THERE ARE two key elements that define Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the world: Islam and oil. To put that another way, we might say the kingdom has one foot in heaven and one beneath the earth and can’t quite decide where it really belongs.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer and the largest exporter. It also possesses somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of known oil reserves. On the religious front, it’s the birthplace of Islam and the centre of the Muslim world: Mecca is the city that Muslims turn their faces towards whenever they pray, no matter where they are. King Abdullah is a religious leader as well as a temporal ruler and, according to protocol, his religious title – Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines – takes precedence over his royal title.
The interesting part of this is that both oil and Islam are prime examples of globalisation – a process that generates a good deal of hostility in the Arab countries, as it does elsewhere.
Globalisation – by which I mean the world becoming more connected and countries more inter-dependent – tends to be thought of as spreading western influence but Saudi Arabia is itself a major player in globalisation and also one of the driving forces.
Its role in this stretches well beyond oil exports themselves because the revenue from oil is then recycled to buy goods and services from abroad – the huge al-Yamamah arms contracts with Britain, for example, and the employment of vast numbers of foreign workers inside the kingdom. A portion of this money is also invested abroad, both privately and governmentally. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth funds, amounting to well over $400 billion, are thought to be the world’s third largest (after the Emirates and Norway).
Alongside its oil exports, Saudi Arabia is also a major exporter of religion. This is less easily quantified than oil but it has been important since the early 1980s. It was triggered partly by Saudi fears about the spread of Shia Islam as a result of the Iranian revolution and partly by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which, among other things, led to the creation of large numbers of Saudi-influenced madrasas in Pakistan.
As part of that proselytising, vast quantities of Saudi religious literature became available, either cheaply or free of charge, to Muslims around the world – including those in Britain. This was not simply a matter of promoting Islam in general but, much more specifically, Wahhabi ideas – the strict and ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that dominates in the kingdom. Apart from the fact that Saudis had the oil-generated wealth to fund their missionary work, non-Saudi Muslims were generally receptive to it. The kingdom, after all, was the Prophet’s homeland, and so Saudi – i.e. Wahhabi – ideas and practices were often perceived as the most “correct” or authentic.
Although this kind of activity began to be viewed more critically after the events of 9/11, its effects can be seen in many places. On the streets of Cairo, for instance, increasing numbers of men display Saudi-influenced religiosity with ankle-length robes and beards measured by the size of their fist, while some of the women dress in what other Egyptians jokingly refer to as “Ninja” outfits. These, it has to be said, are a tiny minority in Egypt but their presence is very noticeable. In Yemen, too, the early 1990s saw the arrival of what can only be described as Saudi missionaries who, among other things, lectured Yemeni worshippers on the “correct” way to pray. While some Yemenis accepted their teaching, others strongly resented it.
Foreign workers in the kingdom are also targets for proselytising – even the Chinese. China‘s relationship with Saudi Arabia is now very important. It is on the point of overtaking the United States as the kingdom’s biggest oil purchaser and it is also increasingly involved in the Saudi economy.
Among other things, China won a lucrative contract for building the Mashair railway (also known as the Mecca Metro). This new line, which links Mecca with the holy sites, opened in time to ferry pilgrims for the 2010 hajj. However, there was a religious complication in allowing the Chinese to build it because Mecca is out of bounds to non-Muslims. The Saudis resolved this in a way that was little short of miraculous, though the lucrative nature of the contract undoubtedly helped too.
According to a newspaper report at the time, the Chinese workers were given books explaining Islam in their own language and within 24 hours they had all allegedly seen the light. More than 600 of them converted to Islam en masse at a ceremony witnessed by a Saudi official, and the delighted official described these conversions as a “direct response to critics of the government for contracting [a] Chinese company”.
In Saudi Arabia’s case, globalisation gives rise to a fascinating paradox because, alongside its international role as a major player in that process, domestically there is also a strong current of isolationism and cultural protectionism. This is all about preserving what are imagined to be the kingdom’s unchanging religious and social traditions. I say “imagined” because some of the practices are not as ancient as people suppose. For example, the rules on gender segregation as decreed by many of the religious figures go a lot further than they did in the Prophet’s time, and some of the supposedly “national” traditions are alien to large parts of the country, since they originated from Riyadh.
The Saudis have done quite a successful job in propagating the image of a monolithic and devout national culture, though the reality is sometimes rather different.
