Saudi Arabia

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Recently there have been signs that Saudi Arabia has reached a historical turning point. Pressure from the international community but also from within has forced the Saudi royal family to cautiously introduce reforms. Joseph Croitoru reports

Recently there have been signs that Saudi Arabia, a largely isolated country, has reached a historical turning point. Pressure from the international community but also from within has forced the Saudi royal family to cautiously introduce reforms. A report by Joseph Croitoru

photo: AP
Crown Prince Abdullah

​​On the one hand, the Saudi royal family has come under heavy critique from the West since the September 11th attacks because of outrage at the fact that the majority of the suicide pilots were from Saudi Arabia. And on the other hand, the ruling Saud family has come under increasing internal pressure – the suicide bombings that have shaken the country since last May are just one example of the sources of homegrown critique.

The answer to the very justified question of what the attacks in Saudi Arabia have to do with September 11th can be found in the authority structures of the Saudi royal family. These structures are based on maintaining the fragile balance between the many different tribes in the country, a power constellation in which the current rulers from the Saud family are located on top.

Decreased loyalty due to close ties with the US

The close relationship of the ruling family with the United States has long been frowned upon by the Saudi tribal leaders. This weak link in the Saudi system of authority seems to have been recognized by Osama Bin Ladin, and his Al Qaida organization is willing to try everything in order to turn the southwestern tribes that are less loyal to the regime against the royal family and its allies in the country.

Lest it be forgotten: no less than 12 of the 15 Saudi Arabian suicide pilots were from the southwestern tip of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, and five of them were from the Al Ghamid tribe that makes its home there. Those who pulled the strings in the Riad attacks last May were also from this tribe.

And the fact that the bombings in recent months were concentrated in the Saudi capital and its environs signals that the authority of the Saudi family – which has its roots in this region – was clearly meant to be undermined by the attacks.

This message has been received and understood in Riad. Faisal Bin Abdallah – until now responsible for the Saudi National Guard in the western part of the country – was recently named deputy head of the national secret service. His promotion shows how politically precarious the southwest is for the government – a region that is also the former home of Bin Laden.

WMDs against infidels

Three militant religious leaders from Jihadist circles who were arrested in Medina some time ago are also from this region. One of them, Nasser Hamd Al Fahd, recently propagated the idea that the holy warriors of Islam have the right to use WMD against unbelievers.

In the Fatwa he decreed, Al Fahd explicitly emphasized that the international laws forbidding the use of WMD are not valid for the true Muslim, who is beyond such laws. The believers are responsible only to God and to Islamic religious law.

It seems that Riad has realized that these new challenges cannot simply be met with increased security measures, measures which the Saudi opposition in London claims are in violation of human rights.

Outward signs of cultural diversity and pluralism

The Saudi government is increasingly trying to project a liberal image and has also now begun to show a willingness to reform. The first signs of change are visible in the information and communication policies of the government, which are increasingly oriented around the internet. The different tribes may now present themselves on the web, which is intended as an outward sign of cultural diversity and pluralism.

But the real intent seems to be to boost the self-esteem of unemployed and frustrated young tribal members so that they are less vulnerable to Islamic radicalism. The Al Ghamid tribe – which in fact unites several small tribes and has a total of 200,000 members, and which has gained a bad reputation since the terrorist attacks – cannot complain about a lack of interest in its internet website.

The Saudi royal family attempts to counter internal tensions with the slogan of "national unity," which is conjured by the ministers of the royal family at every public opportunity. For example, the "Conference for National Dialog" is a series of talks to which the Crown Prince Abdallah recently invited prominent Saudi intellectuals and religious leaders and which has now gone into its second round.

The motto of the conference, besides striving toward national unity, was already addressed in the opening speech by the Crown Prince Abdallah: the "fight against immoderateness."

Fighting against immoderateness with the spirit of Islam

The wording, of course, belies that the rulers wanted to avoid the mention of new radicalism or terrorism. The Prince said that immoderateness must be countered with moderation, which is in fact the spirit of Islam. Because the public was excluded from the conference sessions, the only content from the speeches that reached the outside world is that which the state-steered media reported on.

Khalil Bin Abdallah Al Khalil, a social sciences lecturer and prominent publicist who is loyal to the government, was heard on the radio repeating Crown Prince Abdallah's words on excess, which he said was Saudi Arabia's most serious problem at the moment.

He emphasized that this can only be countered with a comprehensive political and cultural dialog within Saudi society, which the Saudi rulers expressly wish for: "Dialog is the condition for every mutual understanding and every step of progress."

More patriotism, more tolerance, more religious moderation

"National unity" also found a place in Al Khalil's vocabulary – it is, according to the publicist, the basic condition for stability and a better future. In the Saudi press one reads that patriotism was evoked at the conference as something that must be strengthened above all among young Saudis. More tolerance of minorities is also called for, as well as more caution in handling the teaching of the holy wars in Islam.

A willingness to reform was also demonstrated toward women's issues. Symptomatic for this tendency was Crown Prince Abdallah statement at the conference that "a woman is as much a mother as a sister, a wife and daughter, and has special rights in Islam." The fact that a few university lecturers also took part in the conference is a direct sign of the development of a new politics.

Women are increasingly becoming part of public life

This new brand of politics has also recently entailed increased public appearances by the women of the royal family, who have been responsible for organizing events for women, for example national cultural or folklore festivals. In the Saudi state press, more and more women poets and authors can also be heard.

The impression this leaves, however, is that a state-directed feminism is being steered by the government to serve its own purposes. But as the example of Iran has shown, such developments can be held under control only so long. Signs of resistance can already be seen, and for example a reader of the generally progressive Saudi newspaper "Al Watan" (The Fatherland) has demanded of the paper's editorial staff an explanation as to why Saudi women must wear a black veil.

Saudi domestic policies have been set in motion

And in a chat forum for Saudi women, one participant appealed to her fellow discussants to finally stop holding others responsible for the problems of Muslims. Will a situation like that in Iran soon arise in Saudi Arabia, with Saudi women demanding more rights?

In Riad, there are clear signs that efforts are being made to keep up with the times. Recently there was talk in government circles about creating a women's police force. Time will tell if and when such ideas might be realized, or if they will remain hollow reform intentions. But it is clear that Saudi domestic politics have now been set in motion.

Joseph Croitoru © Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Christina M. White

Joseph Croitoru, born 1960 in Haifa, studied history, art history and Jewish Literature in Jerusalem and Freiburg. Since 1988 he has been working as a free-lance journalist, first in Israel and then for the German-speaking press (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Neue Zürcher Zeitung). Since 1997 Croitoru is a permanent contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung feuilleton, specialising in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

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