Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, Washington DC
August 6, 2014
Rented Defense, Freedom of Speech, Use of Clerics, Fallout of Jihadi Gains and Suffering of Arab Christians
Commentaries and Analysis
Saudi Defense Strategy: Colossal Failure
CDHR’s Commentary: Due to historical mistrust of and lack of faith in their people’s aptitude to defend their country, the autocratic Saudi monarchs have relied on hired services to protect them and to defend their kingdom since the establishment of the Saudi state in 1932. Externally the US has assumed the bulk of defending Saudi Arabia in exchange for oil. Regionally, the Saudi rulers have used mostly hired out Egyptian and Pakistani soldiers. Internally, they have relied on an ubiquitous security apparatus such as the ferocious religious police, Mukhabarat and Mubahath (informants and investigators), and more so on the regime’s dogmatically staffed and highly mechanized national guard estimated at 100, 000 personnel in 1991. The Saudi National Guard’s singular task is to protect the royal family from their citizens and from each other.
Based on joint agreement, “…Riyadh and Washington have been bound by a basic tradeoff: America guarantees protection from potential predators in the region, while Saudi Arabia supplies the lifeblood – relatively inexpensive oil – to run the world economy and pumps billions each year into the US arms industry.” Despite their extraordinary political and social discordance (the US is the world’s most powerful democracy and the Saudi regime is a weak nomadic based absolute monarchy), US-Saudi cooperation has lasted for decades.
However, the Arab Spring has called into question the adequacy of the Saudis’ agreements with their traditional protectors. Globally, the US began to review its relations with the Saudis as it did with the rest of the Arab World, especially after the swift overthrow of former US and Saudi supported autocratic allies like Mubarak of Egypt and Bin Ali of Tunisia. The US and other foreign powers have apparently concluded that the Arab Spring is unstoppable and will likely spill over to the remaining Arab countries including Saudi Arabia. Realizing that the Saudi regime is as susceptible as its counterparts in the Arab World, the US and other Western powers seem to be questioning the wisdom of continuing their support for an unpopular and repressive regime whose fate is uncertain. This is evident by US reluctance to continue its unconditional support for the Saudi royals as exemplified by the Obama Administration’s handling of the Syrian and Iranian crises. The Saudis wanted the Syrian regime replaced and the Iranian theocracy’s military crippled, two risky adventures for the US, but which would have strengthened the Saudi royals’ grip on power domestically and cleared the way for them to secure their regional Sunni dominance.
Regionally, the Saudi rulers have relied on countries like Pakistan and Egypt to protect them and defend their kingdom. However, recent events in the Greater Middle East have changed the power equation. Egypt is in the throes of internal turmoil and can barely maintain its own stability, while Pakistan is plagued with terrorism, increasing social unrest and must consider its strategic interests, especially regarding Iran. Pakistan and Egypt may have the troops to loan to the Saudi regime for lucrative compensation, but they are likely to consider the long term consequences of supporting a regime whose extremist ideology is blamed for much of the turbulence in the Muslim World, including Pakistan.
Domestically, the Saudi ruling princes have effectively and ruthlessly used religion as their sustaining power long before they declared the birth of their Kingdom in 1932. The royals have used religion to legitimize their territorial expansions, justify their military conquests and to spread their brand of Wahhabi Islam to all corners of the earth. They created and empowered a zealous religious establishment, comprised exclusively of the descendants of the founder of the State’s official religion, the austere Hanbali/Wahhabi brand. The ruling family entrusted the clerics with categorical physical, mental and social control over all aspects of society including dress code, moral conduct, worship, education and above all, total submission to God and to the ruling family. The monarchs in collaboration with the clerics designated the Quran as the state’s constitution and the Shariah as its law.
Tribal loyalty, albeit purchased, has also played a major role in sustaining the Saudi ruling family in power. The founder of the Saudi state, King Ibn Saud and his 53 known sons embraced prominent nomadic chieftains, married their daughters and sisters and put them on the royal payroll. Additionally, the royal family uses the bribery system to buy public loyalty and acquiescence, especially in recent times. This practice intensified since the onset of the violent Arab Spring. King Abdullah allotted billions of dollars to projects, social welfare, direct cash loans and scholarships for thousands of restless and potentially troublesome youth to study abroad.
