Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, Washington DC
February 19, 2013
Saudi Recent Events
Political Reform is Not on the Royals’ Agenda
CDHR’s Analysis: At a time when the Saudi people, like other Arabs and other disenfranchised people around the world, are becoming more aware of their usurped rights and are demanding more political participation, accountability, transparency and eradication of corruption and government abuses, the Saudi King appointed and sworn members of his family to ensure the continuity of a family absolute hegemony. By appointing half-brother Prince Migrin third in line to inherit the throne and Prince Saud, son of the unpopular former Interior Minister, Naif, to govern the important oil rich Eastern Saudi Arabia, and by appointing Prince Sultan, son of the current crown prince to govern the second Muslim holist city, Madina, are indicative of the royal family’s determination to cling to power until the Saudi people resort to violence to obtain their political rights and social liberties.
These recent appointments are viewed by many Saudis negatively. Those who wanted to believe that King Abdulla is a reformer are realizing that he is more interested in his family’s continual absolute control over the country than defusing tension and allowing people to have input in the decision-making processes. In reality, the King and his family have taken no more than misleading cosmetic steps that have done more damage than good. The King allowed for partial municipal elections in 2005 where the overwhelming majority of the people including women, public employees and anyone under the age of 21 were barred from voting or running for office. Those who won had no legislative powers and no one knew what they were doing or supposed to do. Yet, many Saudis and the global media praised the event as a milestone toward better things.
Unlike his half-brother, Talal, and a small number of men and women royals, the newly appointed second deputy, Prince Migrin, is not known for having advocated or supported even cosmetic reforms publicly. His appointment means continuity of a politically and socially malfunctioning system that is in desperate need of drastic modifications to accommodate the needs of aspiring, well-informed and impatient young Saudi men and women who are disconnected from their past and see very little hope for a brighter future. This is a formula for instability and violent confrontation between the royals and their disenfranchised subjects. Handouts, use of force and use of religion as a tool of oppression are losing to yearning for liberty.
Modernity Demands Codified, Not Arbitrary, Religious Laws
CDHR’s Comment: Enraged by a brutal rape and murder of a five year old Saudi child by her cleric father, the well-known and highly respected political and human rights activist Dr. Fowzia Al-Bakr wrote a praiseworthy article in a major Saudi Arabic daily which was translated into English by the popular and widely read Saudiwoman’s weblog, emphasizing the necessity to replace the ancient and arbitrary Saudi religious law with a codified non-sectarian rule of law. She aptly argues that Saudi children need protective laws to ensure family safety in a country where the fathers have total control over their households. She went on to discuss the staggering social, economic and relational changes that Saudi society has gone through in recent decades that demand new non-sectarian laws.
Due to modernity's unstoppable intrusion, the flow of uncontrollable information, globalization, the change in lifestyles and business dealings, a burgeoning population of youth, and increasing impersonalization of relationships, Saudi society has changed considerably, despite the system’s resistance to any change that might undermine its comprehensive control over the country, its people and wealth. These inescapable evolutionary changes demand transformation of the old political, social and religious structures and practices, especially in the legal system which in the Saudi case is arbitrary and archaic.
Current Saudi laws are based on Shariah, or Islamic law, which is interpreted, or misinterpreted as many Saudis stress, by clerics who also implement them in the sectarian Saudi judicial system. Shariah law is presumably based on the Muslim holy book, the Quran, which happens to be the state’s constitution. The Quran also is interpreted by the same clerics who interpret and implement the sectarian laws as they see fit.
The autocratic and theocratic Saudi rulers are unwaveringly opposed to codified rule of laws. They argue that God's laws, as they interpret them, not only supersede, but are superior to all other laws. However, the Saudi people know that the rulers’ insistence on using religious laws is not based on religious convictions as much as they are used to keep all powers and decision-making processes in the hands of the ruling family and its religious establishment.
The majority of the Saudi people know that their rulers use religion and Islamic law to conduct the state’s affairs in the name of God as long as they are the primary beneficiaries. This includes, but is not limited to siphoning public wealth, discriminating against women and religious minorities as well as against non-Muslims and even against Sunni Muslims who do not adhere to their reactionary doctrine, known as Wahhabism.
