The Saudi response to the ‘Arab spring’: containment and co-option

Saudi Arabia’s response to the ‘Arab spring’ has been an attempt to co-opt movements for change in a bid to maintain the status quo. Madawi Al-Rasheed talks to Deniz Kandiyoti about the contradictions of a ruling elite that promotes a conservative Islam, that threatens women’s existing rights abroad – as in Tunisia and Egypt – while it poses as the emancipator of women at home

Madawi Al-Rasheed
10 January 2012

Deniz Kandiyoti: You have written eloquently about the battle for the soul of the “Arab spring”. I would like us to explore a critical question with significant implications for the future of pluralism and gender equality in the Middle East and North Africa, namely the policies of Saudi Arabia. How do you evaluate Saudi reactions to the events of the “Arab spring”?

Deniz Kandiyoti: You have written eloquently about the battle for the soul of the “Arab spring”. I would like us to explore a critical question with significant implications for the future of pluralism and gender equality in the Middle East and North Africa, namely the policies of Saudi Arabia. How do you evaluate Saudi reactions to the events of the “Arab spring”?

Madawi Al-Rasheed: In January 2011 the Saudi regime was very apprehensive about the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and feared his abandonment by their major ally – the United States. The Saudis supported Mubarak and provided financial backing to make up for the loss of American aid in order to weather the storm. In Tunisia, they had close security and intelligence links with the Ben Ali regime- links that were exposed during his fall. Ben Ali was offered refuge in Saudi Arabia. In Bahrain, which is much closer to home and has a Shiite majority linked to their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern province, the idea of democracy or majority rule could not be tolerated. With the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudis sent troops to help the al-Khalifa rulers against the pro-democracy movement, consolidating Sunni rule and rolling back what they saw as Iranian influence. The Bahraini regime was also propped up financially. This triggered a reaction across the border in Saudi Arabia. Playing up sectarianism became a Saudi pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strategy that exaggerates religious difference and hatred and prevents the development of national non-sectarian politics.

Protests at Sadi and Bahrain Embassies in london

Russell Pollard/Demotix. All Rights Reserved

This put Saudi Arabia firmly in the counter-revolutionary camp. However, as they realised that they could not stop the change they attempted to co-opt it. The irony is that they backed change in Libya, under the umbrella of the Arab League and supported military intervention, whilst in Yemen they supported Al Saleh and attempted, at the same time, to develop an alternative leadership with patronage ties to the Saudi regime. In short, the Saudis worked on the maintenance of the status quo over democratic change in every way, except when change was in line with their perceived interests. The protests in Syria were seen as an opportunity to win Syria back to the Arab fold, after President Bashar Assad increasingly drifted towards Iran.


DK: Was the main concern fear of contagion and the destabilisation of Gulf monarchies?

MA-R: Yes, not least since even habitually somnolent Saudi Arabia itself witnessed popular mobilisation. In the Shiite Eastern province demonstrations in support of their co-religionists in Bahrain were brutally suppressed. The latest of these demonstrations in November 2011 led to the shooting of four young Shiite demonstrators. In February 2011 two petitions were presented with the backing of a broad spectrum of activists ranging from liberals to Islamists demanding the introduction of a constitutional monarchy. A digital "Day of Rage" was announced on March 11 and was brutally quelled. The regime responded to these demands by introducing a new terrorism law that criminalises any open criticism of the king and the grand mufti.

A tripartite strategy based on religion, economic largesse and increased security was used to stifle dissent. On the economic front lavish economic handouts worth more than $70 billion were promised in February 2011 to absorb discontent. A package of economic, social, health and educational benefits was meant to absorb immediate frustration at lack of housing, jobs, health facilities, and welfare services. The regime promised more employment opportunities in two relevant sectors: the religious bureaucracy and the security services. The first absorbs the increasing number of graduates who cannot be employed in the private sector. The second strengthens the increasing militarisation of Saudi society.

