Women can Democratize and Save Saudi Arabia

Friday, 03 November 2017 18:28 administrator

Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, Washington DC

November 3, 2017

Women can Democratize and Save Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed Operates Extemporaneously and Jihadis Setback

Prince Mohammed bin Salman Misspoke About Religious Tolerance

CDHR Commentary: In a speech to potential investors in the Saudi capital, Riyadh on October 24, 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “pledged” to return to the era when the population of Arabia consisted of Jews, Christians and pagans who practiced their beliefs and rituals freely 14 ½ centuries ago.  He declared, ‘We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.’

Prince Mohammed misspoken. Except for less religious oppression under the Hashemite rule in the Hijaz region, there has never been religious tolerance in Arabia since the establishment of Islam in the 6th century. When the Saudi/Wahhabi Ikhwan (brothers) invaded the Hijaz region in the 1920s and before, they destroyed Christian and Jewish cemeteries, historical infrastructure, artifacts and sculptures. They still do the same to Shi’a cemeteries in the 21st century.

Prince Mohammed has been issuing contradictory statements and promises on which no one seems to believe he can deliver. Endowed with unprecedented powers bestowed on him by his ultraconservative father King Salman, Prince Mohammed seems to be operating compulsively and erratically. For example, he stated in May 2017, that there can be no negotiations with Shi’a Muslims, specifically Iran, because they are trying to control the Muslim World, the majority of which is Sunni Muslim and cleanse it in preparation for the return of the Shi’a’s Messiah, the Mahdi.

Two months later, July 2017, Prince Mohammed invited a powerful anti-American hard core Iraqi Shi’a cleric, Muqtada-Al-Sadr to visit him in Saudi Arabia. Two months after that, October 2017, Prince Mohammed and his father invited the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi (a Shi’a) to visit Saudi Arabia to discuss re-opening of the Saudi-Iraqi borders, restoring diplomatic relations at all levels and reestablishing trade and other economic venues between ultra-conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia and its mostly Shi’a Iraqi neighbor. Now it looks like the Saudis are using Al-Abadi to play a fence-mending role with Iran, their major religious and geopolitical competitor.

However, regardless of Prince Mohammed’s desperate need to attract foreign investment to resuscitate the faltering Saudi economy, restore some of the ebbing economic and geopolitical Saudi influence regionally and globally and to prevent the return of thousands of Saudi terrorists from Iraq and Syria, he should be given the benefit of the doubt. The fact that he is making unprecedented public statements about forbidden topics, albeit embryonic and unimplementable without transformation of Saudi Arabia, are steps in the right direction, even if they do not get implemented.

Mohammed Bin Salman’s success and survival as a ruler depend on fulfilling at least significant portions of his declarations and promises. He is walking a very thin political line domestically, facing hesitant foreign investors, innovators and defenders. But more than anything else, he needs the support and trust of the millions of unemployed, disenfranchised and freedom-seeking Saudi youth (described as a  ticking time bomb), without whom he will be no more than another corrupt absolute ruler like all of his predecessors.

We wish Prince Mohammed luck and success; but luck alone tends to have a fleeting tenure even for absolute oligarch.

Saudi Women Allowed in Sports’ Arenas

CDHR Commentary: There’s no one to thank for this too little too late embryonic step other than the Saudi women's courage to defy chauvinism, extremism, misogyny and men’s inferiority complex. God bless Saudi women and the liberating social media, the creation of the “infidels,” a draconian phrase generations of Saudi power-wielders have used to maintain total control over every aspect of the population’s lives, livelihood, movements and thinking.

Maybe the young Saudi ruling elites are recognizing that their survival requires diversification of their sources of legitimacy. Accepting women as full citizens is the right move to make, especially if the intent goes beyond the deflective window dressing we have seen in recent years. Social change and mental reconstruction are challenging, but nothing is beyond repair, even in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Women Can Save And Democratize Saudi Arabia

CDHR Commentary: The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, has been inundated with inquiries about the reasons behind King Salman’s decree to allow women to drive and “why wait another nine months instead of now?” The reasons are many and nine months is the time it will take the regime to work out plans that will ensure permitting women to drive will benefit the king and his sons and  compensate for erosion in their power-base due to increasing defections among powerful clerics and their followers. This is also a deflective tactic by the regime to divert people’s attention from their current economic hardships caused by dwindling revenues, rampant corruption and increases in expenditures for arms procurement and external conflicts.

Regardless of King Salman’s and his designated heir Mohammed Bin Salmans’ motives, allowing Saudi women to drive is a victory against the misogynistic and anti-modernity religious extremists and traditionalists who consider women private property and are obsessed with their sexuality. This historical event will go down in history books as the beginning of the inexorable: the split between the ruthless Saudi and Wahhabi allies. This is a victory for a better future for the Saudi people, and thus, for Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide.