Despite the System’s Obstructive Policies, Saudi Women Gain Strength
CDHR’s Commentary: Denying Saudi women the right to drive, the right to work, the right to advanced education and restricting them to cosmetic public positions are neither due to Islam nor tradition, as the evasive Saudi regime, its censored media, its domestic beneficiaries and foreign recipients of Saudi largess misleadingly argue. When Islam was established and Muslim texts were written, about 15 centuries ago, there were no cars, planes, McDonald’s, universities or any knowledge of the world outside of nomadic encampments. There was no gender segregation and the main transportation at that time was camels and the main foods (subsistence) consisted of dates, grains, camel milk, and dried locusts.
Abaya, the invented black cloak women are forced to wear now did not exist during the founding of Islam either. If it did, it would have been mentioned in the Quran like elephants, locusts, cows, and ants. Now, there are constellations of religiously indoctrinated self-appointed Saudi clerics who insist that it’s un-Islamic for women to drive cars, show their faces, and work or interact with men publicly. According to these clerics’ self-serving interpretation of religious texts, women must remain behind high cement walls (homes or perpetual prisons as some call them) or clad themselves in black (“moving tent”) when they are allowed to leave the house.
These toxic practices are invented by the current ruling autocratic and theocratic men for no reason other than obsession with women sexuality and fear of interaction between the genders which could lead to sharing of ideas, experiences and united society.
Despite the system’s institutionalized discriminatory measures against Saudi women, they are determined to obtain their legitimate rights. They are becoming more educated, confident and gaining recognition and support, domestically and globally. Saudi Arabia can benefit immensely from integrating women into the workforce specifically, because most women need and want to work. They could do most of the jobs that are being done by millions of expatriate workers in the public and private sectors. Employing Saudi women is doable, desirable, and in the best interest of the nation. Sadly, the best interest of the Saudi people is not compatible with the profit margin many in the royal family make from imported cheap laborers who are willing to accept meager income under harsh working conditions.
The Days of Decrees and Habitual Tokenism Are Gone
CDHR’s Commentary: The Saudi regime has recently appointed thirty women to the nation’s Consultative Council, a move glorified by Saudi authorities as a step toward greater women’s equality in the kingdom. But a closer look at these appointments and the nature of the council itself is needed to see this maneuver for what it is: a duplicitous attempt to bury women’s rights.
If King Abdullah and his family’s intent had been to embark upon genuine reform, they could have appointed an independent and inclusive national committee to select a list of well-known advocates of women’s rights and submitted the names to the King to choose from. The list could have included well-known advocates for women’s rights like Wajeha Al-Hwaider, Fowzia Al-Bker, Hatoon Al-Fasi, Reem Asaad, Alia Banaja, Faiza Ambah, Bidriyah Al-Bisher, Fowzia Alyouni, Princess Reema Bint Bandar, Lina Almaeena, Sammar Fatani, Souad Al-Shammari, Princess Basma Bint Saud, Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, Iman Al-Nafjan, Ibtihal Mubarak, Hala Al-Dosari, Suhaila Hammad, Mody Al-Khalaf, Lubna Husain, Nadeen Al-Budair, Thuraya Al-Shiri, Simmer Al-Migrin, Ameerah Kashgari, Manal Al-Sharif, Samar Badawi, Abeer Mishkhas and Halima Muthafer, just to name a few.
Instead, the King and his advisors appointed a host of mostly unknown women who, though skilled in scientific research and other professional fields, lack the credentials and the experience to be effective advocates for women’s rights. Moreover, the Consultative Council to which these thirty women have been appointed to is an entirely powerless agency beholden to the king with no chance or intention of bringing peaceful power structure change without which stability in Saudi Arabia will continue to worsen.
The Saudi government and its supporters, both inside and outside the country, continue to underestimate the Saudi people, especially women. Through purely cosmetic moves such as these appointments, the detached regime expects that millions of well-informed Saudi women will sit still while the world around them transforms and women elsewhere are able to choose their own destinies. Not only is this expectation delusional, but it will likely convince many Saudis that inclusiveness and political participation can only be obtained by force instead of political engagement, a prospect that could hold dire consequences for the country and the international community, especially the US.
