Saudi Arabia is one of the most isolated countries in the world, yet in recent years there have been efforts of cautious reform, initiated from above. In this interview, Ulrike Freitag, Director of the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin, talks about the political changes occurring within the Saudi monarchy
Frau Freitag, why the question mark after the title of your book? Is Saudi Arabia not in flux?
Ulrike Freitag: Yes, there are very many areas that have undergone profound changes in Saudi Arabia over the last 15 years, but there are of course areas where the country is stagnating, in a way that is very frustrating to many people. The latter is especially true of the nation's basic political organisation. What we are dealing with here is a monarchy, a monarchy that has been drawn up in a non-democratic way, and relatively little has changed here, although popular expectations and hopes for democratisation were there, particularly after the current King Abdallah took power.
He's viewed as relatively open to reform. So in which areas is change in Saudi Arabia making itself especially noticeable?
Freitag: Change is taking place in different areas: For example there have been great efforts in the economic sector to create more reliable policies for external investments. This is closely bound up with the Saudi Arabian General Investment Agency and the project that this organisation has been pursuing to create economic cities aimed at attracting foreign investments.
This kind of change is also evident in the education sector, for example. German and international media reported last year on the founding of the King Abdallah University for Science and Technology, which is not only positioning itself to be a top-class international university for the sciences, but, and this is something completely new for Saudi Arabia, also a place where students of both sexes can be educated.
But you will see great changes taking place in general areas: For example, many more women are entering the job market and finding employment. And also the question as a whole concerning what social role women should play is the subject of widespread debate. You can perceive a shift between the influence of religious scholars and that of the technocrats who advise the King.
But these are, and this is the most important point, reforms that are very strongly initiated from above, even if there is of course here a relatively complicated and inscrutable interaction between that which might be described as civil society in the broader sense, and the monarchy.
You visited Saudi Arabia yourself in the course of your research. What personally surprised you the most?
Freitag: Initially what surprised me most is that Saudi Arabia was, in many respects, an Arab country like many others. From the outside you really do have the sense that it is a very closed country, and also a very closed society.
My impression was that – at least if you can speak the language – actually many areas are opening up and are really not so different in many other Arab countries and also sometimes still bear all the hallmarks of a developing country, which is not something you would necessarily expect with such oil wealth.
That means, the contrast between tradition and modernity in society is being acknowledged and also debated?
Freitag: Yes, and this is also one of the other transformations of recent years, that when it comes to what can be discussed in the newspapers, also at home, that the scope has increased. People can write much more openly. And nowadays women also write for the papers. That of course also has something to do with the pressure that has arisen through the Internet.
What kind of subjects are being written about now?
Freitag: The discussion focuses on corruption, on drugs, on the future of Saudi society and the kind of developments that people would like to see in future, although it must be said that hugely divergent views clash with each other, but the point is they are clashing publicly, and that's what makes this so interesting. This is not so much the case in many Arab countries where media are controlled, and it was not the case in Saudi Arabia for a long time.
There are of course still red lines that cannot be crossed, in particular direct criticism of the King is of course not allowed. There are also great changes taking place in the literary sector, which has undergone a major revival. In particular the phenomenon of many young women writing novels that address a great many taboo subjects, which is a further indication of this growing openness.
It must be said however that books such as these are usually published abroad and reach the public via book fairs, the Internet or book imports, which does not then lead to them being marketed domestically.
Interview: Anne Allmeling
© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2010
Saudi-Arabien – Ein Königreich im Wandel?(Saudi Arabia – A Kingdom in Flux?) Published by Ulrike Freitag, Verlag Schöningh, Paderborn 2010, 29,90 €.
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de