For decades, the autocratic Saudi monarchs and their zealot legitimizers and bedrock powerbase clerics have invoked tradition, religion and even science to disqualify and deny women their basic human rights, such as the right to drive, work, travel, choose their spouses or drive their loved ones to hospitals in times of life threatening emergencies unless permitted by their male guardians, a system equivalent to modern slavery.

Despite institutionalized bigoted and belittling state’s policies, many brave and resilient Saudi women have been defying authorities for decades. In 1990, 47 women took advantage of the presence of American women soldiers driving heavy military equipment in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Knowing and expecting that the State’s reaction would be swift and ruthless, those valiant women took their husbands’ cars keys and took a short ride in Riyadh. They were quickly stopped, detained, lost their jobs and accused of treason. However, their well-organized and brilliantly executed short ride began a domestic movement that drew global attention to the Saudi regime’s and its religious dogmatists’ debasing policies toward women.

While removing the destructive driving ban is an embryonic step that will be challenged, delayed and many women may even lose their lives at the hands of male relatives, it’s a step in the right direction. However, it will be premature, or a big mistake, to assume (as Saudi lobbyists, deluded commentators and apologists are preaching) that this step will be followed by removal of a multitude of political, social, religious, cultural and economic discrimination against women. King Salman is not known for supporting or empowering Saudi women; thus, it is safe to assume that he wants the world to blame society, not the system, for women’s oppression as he has stated all his life. One of his first actions when he inherited the throne in January 2015, was firing the only woman minister, Norah Al-Faiz.

The Saudi rulers are faced with intractable domestic challenges that can potentially push King Salman and his sons over the precipice, if quick solutions are not found. They are faced with an unprecedented revenue shortfall due to plummeting oil prices, dangerous royal family fragmentation, millions of unemployed youth, costly military actions in Yemen, de facto occupation of Bahrain and disintegration of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC.) These unsettling issues pose real immediate and long-term threats of the kind the detested Saudi ruling dynasty has not encountered since the establishment of its kingdom in 1932. They are also surrounded by Arab uprisings that have toppled other tyrannical Arab regimes.

Additionally, the Saudis are slowly dwarfed by the rise of other ruthless regional strategic and ideological competitors and players such as Iran, Turkey, Egypt under President Sisi, Iraq, Syria (Assad clinching to power), Hezbollah, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda, among others. Accompanying these daunting developments is the Saudis’ diminishing ability to purchase loyalties due to their severely reduced petrodollar revenues, the primary source of their income. The combination of these two threatening realities is chipping at the core of the Saudi domestic stability and their regional and global influence. The consequences of declining Saudi power can have more far-reaching implications than having been publicly addressed. The Saudi rulers will likely rely more on pervasive domestic political repression, destabilizing military adventures and extremist communities to maintain some degrees of influence and to extract favoritism abroad.

Furthermore, the Saudis’ traditional Western governmental defenders and partners are being increasingly challenged by their societies’ disapproval of embracing and protecting a regime whose name is synonymous with discrimination, extremism, terrorism and intolerance of other beliefs, explicitly Judaism and Christianity, whose adherents are labeled swine and apes in Saudi school books.

These recent dicey developments continue to pose real threats that the Saudis are neither equipped nor capable of solving without massive external financial investments, technological expertise, strategic defense and domestic support based on a sense of national obligation, not fear of intimidation by the system, as is the case now.

This brings us to the role the United States can or ought to play. The US is the only country that is capable and most likely willing to save the Saudi regime and defend its threatened kingdom. The question is at what price, for how long and is it in the US’s best interest to continue protecting an unpopular autocracy, given the changing undercurrents and variables within Saudi Arabia and more so, in the Arab world, including the Gulf Region?

The current Administration has an opportunity and is in a strong position to convince the Saudi rulers and other Gulf Arab US allies to rethink their policies and actions, both domestically and externally. They are likely to comply, as demonstrated by Defense Secretary Mattis’ and Secretary of State Tillerson’s carrot and stick approach during the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. The Saudi rulers are more vulnerable, divided, weaker and unstable today than they have ever been. Given their long and beneficial relations with the US and knowing that America is their only savior or most formidable foe, the Saudi and other Gulf oligarchies will obey. They remember what happened to Saddam of Iraq, Mubarak of Egypt, Gadafy of Libya and Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran in 1953.

Given these realities, the US can condition its defense of the Saudis and other Gulf Arab ruling families on stability in each Gulf country, based not on the sword, but on empowering the millions of aspiring 21st century’s Arab men and women. Gulf rulers must share real power with their populations, many of whom blame and turn against the US and its democratic allies for their marginalization by their ruthless rulers who control every aspect of their lives and livelihood.

The first step is to persuade the ruling dynasties to declare their irreversible intent to become constitutional monarchies within 10 years. During that time, representative public committees must be formed to draw up new governing rules and regulations (i.e., non-sectarian constitutions) upon which power transition and sharing will be based. At the same time, free transparent and globally supervised municipal elections for local government’s councils can be conducted to wean people away from being submissive subjects to becoming self-ruling citizens.