Saudi cultural protectionism takes various forms. Internally, we see the religious police enforcing dress codes, checking that people pray at the appointed times, and so on The kingdom also goes to extraordinary lengths to fend off “undesirable” influences from outside. The adverts for whisky and pictures of inappropriately dressed women in imported newspapers are laboriously blotted out by hand, while an elaborate system of internet censorship blocks access to websites showing pornography and sexually explicit material or sites deemed to encourage gambling, drug use or conversion to Christianity.
This is rather different from the kind of censorship practised, say, in Syria which is aimed primarily at stifling political dissent. In Saudi Arabia, its main purpose is to shield people from moral harm in a very paternalistic way. This doesn’t say much for the Saudis’ confidence in their own system, since it implies that once people are exposed to alternatives they may rapidly abandon it (and they may be correct in that assumption).
While it might have been possible in the past to maintain an effective barrier against external influences, in an age of air travel, satellite television, the internet and so on, that is becoming impossible, and it is leading to pressure for change. Eventually something will have to give, and the question is whether that will happen in a gradual, evolutionary way or explode into some sort of social and cultural crisis.
Before moving on to look at that in more detail, it’s worth considering how Saudi Arabia’s effort to protect its “distinctive” social system plays out on the global stage.
One potential flashpoint is in the field of human rights. In its latest annual report, Human Rights Watch said the Saudi authorities “continue to systematically suppress or fail to protect the rights of nine million Saudi women and girls, eight million foreign workers, and some two million Shia citizens. Each year thousands of people receive unfair trials or are subject to arbitrary detention. Curbs on freedom of association, expression, and movement, as well as a pervasive lack of official accountability, remain serious concerns.”
Internationally, the general approach to Saudi human rights abuses is not to rock the boat too much. Western governments do criticise but not to the extent of jeopardising their business and political relationship, and the Saudis generally reciprocate by avoiding confrontations.
While large numbers of foreigners from poorer and less important countries are executed – African drug smugglers, for example – westerners are spared. A group of Britons were sentenced to death in 2002 but eventually released and sent home. The Lebanese come somewhere in between. In 2008, a TV fortune-teller from Lebanon was arrested during a pilgrimage to the kingdom and sentenced to death for “sorcery” but his execution seems to have been postponed indefinitely as a result of the negative publicity.
The Saudi authorities are certainly concerned about the kingdom’s image and often back down when individual cases are highlighted in the media – especially the foreign media. In 2007, a woman who had been sentenced to 200 lashes after being gang-raped at knifepoint was granted a royal pardon. Royal pardons are not unusual in the most controversial and high-profile cases but they do nothing to change the legal system that gives rise to these sentences in the first place.
In their defence, Saudi officials point out that they are taking steps towards reform but argue that Saudi society (or at least significant portions of it) is extremely conservative and resistant to change. The result, as Human Rights Watch noted, is that the reforms so far are mostly marginal or symbolic.
Last year, in the midst of some heated public debate about “mingling” of the sexes, the king and crown prince posed for a photograph with a large group of women. This was clearly a deliberate and important signal from the king. But the fact that in Saudi terms it was such a big deal shows just how far the kingdom still has to go.
Nevertheless, gender segregation is turning into a major social battleground and the arguments of the traditionalists are being challenged within the kingdom as never before. Discussions about the exact circumstances in which men and women can interact with each other get extremely complex and, to outsiders, often seem utterly bizarre. By opposing the employment of female cashiers in supermarkets, for instance, traditionalists claim they are resisting western culture – while apparently unaware that supermarkets themselves are a western invention and completely foreign to Arab culture.
There is also a good deal of hypocrisy in the gender debate. A video clip posted on the internet shows Sheikh Muhammad al-Nujaimi at a conference in Kuwait, laughing and joking with a woman who is not even wearing hijab. Sheikh Nujaimi, who is chairman of the interior ministry’s religious advisers, had previously asserted that gender segregation in schools is one of the “pillars” of the Saudi state and that female students must wear “proper” hijab. He had also supported a fatwa calling for opponents of gender segregation to be put to death if they refused to change their views. Embarrassed by the video, Nujaimi at first claimed it had been faked. Eventually he admitted that he had mingled with the opposite sex, but said he had done it for all the right reasons: “to prevent vice and help those misguided women find the righteous path”.