An outspoken female royal, Princess Ameerah Altaweel agrees with this conclusion. “People take their voices to the streets when they are not heard by their governments” she once said. “If we want stability in the region, we must build institutions of civil society so people can channel their demands through these institutions.” Yet building such institutions and avenues for reform is currently impossible in Saudi Arabia, as the monarchy has banned all forms of independent civil organizations and assemblies, as well as freedom of religious and political expression.
And while the Saudi government justifies the marginalize status of women in the kingdom on Islamic grounds, another Saudi Princess, Basma Bint Saud has openly expressed deep resentment at the authorities’ use of religion to impede progress on women’s rights. "Our religion should not be a shield behind which we hide from the world but a driving force that inspires us to innovate and contribute to our surroundings.”
Other royals are speaking up in favor of political reform as well. In a recorded phone conversation, Prince Turki bin Bandar Al-Saud compared his family’s rule with that of Hitler and the Pharaohs. Prince Talal has been a vocal critic of his family’s totalitarianism for more than fifty years. He has repeatedly called for a constitutional monarchy, free elections of national and local assemblies and empowerment of women. He has also accused his family of exercising absolute control over every aspect of people’s lives, "Here, the family is the master and the ruler….This style can't continue the same way. There has to be change in the nature of authority, if things are going to change in the kingdom itself."
None of these royal critics is advocating the annihilation of the monarchy. On the contrary, they, like the rest of their large family, believe that the country is their birthright. However, they fear that their power might come to a violent end if tangible reforms are not embraced. It has become increasingly clear that some Saudi royals are realizing that the safest option available to the ruling family is tangible political inclusiveness. King Abdullah’s selection of thirty women to join the powerless advisory council may have short- lived psychological impact, but does nothing to change the nation’s power structure, and that type of change is the only real gateway to peaceful reforms and stability.
The US, the Saudi monarchy’s closest superpower ally, is in a position to help facilitate political transition instead of strengthening an absolute and globally resented monarchy as myopically recommended by the Brookings’ Saban Center in a bigoted memorandum to President Obama. Like the rest of the Arab masses, many of the Saudi people are inching toward a point of desperation and unless their expectancies and aspirations are addressed, they will take to the streets which the Saban Center’s memorandum speciously counseled President Obama to prevent.
Emphasizing tangible political reform instead of strengthening the autocratic Saudi monarchy will spare the US the agony of having to intervene militarily to protect a regime which rules by coercion. Saudi Arabia is too important a country to leave its fate in the hands of men who rely on sheer force, handouts and religious extremism to maintain absolute control over a burgeoning generation of restless young men and women who spend more time tweeting about their worldly aspirations and frustration than going to mosques and praying for divine deliverance.
Grinding Poverty in the Land of Enormous Wealth
CDHR’s Commentary: Despite its enormous income of $300 billion in 2011 (divided by 16 million comes to $18.75 million per citizen) and King Abdullah’s promise to spend $130 billion on handouts (social projects), up to four million (1/3) of the Saudi native population lives at or below poverty level. This dismal situation should not be happening in one of the world’s richest countries, but it does because of gross mismanagement and expropriation of public wealth in addition to a rampant corruption at the top. National revenues of which 80% comes from oil sales are controlled by the royal family who alone decides how the money is spent and on which projects. It’s estimated that about 20% of the gross national revenues is skimmed off as royalty and goes to the pockets of a few senior princes while the rest of the revenue ostensibly goes to the national treasury which is also controlled by the royal family.
In addition, four generations of princes and princesses and people related to them by marriages, estimated at 20 to 40 thousand, receive unearned monthly stipends from the “Office of Decisions and Rules” which is managed by the finance ministry. “The stipends range from US$ 270,000 a month for the more prominent members of the royal family, to $800 dollars a month for the” ‘lowliest member of the most remote branch of the family’. These amounts are based on leaked US Embassy’s reports in 1996 before the oil prices skyrocketed of which the Saudi princes are major beneficiaries.