All these maneuvers and arrangements crafted to buttress the Saudi regime’s internal security worked relatively well until two events of historic proportions occurred. The September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorists’ attack on the US by mostly Saudi nationals and the unexpected explosion of the Arab Revolts (the Arab Spring) on December 18, 2010 exposed the Saudi regime’s weakness in relying on purchased domestic and external security arrangements. These events prompted the Saudi people not only to feel alarmed by their regime’s religious ideology that produced the 9/11 hijackers and the likes of ISIS, but also to share the aspirations of other Arabs who overthrew their oppressive regimes. The previous arrangements using bribery, intermarriage, tribal loyalty and intimidation to maintain internal security seem to be outliving their effectiveness.
At a time when domestic and regional threats to the Saudi monarchy and to the country are increasing, the Saudi regime can no longer rely on its pervious security arrangements. Currently, Saudi Arabia is threatened on its northern border by the advances of ISIS and on its southern borders by increasing incursions by anti-regime Saudi and Yemeni nationals. More dangerously, it’s threatened on its strategic eastern borders by its disenfranchised Shia citizens, by the violent unrest in Bahrain, by Iranian influence in the Gulf region and by the strategic disintegration of the oligarchical GCC alliance.
The Saudi regime is in an unprecedented precarious position. It has lost its bedrock external support and has failed to empower its people and build a reliable indigenous defense force due to its lack of trust and faith in its citizens. Despite their relentless efforts, the Saudi rulers have failed to recruit new external powers to defend them. Consequently, they risk losing their grip on power, if not their survival.
A Win for Freedom of Expression
CDHR’s Commentary: During a discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (Switzerland) on June 23, 2014, Josephine Macintosh, a representative of the International Inquiry (advocate of freedom of expression and individual liberty) took the microphone and addressed the Saudi government’s well-documented abuses of human rights. She specifically addressed a recent harsh sentencing of a Saudi human rights activist, Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes (flogging in public square), $270,000 fine and 10 years imprisonment. Her presentation was repeatedly interrupted by the Saudi representative who asked the chair of the discussion to “shut her up”, (‘sekteeha.’)
The Saudi objections were soundly rejected by representatives of the US, France, Ireland and Canada, countries where freedom of expression is protected under the rule of law and non-sectarian constitutions. None of the Arab or Muslim representatives at the UN Human Rights Council’s session in Geneva supported the right of the representative of the International Inquiry to address the Saudi government’s abuses of human rights.
Despite his intended objective, the Saudi representative did a great service to his country and its oppressed population: His behavior demonstrated that freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia is not only suppressed, but those who dare exercise this right are severely punished as exemplified by Badawi’s severe and inhumane sentence.
Saudi Religious Police Go After Extremists?
CDHR’s Commentary: The “chairman” of the notorious and most loathed governmental agency (the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Haia), Abdullatif Al-Asheikh intends to bestow more power on the zealots of his extremist organization. In early July 2014, Asheikh told his men that ‘Your mission is no longer confined to monitoring shops that remain open during prayer times or instructing women to adhere to modest dress codes.’ He told his dogmatist employees, the religious police, that, ‘The mission has now become much more significant as we attempt to eradicate extremist ideas and confront, including using force, those who promote the principles championed by terrorist groups.’
The question is how does the most extremist segment of Saudi society, the religious police, go after those with whom they share religious and social values? Given their rancorous conduct against Saudi society, especially women and religious minorities, but also against anyone who advocates religious tolerance, political reform, women’s rights and social justice, it’s hard to understand how their chief Abdullatif Al-Asheikh can give them more power ostensibly to defend the country against extremists with whom they have more in common than with those they are being empowered to defend. Either the chief is delusional, unaware of the dangerous men he manages or he is cloaking in politically acceptable terms his real intent, as directed by his bosses (the King, the Mufti and the Interior Minister) to go after the pro-democracy, human rights and social justice activists whom the Saudi government considers a mortal threat to the country’s (i.e. the royal family’s) stability and security.
“Grand Mufti: Don’t use media in blame game”
CDHR’s Commentary: During his Friday, July 11, 2014 sermon, the Saudi Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh (the highest religious authority in the kingdom) warned against journalists and others who use the media to slander, divide and destabilize Saudi society and turn people against each other. He called on citizens to “… heed the advice of the head of the Dawa affairs in the interest of the nation’s stability and security.”
It is ironic that the Mufti asks people to heed the advice of his religious establishment (“Dawa affairs”) which divides people along religious, gender, ethnic (tribal and purity of heredity) and regional lines. Like his cleric partners and royal handlers, the Mufti’s motivation is driven by his vested interest in the status quo without which he could end up dispossessed or jobless, at best. The Mufti’s unbounded nightmare is people thinking for themselves, being self-reliant and thinking outside the box.