Failing to meet human rights standards in your own country is one thing, but obstructing progressive measures towards human rights in other countries is something else. That, in effect, is what Saudi Arabia has been doing, sometimes in collaboration with religious conservatives from the United States.
One early example was what religious activists refer to as “The Istanbul Miracle”. It happened at a UN conference in Turkey in 1996. Richard Wilkins (who later became head of the Mormons’ World Family Policy Center) was there and described how he helped to initiate the miracle. He wrote:
The Istanbul conference was convened in large measure by a worldwide, well-organised and well-funded coalition of governments, politicians, academicians and non-governmental organisations that were eager to redefine marriage and family life. Natural marriage, based on the union of a man and a woman, was described by professors, politicians and pundits as an institution that oppressed and demeaned women. The constant claim was that “various forms of the family exist”, and all “various forms” were entitled to “legal support”. The “form” most often discussed by those in charge of the conference was a relationship between two individuals of the same gender.
Wilkins challenged all this with a speech on traditional family values which also castigated sex education in schools. Afterwards, he was then approached by the ambassador from Saudi Arabia who embraced him warmly. Wilkins then gave the Saudi ambassador a list of suggested changes to the draft agenda, and the Istanbul Miracle happened.
Wilkins continues his account: “Thirty-six hours later, the heads of the Arab delegations in Istanbul issued a joint statement, announcing … that [their] members would not sign the Habitat agenda unless (and until) certain important changes were made”. As a result, the draft was altered to define marriage as a relationship between husband and wife, and mentions of the word “abortion” were replaced with the phrase “reproductive health”.
It was a similar story in 2003 when the UN Commission on Human Rights got around to discussing gay rights for the first time in its history. Brazil put forward a resolution expressing “deep concern at the occurrence of violations of human rights in the world against persons on the grounds of their sexual orientation”. Acting on behalf of the Islamic Conference Organisation, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Malaysia and Pakistan organised a filibuster which resulted in the proposal being dropped.
It may come as a surprise to find that Saudi Arabia is itself a party to four of the most important international human rights treaties: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (known as CEDAW for short), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Considering that Saudi Arabia operates what is probably the world’s most comprehensive system of discrimination against women, that torture and degrading punishments are prominent features of the justice system, and that child marriages and racial discrimination are widespread, we might wonder why it bothers signing up to these conventions at all.
There seem to be two reasons. One is that they bestow an aura of respectability without necessarily incurring any serious obligations regarding compliance. The other is that membership of these conventions provides opportunities to undermine them, thus weakening their impact worldwide.
UN conventions can easily be circumvented by countries registering their “reservations” and in some cases these reservations can be so sweeping as to negate the essential substance of the agreement. In theory, reservations that are “incompatible with the object and purpose” of a UN convention are not allowed but in practice they can be difficult to prevent. Reservations can only be blocked if a very large number of other countries object to them – which is often impossible to achieve.
Taking CEDAW (the convention on discrimination against women) as an example, the kingdom rationalises its seemingly irreconcilable position, after a fashion, by saying it does not consider itself bound by any part of the convention that conflicts with “the norms of Islamic law”. Among the 17 other Arab countries that are parties to CEDAW, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Syria and the UAE have also lodged reservations based on Islamic law.
Citing “Islamic law” in the context of international treaties is especially problematic because no one can be really sure what it means. The sharia is not formally codified, there are various methods of interpretation and scholars can sometimes reach wildly differing conclusions. As Denmark noted in its objection to Saudi Arabia’s reservations, the references to the provisions of Islamic law were “of unlimited scope and undefined character”.
The key point, though, is that religious principles are a convenient vehicle for excusing all manner of abuse. In reality, the abuses usually have more to do with local customs and practices than religious doctrine but invoking religion removes any need to account for them or try to justify them.
The overall effect of dragging Islamic law into human rights debates is to provide an excuse for lower standards rather than trying to raise them, as Ann Elizabeth Mayer demonstrates in her book, Islam and Human Rights – Tradition and Politics. “Distinctive Islamic criteria have consistently been used to cut back on the rights and freedoms guaranteed by international law, as if the latter were deemed excessive,” she writes. “The literature arguing that Muslims may have human rights, but only according to Islamic principles, provides the theoretical rationales for many recent government policies that have been harmful for rights.”
This leads to one of the core issues in the globalisation debate: arguments about universality versus cultural relativism – though in the case of Saudi Arabia this is something of a red herring.