It’s not due to lack of sufficient national revenues to ensure good standard of living, full employment, first class education and secure future for the Saudi population. The problem is the squandering of national wealth by the top ruling echelon in a country where there are no checks and balance, accountability, transparency, public scrutiny, civil society or free press to expose wrong doings by the people at the top. This is still going on at a time when the Saudi people are becoming fully aware of the prowling of their wealth.
The majority of the Saudi people knows and discusses the embezzlement of their wealth in ways that never have been done before, thanks to the social media and the system’s inability to control the flow of information. The gap between the Saudi population’s legitimate expectations and the Saudi regime’s and its religious establishment’s resistance to democratic reforms is widening to the point where window dressing adjustments or even genuine, but slow reform may not prevent public uprising.
Discussing Role of Religion can Incur Death
CDHR’s Commentary: There is no society in the world where all aspects of people’s lives are negatively impacted by religion more than Saudi society. The Saudi autocratic and theocratic rulers decided to make the Quran (the Muslim holy scripture) the state’s constitution and the Shariah (a religious-based legal system) the law of the land. When the Saudi state was established in 1932, the Saudi/Wahhabi allies imposed their austere brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, on all citizens regardless of their previous or current religious orientation. A consortium of zealous government paid clerics are charged with the interpretation of religious texts, the issuance of Fatawi (religious edicts) to regulate people’s actions, dress code and behavior, as well as the implementation of the government’s policies of gender segregation, compliance with rules and times of worship and ensuring that critics of Saudi royals, clerics and religion are severely punished.
This is what happened to the 23 year old Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari who allegedly tweeted an imaginary conversation with Prophet Mohammed where he was quoted as saying, “On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.” The religious community labeled him a blasphemer and within one hour 30 thousand people demanded his execution. He fled the country, but was caught in Malaysia by the order of King Abdullah and was returned to Saudi Arabia in February 2012. Until this day no one knows about the fate of Mr. Kashgari.
Similarly, Raif Badawi, a respected liberal Saudi website editor, was accused of blasphemy by a lower Saudi religious court because he was accused of insulting Islam. However, his real crime seems to be that his “website included articles that were critical of senior religious figures” in defiance of stated laws prohibiting criticism of Islam and clerics. The idea of creating the liberal website is to provide a forum for the Saudi people to discuss the impact of religion on their lives, their relationships and their perception of and interaction with the international community, especially nom-Muslims.
It is the height of irony that the Saudi King can convene conferences and finance Islamic centers, mosques and schools worldwide under the pretext of promoting interfaith understanding and dialogue while in his own country citizens are sentenced to death for promoting the same kind of discussions.
Saudi Officials Blame Iraqis for Sectarian Violence
CDHR’s Commentary: In a recent press conference in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal blamed the Iraqi government for instability in Iraq. Among other things he said that, “Peace and security will not return to Iraq as long it is ruled by sectarianism and divisive forces.” This could be interpreted to mean that the Saudi government is behind the Iraq Sunni minority’s unrest and rejection of the democratically elected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It is the crowning of hypocrisy that the Saudi rulers accuse anyone of sectarianism, divisiveness, and religious intolerance.
Additionally, the Saudi rulers should be the last people in the world to criticize others for the use of religion to discriminate against segments of their societies. The Saudi/Wahhabi allies created their own religious dogma, known as Wahhabism, and imposed it on all of the people of their vast and tyrannically ruled kingdom with no regard for minority religious orientations. As has been amply documented by human rights groups and governments, Saudi religious minorities are among the most oppressed and marginalized people in the world. One of Saudi Arabia’s major critics regarding this issue is its closest Western ally, the US government.
In its consecutive International Religious Freedom Report, the State Department wrote, “Despite the diversity of individual views, the government continued to enforce its official interpretation of Sunni Islam. Some Muslims who did not adhere to this interpretation faced significant political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination, including limited employment and educational opportunities, underrepresentation in official institutions, restrictions on the practice of their faith, and on the building of places of worship and community centers. The largest group affected was the Shi’a.” Saudi Arabia is one of a few countries that is declared by the State Department a “Country of Particular Concern” because of religious intolerance in general and severe oppression of its minorities.