The irony of all ironies is that the Mufti is “the head of the Standing Committee for Scientific Research.” For fear of being accused of blasphemy (a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia), no one in the country dares ask what qualifications the sightless religiously trained cleric possesses in order to hold this prestigious scientific post. Wouldn’t be more fitting for the Mufti to focus on God’s work and other religious matters instead of warning professionals and a new generation of aspiring social media users not to use modern media to express themselves? Unlike the Mufti and his clerics, who are free to express their opinions in multiple fora, the population has no other forum to express safely any opinion regarding any issue other than via modern technologies.
Saudi citizens were not surprised when the Mufti warned Muslims against twitter and other social media. The head of the notorious Saudi religious police, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, a relative of the Mufti, went even further. He was quoted as having said that anyone who uses twitter "has lost this world and his afterlife".
The Al-Alshaikh family (descendants of the 18th century founder of the rigid and loathed Wahhabi dogma) is entrusted with the religious affairs, the judicial system, the educational system, the social mores and conduct, as well as official interpretation of the Quran and Shariah. It is not surprising that most Saudis see the Al-Alshaikh family as a tool of the system, and thus a major impediment to political, social and religious reforms and progress in Saudi Arabia.
Expected Fallout of Jihadis’ (ISIS) Surge and Gains
CDHR’s Commentary: After chairing a sobering national security meeting to evaluate potential spillover of the stunning surge and gains of the Sunni terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia ordered all governmental agencies to take any and all measures to prevent “…terrorist organizations or any other groups…” from destabilizing the state. “Destabilizing the state” simply means threatening the domination of the Saudi/Wahhabi ruling tribes, since they consider the state their private property, as exemplified by the country’s name (Saudi Arabia) and by their control of all governorships, major ministries, the security apparatus and the decision-making processes.
Saudi pro-democracy and human rights activists know that the “other groups” the king meant are those visionary and courageous Saudi men and women patriots who advocate inclusive reforms including government accountability, social justice, tolerance of religious and political differences and freedom of expression. These groups should expect and be prepared to face new draconian laws and harsher punishment from the system. They will be the recipients of the Saudi oligarchy's apprehensive response to the jihadis’ (ISIS) victories in Iraq and Syria.
Given the sympathy many Saudis feel for ISIS and other fanatics, their radical ideology could spread to Saudi Arabia and destabilize its repressive regime. The Saudi government and its religious establishment are known for their ideological and financial support for ISIS and other extremists, thinking that they could control the lethal ideologues that are turning against them. Compared to Syria and Iraq, Saudis are more marginalized and divided along regional, religious, gender, ethnic and age lines. It’s likely that the jihadis will find millions of sympathetic ears in Saudi Arabia, not because most Saudis favor the brutal ISIS theocracy, but because they resent their current system, albeit for different reasons, to the point where they would welcome any change regardless of the consequences.
The silver lining in this gloomy scenario is that most Saudis will not accept a more totalitarian system than the one which they have endured for decades. As in other Arab societies, many suppressed and difficult issues will surface if and when the Saudi people opt for a different form of government. Anytime a society decides to replace its repressive and dysfunctional political system, turmoil will ensue and Saudi society will be no different. To think that Saudi Arabia will be spared the Arab Spring and its fallout is a staggering denial of reality.
Arab Christians: “Convert, Pay, Die” or Flee
CDHR's Commentary: Signs point to what seems to be the birth of a Nazi-like state (“Islamic State” or Caliphate) in parts of Iraq and Syria. Like the Nazis, the operatives of the newly declared “Islamic State” began to identify their targets, especially Christians, but women and other religious minorities as well. Like the yellow Star of David that Jews were forced to wear so they could be identified, rounded up and shipped to death chambers, the ISIS painted the Arabic letter “N” (standing for Nasara or Christians) on Christians’ homes and gave them an ultimatum: pay Jizyah, convert to Islam or face death.
When faced with the ultimatum of choosing among converting and accepting a slavery-like status under Shariah law, paying Jizyah (heavy fines) to be allowed to stay in their countries, albeit as second class citizens, or being slaughtered by their new Muslim fanatic rulers, the Arab Christians wretchedly opted to flee their homelands.
Purging the Arab World of its small, but vivacious, highly educated, socially advanced, politically progressive, religiously tolerant and industrious Christian communities is not new. Scapegoating Arab Christians has been going on since Islam was established 14 and ½ centuries ago despite the fact that Islam is the youngest major religion in that beleaguered region and in the world.