With all their bluster about “the norms of Islamic law”, it might be imagined that Saudi Arabia and other predominantly Muslim countries stand firmly and consistently on the side of cultural relativism. On the whole, though, they don’t – except when it suits them. To some extent they do accept the principle of universalism – but again, only when it suits them. Through their membership of the UN and other bodies, they are willing participants in a system of international law and they are also among the first to complain about human rights abuses and infringements of international law where Israel is concerned.
In partially exempting themselves from international standards, they are not so much arguing for cultural relativism as for a form of cultural selectivity. It’s a selective defence against whatever forms of external influence are regarded as unwelcome.
And what they are actually seeking to protect is not the sum-total of authentic local tradition but an imagined, officially-approved version of it which in some cases has to be imposed on reluctant citizens. The Islamic “norms” that Saudi Arabia waves in international forums are not those of the country as a whole but those that happen to have become dominant.
If they really believed in cultural relativism as a principle they would surely also have to apply it internally by insisting on respect for the different norms and traditions of whatever distinctive religious, ethnic or regional groups may be found within their own borders. Mostly they do not.
I alluded earlier to the way globalisation contributes to pressure for change inside the kingdom, so let’s look at some of the possible crunch points.
Politically, the Saudi system is modelled on traditional concepts of the Arab family and the king is a kind of father figure: in principle, if not reality, he is wise and benevolent, he commands respect, he dispenses largesse and arbitrates between the conflicting demands of his sometimes bickering children.
This results in a form of government that is highly personalised: appointments depend more on who people are and their relationships with others than on ability. That inevitably leads to high levels of incompetence, which is one reason why chains of command are kept short, with little delegation of responsibility.
There is also a lot of discretion in the exercise of power: laws and regulations may be enforced selectively or waived according to circumstances and the people affected by them. There is minimal transparency and almost no accountability.
Taken together, the personalisation of government, the discretionary use of power and the lack of transparency and accountability lead to widespread corruption, cronyism and nepotism.
One way to describe this is as a “patrimonial” or “neopatrimonial” system – a politicised form of patriarchy. The term “patrimonial” was first used by Max Weber, the German sociologist, in connection with a style of government found in early-modern Europe. Essentially, it is a system where “the mechanics of the household are the model for political administration”8. For “household” in this context, picture a rather grand ancestral home with plenty of land, servants, gardeners, gamekeepers, etc; imagine how the lord of the household would have run it – then apply that to the running of a country.
In this kind of system, ordinary people are treated more or less like children, or at least as obedient cap-doffing servants. There is little or no scope for them to become engaged as active citizens. In fact, active citizenship is strongly discouraged and tends to be regarded as subversive.
As far as the Saudi monarchy’s claim to legitimacy is concerned, it is based mainly on religious credentials: a pact with the Wahhabi scholars. Oil wealth also bolsters the monarchy’s position. The lines between state wealth and royal wealth are blurred and the money can be used to buy off discontent. Also, without the need for high taxation, demands for accountability are minimised.
Religious teaching plays an extraordinarily important part in decision-making. Almost everything has to be justified in terms of religion: is it Islamically acceptable? This constant reference to religious doctrine slows the pace of change and inhibits innovation and progress. Way back, theologians resisted the introduction of bicycles. It was the same with radio in the 1950s, with television in the 1960s and, more recently, camera phones.
It’s obviously very frustrating for anyone who is trying to introduce something new to have to keep looking over their shoulder and wondering how theologians and other conservative elements might react. And often, just when it seems that things are moving forward, something happens to push them back.
One progressive cultural development was the Jeddah Film Festival, which ran successfully from 2006 to 2008. Then, a few hours before the 2009 festival was due to open, the authorities suddenly cancelled it. No real explanation was given, except that the festival supposedly “lacked preparation”.
Last November, a cinema opened in Dammam – the first since they were all closed down in the 1970s and 1980s. To allay the fears of religious conservatives, the owners of the new cinema announced that it would specialise in cartoons and “action” films – the type least likely to be accused of corrupting people’s morals. But apparently even that went too far and a few days later the owners issued a rather surreal statement denying – despite the sign outside – that it was actually a cinema. In fact, they said, it was a “projection auditorium” for the “intellectual development of children”.
To summarise the situation, Saudi Arabia has an archaic system of government which is heavily manipulated by archaic interpretations of religion. The religious problem lies not so much in Islam itself as in the way Islam is invoked by the so-called traditionalists to justify practices that cannot be justified by other means.