Saud al-Faisal is in a position to know that security and stability in Iraq and harmony among the religiously and ethnically diverse Iraqi population will be hard to achieve as long as the Saudi government and its religious establishment continue to incite hatred against Shi’a and use Iraq’s Sunni minority to ensure its influence regardless who rule that beleaguered country. Saudi clerics have called on all Sunni Muslims to kill Iraqi Shi’a, a call that has been heeded and carried out by mostly Saudi terrorists who have committed heinous crimes against worshipers at Shi’a mosques, neighborhoods and markets. This is happening while senior Shi’a clerics are demanding equality for their Sunni compatriots. “There must be agreement with the demands… Nobody can say that the government is clean from errors.”
The Saudi/Wahhabi ruling elites’ historical animosity toward Shi’a brand of Islam has transcended its original religious root. It has become a tool for geopolitical expansion as exemplified by the Saudi regime’s invasion of Bahrain and its support for the opposition Sunni groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among other places. Saudi enmity toward Shi’a is not discreet, new, casual, or cheap. The Saudi rulers paid the former butcher of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein, $1 billion a month to wage and sustain a prolonged, bloody war against Shi’a Iran for eight years, 1980-1988.
As has been amply documented, Shi’a minorities are oppressed and massacred in Sunni-majority Muslim countries where Saudi influence ranks high as in Pakistan which has become a butcher house for Shi’a. As unabashedly described by an editorial in a Pakistani daily “… Saudi Arabia was able to influence the Pakistani leadership due to the power of petro-dollars. By dazzling our leadership with its wealth and dangling the ‘Kadhimain-Haramain-Sharifain’ title in front of the Pakistani public, the Saudi monarchy was able to get what it wanted from Pakistan. Be it exporting terrorism to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis, by funding sectarian madrassas that are actually terror factories, fanning sectarian conflict inside Pakistan through these same madrassas, buying land in Pakistan to ensure food security in the barren kingdom, or hunting endangered animals and birds with their UAE brethren on Pakistani soil, the Arab sheikhs have lorded it in and over Pakistan.”
The editorial went on to say, “Arab influence has already turned Pakistan into a blood-soaked battlefield… Pakistani society has become intolerant over the years because of various reasons, but most importantly because of Saudi Arabia’s powerful influence in our internal matters. The growth of Wahabism and extremism in Pakistan is mostly because of funding by Arab sheikhs.”
The escalation of killing Shi’a minorities in majority Sunni Muslim countries is more likely to lead to more reprisals against Sunni minorities in Shi’a majority countries as in Iran and Iraq. Furthermore, the more atrocious attacks on and killing of Shi’a minorities escalate, the more likely that Shi’a will resort to deadly violence against the regimes that encourage religious intolerance.
However, one can only hope that the Iraqi Shi’a majority would take the high road and treat their minority Sunni compatriots with respect and dignity. They are Iraqi citizens and their religious orientation should not matter. The Iraqis can set a noble example for other Arab and Muslim societies and regimes that subjugate segments of their citizens because of their religious rituals. To start, the Iraqis ought to vote Prime Minister Maliki out of office for discriminating against a segment of his society, if indeed the Saudi Foreign Minister claim is credible. The Iraqis, Shi’a and Sunnis are still struggling to put a just system in place through democratic process; a privilege unavailable to the Saudi people who suffer under autocratic and theocratic system.
Given the Saudi rulers’ oppression of their citizens, Sunnis and Shi’a, it’s difficult to accept that their superseding concern is justice for Iraq’s Sunni minority or for fear of Iraq becomes an Iranian colony. Rather, the Saudi elites’ daunting nightmare is the development of a united and thriving democratic Iraq with huge oil reserves on their border.
The most humane and very prudent policy toward Iraq is for the Saudi religious and political rulers to leave the Iraqis alone while they are trying to find solutions for their massive political, religious, ethnic, and economic problems.