuaiyr, was granted a fifteen-minute meeting with a ministry official to ask about his imprisoned father, only to find himself held after interrogation.  

Missing Saudis is a video-clip published on YouTube and narrated by Ali al-Dhafiri, a Saudi journalist working for al-Jazeera. It highlights the plight of women and children whose husbands, sons and fathers are condemned to lengthy prison-terms. The clip will not be shown on al-Jazeera itself - Saudi prisoners do not make news, in part because most people in the west prefer to accept the official story that they are terrorists, sympathisers of terrorists, assisting terrorists or raising money for terrorists. Mutual interest and media deception combine to depict Saudi Arabia as a wealthy, prosperous and conservative society in which men and women worship God and their king.

The reality is different. Most Saudi prisoners are the nucleus of an emerging civil-society movement that poses more of a threat to the regime than the terrorism the latter created and then pretended to fight. This movement is familiarising people with ideas of entitlement, empowerment, human rights, and civil obligations. The movement is still fragmented but it is gathering momentum. Saudi citizens too are attempting to change their society for the better. 

About the author

Madawi Al-Rasheed is professor of the anthropology of religion at Kings College, London. Her books include Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Arabia's Political, Religious and Media Frontiers (C Hurst, 2008); and A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2011). Her website is here

Read On

Madawi Al-Rasheed

Human Rights Watch

Madawi Al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi Sate: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Madawi Al-Rasheed, "Yes, It Could Happen Here" (Foreign Policy, 28 February 2011)

Arab Media & Society - Saudi Arabia

Madawi Al-Rasheed, "Saudi Arabia and the Arab Peace Initiative" (BitterLemons, 6 April 2011)

Madawi al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Mai Yamani, Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity (IB Tauris, 2004)

Gerd Nonnemann & Paul Aarts, Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs (C Hurst, 2005)

Madawi Al-Rasheed, Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Arabia's Political, Religious and Media Frontiers (C Hurst, 2008)

More On

Madawi Al-Rasheed is professor of the anthropology of religion at Kings College, London. Her books include Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Arabia's Political, Religious and Media Frontiers (C Hurst, 2008); and A History of Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2011. Her website is here