To this we should add one further very important crunch point, which concerns equality. The concept of equal rights doesn’t really exist in Saudi society. Nor does the idea that diversity, far from being abhorrent, can actually be of value. Discrimination based on gender, faith, nationality, ancestry, social status and culture is pervasive and institutionalised. There was a court case recently involving a woman from Madina whose father had refused her permission to marry – on the grounds that her proposed husband was a foreigner from a neighbouring Arab country. Even though the man actually belonged to the same tribe, the judge accepted the father’s arguments.
Criticising from outside, and especially from the west, often leads to accusations of cultural imperialism and brings the response that the Saudis are entitled to their own system. But it seems to me that the issue, ultimately, is not one of differing ideologies or differing cultures, but of practicalities. It’s a question of what works and what doesn’t.
Large parts of the Saudi system are not working at present and as time goes on, without very drastic changes, it will work less and less.
Patrimonial government may work in a small tribal society but it’s not a realistic proposition in a modern, complex country of 28 million or more people. There has to be delegation of responsibilities, with agreed procedures that people follow. There has to be transparency and accountability – otherwise, when things go wrong, there is no mechanism for putting them right and preventing a recurrence in the future.
In a global marketplace, Saudi Arabia’s distinctive social/political and religious system also comes at a very high cost. So far, the cost has been masked to a large extent by reliance on oil, but that won’t always be the case.
In the non-oil sphere, the kingdom is basically choosing to operate with one hand tied behind its back. By excluding vast numbers of women from its productive capacity, it is depriving itself of a resource that other countries use. By doing business on the basis of “commissions” paid privately to people of influence and by appointing people to jobs on the basis of birthright or connections, it is choosing to be uncompetitive in global terms.
Pressure for change is certainly growing, though not in an organised way. At present it’s more a case of individuals fighting their own personal battles – from women trying to assert their rights through the courts to kids in the shopping malls wearing low-slung jeans.
The once-feared religious police – the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – currently seem to be in retreat, though their abolition is not yet on the cards. Amid widespread public criticism there have been moves to curb their excesses and last year saw a 20% drop in the number of cases they handled (though that still left more than 16,000 cases involving Saudi citizens and almost 40,000 involving foreigners).
These changing attitudes are another consequence of globalisation – the globalisation of ideas. Saudis are increasingly aware of the way things work in other countries; they make comparisons with the rights and freedoms that others have – and which they lack.
One significant straw in the wind came at the end of 2009 when floods in Jeddah killed more than 100 people. Not so long ago such events might have been accepted with a sense of fatalism as God’s punishment for the city’s sins. But not on this occasion. The tragedy appeared to be the result of money allocated for drainage works having been diverted elsewhere, and housing construction having been permitted on what was basically a dried-up river bed.
Some of the local media pursued the issue relentlessly (at least by Saudi standards) and were outspoken in their calls for accountability. This was something new, and the king responded, after a fashion, by ordering an investigation. Welcoming the announcement, the editor of Arab news wrote that for once officials “might actually be held responsible for not having done what they were well-paid for many years to do”.
“To ordinary citizens,” he continued, “to the families of those who died in the waters, to the sick and the orphans, the announcement was like a balm. King Abdullah has added two words to the Saudi vocabulary – transparency and accountability. They must be taken seriously by all officials.”
King Abdullah also seems responsive, up to a point, to calls for change in the religious area. He has given a few gentle nudges regarding the status of women, he has cracked down on unauthorised fatwas and he has been trying to reform the sharia-based legal system. But these are very small steps indeed, considering what needs to be done.
However, given his own need for religious legitimacy, it could be politically dangerous for the king to push harder or faster – even if he wanted to (which in itself is debatable). Meanwhile, the current pace of change is unlikely to be enough to contain the pressure that is building up and eventually we can expect it to reach some kind of crunch point.
We have seen what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, but it seems to me that the issue in Saudi Arabia is rather different. The coming struggle will be more about tradition versus modernity, about the character of Saudi society and the role of religion, than about political leadership. It will be about the system as a whole, rather than the regime. That makes it much more difficult to predict what form the struggle will take or how it might ultimately be resolved.
Popular frustrations can be contained for years but, as in Tunisia and Egypt, there’s always a risk that the dam will suddenly burst. All it takes is sufficient numbers of people to decide that they have simply had enough.