This was backed with propaganda reiterating the duty of religiously-sanctioned obedience to rulers. The religious functionaries of the regime warned against demonstrations, civil disobedience and open criticism of the leadership. They glorified the current leadership for its adherence to Islam, and vehemently denounced Shiites for their agitations in the Eastern Province, where oil is abundant. Any call for demonstrations was depicted as a Shiite Iranian conspiracy against a pious Sunni nation.

Finally, the last measure was to tighten security and to militarise the main cities with more troops on the ground, creating an atmosphere of intimidation. Yet this was not enough to completely stop all form of mobilisation.

DK: What instances of mobilisation are you able to point to?

MA-R: For instance, there have been women’s campaigns - Zaynabiyat processionals (night processions of women holding candles) in support of Shiite political prisoners. Women have also objected to their exclusion from municipal elections both as voters and as candidates. There was a campaign by women teachers working on a contract basis wanting their contracts to be recognised as permanent. Finally, women have been protesting the ban on their freedom to drive. Manal Al Sharif has run an internet campaign demanding women’s right to drive their cars.

The state response was to co-opt women’s mobilisation, with the King presenting himself as the champion of women’s rights. Promises were made to include women in future municipal elections and to appoint them to the Consultative Council. These are token openings that are primarily meant to seek international legitimacy at a point in time when mobilised citizenries are clamouring for more democratic participation. However, these limited gender initiatives never undermine authoritarianism, but may act as a fig-leaf to cover serious ongoing abuses of human rights and persisting gender inequalities. For instance, as these openings were taking place we had the spectacle of a Saudi judge sentencing a woman who defied the ban on driving to ten lashes.

These internal contradictions are not new. There are multiple princes sponsoring different tendencies. For example the Rotana channel that features Lebanese and Egyptian pop music and dancing, and the Al Risala channel that promotes moderate Islam giving lots of air space to preachers, are both sponsored by the same individual, Al Walid Bin Talal.

DK: Clearly, these contradictions are not only internal since Saudi Arabia is also the external sponsor of Salafi parties and movements in the Arab world and beyond. The results of elections in Egypt suggest that Salafi parties now command around 25% of the vote, a result that may cause deep concerns among defenders of women’s rights. How do you evaluate the external dimensions of Saudi influence?

MA-R: When Saudi Arabia could not prevent the fall of Mubarak it first threw its weight behind the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and also promoted the discourse of Salafi groups who ironically - and in keeping with Saudi teachings - were initially opposed to protests against Mubarak. So on the one hand, the Saudi elite promotes a conservative Islam that is entirely inimical to women’s emancipation and threatens their existing rights abroad - as in Tunisia and Egypt - while, at home, it poses as the emancipator of women. The standard argument regarding the rights of women in Saudi Arabia is that the royal family is progressive and far ahead of a population plagued by tribalism and conservatism. This is entirely inaccurate given the development of a feminist consciousness among Saudi women. Although still a small minority, my current research on state, gender and religion reveals that their voices are gathering momentum in a country not so used to women engaging with public affairs. Some women appeal to international treatises on gender equality while others invoke a critical reading of the Islamic tradition to gain more rights within an Islamic framework. But they express this consciousness through their texts, essays, and novels and are unfortunately prevented by law from forming civil society organisations. So far their mobilisation concentrates on the web-based initiatives such as Saudi Women’s Voices

DK: How do you see prospects for the future?

MA-R: With internal protest crushed and apparent Western silence over the need for political reform, the Saudi regime seems to be comfortable in the short term. However, given the continuing lack of progress, increased mobilisation on specific issues such as relaxing guardianship rules, women’s franchise, the right to drive and the rights of political prisoners is likely to increase. Although these are unlikely to lead to systemic changes they nonetheless act to familiarise the population with the arts of mobilisation and peaceful resistance- and this is entirely new to Saudi Arabia. This will not be an easy process in a country with a large public sector where the government bans all its employees from engaging in any form of political activity. Even signing a petition may result in the loss of one’s job or ruining one’s chances for promotion, so levels of fear and intimidation are very high. However, an increased level of citizen mobilisation will certainly be an embarrassment to the government internationally.

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