Christians represent moderation, civil society, academic and intellectual freedom, work ethics and a democratic lifestyle for which most Muslim Arabs yearn, but denied them by their anti-human development and adamantly anti-pluralistic regimes. While the Arab regimes don’t particularly like what the Christians represent, they tolerate them because the minority Christian communities provide an economic engine which helps keep their respective societies afloat, for which the regimes take credit. In turn, due to the hostile and intolerant environments in which they live, the Christians have no choice but to support the absolute regimes in power as the only force that can protect them. However, the Christians’ support for the Arab dictators is perceived by opposition groups as part of the regimes’ repression.
Intolerant groups like ISIS (whose main objective is to overthrow their mentors, the tyrannical Arab regimes, and install their own absolute theocracies) target Christians mostly because of their belief and values, and force them to flee their homelands which their communities inhabited long before Islam was established. Despite the Arab Muslim majority’s bigotry and indignation against Christians, purging them from the Middle East is a blow to the oppressed Arab populations, especially women and religious minorities.
Instead of looking the other way or in some cases celebrating the vicious attacks on Arab Christians, all Muslim Arabs ought to embrace and defend their Arab Christian compatriots. The majority of Arab Muslim populations benefit immensely from having strong and vibrant Christian enclaves amongst them, as exemplified by the advanced and prosperous Christian community in Lebanon, the most advanced and democratic Arab country.
However, due to centuries of religious indoctrination against non-Muslims, re-enforced by their political, religious and educational institutions, Muslim Arabs may find it difficult to overcome their anti-Christians prejudices. From an early age, Muslim Arabs are trained to believe that their religion is superior to all others. Such indoctrination is continually trumpeted by media, prominent Muslim scholars and heads of state like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (the birth place of Islam and home to its holiest shrines) who claimed that “People have no direction and are rebelling against their inner selves. Only Islam’s mercy, light and guidance can provide people with a way forward in life and toward the Hereafter. Islam, with its comprehensive divine values and a balanced view of life, is alone capable of rescuing humankind from its current behavioral predicament while safeguarding its material gains and wishes.”
Notwithstanding the difficulty of casting off such lifelong indoctrination, Arab Muslims owe it to themselves, their children, their safety and economic prosperity to reject religious bigotry which not only condemns non-Muslim beliefs and lifestyles, but prevents Arab Muslims from emulating the Christian West’s unparalleled contributions to the world’s modern civilization from which Muslims (Arabs and others) benefit immeasurably.
Tragically, it’s not only Muslim Arabs who are failing to defend their own Christian compatriots, but Christian societies and their governments worldwide (with the exception of France) seem to be oblivious to the suffering of Arab Christians.
It’s commendable that western democracies defend the rights of Muslims and other religious minorities in their countries not only to practice their faiths freely, but to ensure their full rights as equal citizens. Why are they not demanding the same rights for Christians in Arab countries? President Barack Obama defended the rights of Muslims to build a mosque next to Ground Zero, but he has yet to unequivocally and unabashedly demand protection for Arab Christians. Most US media outlets, government officials and churches have yet to speak up against the plight of Arab Christians, let alone call on their governments to intervene to prevent destruction of entire Christian communities in the Arab World. The same laissez-faire attitude seems to be gripping most of Christian Europe.
Christian leaders, church goers, directors of religious think tanks and visual media can help highlight the plight of their brothers and sisters in faith in the Arab World. They should be demonstrating day and night in front of Arab and other Muslim Embassies, businesses and in front of American universities that teach Islamic studies across America. They should demand reciprocities; if Muslims can build mosques in Christian lands, Christians should be able to build churches in Muslim lands.
One can only imagine what would occur if the persecution and purging of Christians in the Middle East happened to Muslims in the West. The Western mainstream media, civil society, members of Congress, Washington think tanks, many Christian leaders and human rights groups would be all over themselves accusing everyone of being Islamophobic.
Why are Arab Christian lives, beliefs, religious sanctuaries and properties expendable in the Arab World without triggering outrage from human rights groups and punitive reaction from Western governments? Is it because Arab Christians are ethnically Arabs, therefore their lives, security, dignity and aspirations are unworthy of Western Christian’s and their governments’ defense? Or is it an extension of the West’s appeasement and apologetic policies toward intolerant and absolute Arab and Muslim regimes?
Your contributions to CDHR’s efforts to address tough issues, invoke thought-provoking discourse and suggest peaceful solutions are crucial. We need to continue our educational outreach worldwide. CDHR is a 501 ( c) 3 tax exempt educational organization.
Please go to our website www.cdhr.info and click on donate.
Or send checks to this address:
Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR
1050 17 St. NW, Suite 1000,
Washington, DC 20036