Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom Divided

Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom Divided

September 11 marked a turning point in the history of Saudi Arabia, raising new questions about political repression, religious extremism and the future of its youth.


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 soldiers.

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 were arrested.

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 sphere.

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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