Removing one of the most unjustified and destructive impediments (the ban on women’s right to drive) to potential progress in Saudi Arabia will provide the Saudi monarchy with a more reliable, stable and forward-looking powerbase, women instead of clerics. As the dominant political and military power wielders in the Gulf Arab region, the Saudis can save themselves and their Gulf allies by recognizing and accepting that if they don’t change, they will be changed.

It’s a self-defeating process to continue arguing that the Saudi and other Gulf populations are not ready for democracy because of their religions and cultures. People can adapt and embrace change, especially when it represents a vast improvement over what they have. Based on their career experiences, Secretaries Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis know more about this fact than most people.

Saudi Women: Fighting Injustice and Challenging Extremists

CDHR Commentary: Ensaf Haidar, like many brave Saudi women such as Eman AlNafjan, Huwaider, Loujain, Maysaa Al-AmoudiSouad Al-Shammary and Manal al-Sharif, just to name a few, are in the forefront in the fight against political, religious and social injustice, inequality and intolerance in Saudi Arabia. Most of them have been imprisoned, stigmatized, exiled, denied opportunities and accused of being sacrilegious and brainwashed by the Western “debauched” way of life (i.e., freedom of expression.) And worst of all, they have been accused of being threats to the country’s stability, security and society’s cohesiveness. These are pejorative catchphrases the system uses to justify its policies of oppression. Saudi women have been targeted by the Saudi ferocious Wahhabi dogmatist institutions and its harsh Shariah laws for centuries.

These valiant women’s counterpart male reformers, like Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani and his eleven co-founders of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights'Raif Badawi (Ensaf Haider’s spouse), Hamza Kashgari (a free thinker), Waleed Abu al-Khair (a human rights lawyer), Shaikh Sulaiman Al-Rushoudi and many political reformers and social justice pioneers are subjected to the same maligning allegations, plus lengthy incarcerations, fines and other debasing treatment, such as flogging in public squares. It is estimated that there are currently 30 thousand Saudi prisoners of conscience. Most of them are rounded up and locked away in penitentiaries without charge or due process. It is known that a significant number of Saudi prisoners are advocates of free expression, religious freedom, gender equality and constitutional monarchy.

Despite expectations by many Saudis and assumptions by non-Saudi observers of Saudi affairs, younger royals are not only pursuing their autocratic elders’ repressive policies, but seem to be worse bullies, as stated by Dr. Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi political commentator and former advisor to some Saudi officials. Now he is running for his life because he said “what’s happening in Saudi Arabia” ‘…is unlike anything Saudis have experienced before…It was becoming so suffocating back at home that I was beginning to fear for myself.’ In fact, no one is safe or has any legal protection in Saudi Arabia. Decisions of life and death lie in the hands of the King and his apparent heir, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

The question the Saudi royals should be asking themselves is how do they hope to reform their faltering economy and save their threatened kingdom if they continue to pursue policies and practices of intimidation and if many of their best and brightest citizens are languishing, like Al-Ha’ir, in dungeons, for no reason other than being advocates of tolerance and stabilizing values? Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the next in line for the Saudi throne, and other princes and princesses can only save themselves and the country over which they have total control from continuing to slide toward a future of wars, extremism, terrorism and economic uncertainties if they share power with the population. Prince Mohammed can convince his father, the ultra-conservative King Salman, to release all political prisoners, not terrorists, from Saudi oubliettes and empower them to help save and move the country forward before the spillover of the Arab Spring finds its way to the Saudi royals’ fortified and gold-plated living rooms.

This can be done in a peaceful manner and can give the population a stake in the system which thus far is controlled by the absolute ruling Al-Saud family. The US and its Western allies have a stake in the stability and security of Saudi Arabia and its fragile neighboring Gulf Arab states. Instead of continuing to embolden the Saudi ruling family to continue its policies of oppression and marginalization, the Trump Administration, specifically, can best serve US interests by convincing the Saudi rulers that their 21st century’s aspiring young population, especially women, must be empowered to help govern their country and lead it toward a brighter, safer and more prosperous future for all.

President Trump takes pride in declaring repeatedly that his daughter, Ivanka, is his best and most capable advisor. Saudi daughters deserve to have opportunities to be the best and most capable advisors, governors and bread winners in the country where they are born and live, but in which they are now treated as property of men, the state and its rulers.

Jihadis Do Not Prepare for Victory, But for Actions After Setbacks

CDHR Commentary: Destroying their infrastructure, annihilating many of their members and uprooting known ISIS Jihadis from Iraq and Syria seem to create more anxieties than celebration in many parts of the world, including the US Congress. Even though the reactions are mixed, no one expressed victory over expelling ISIS from its entrenched positions in Iraq and Syria.  The nerves reactions by many observers and decision-makers are based on historical precedence. Well-organized and funded major Muslim Jihadi groups, like ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, have demonstrated their survival elasticity. They know that they are no match for powerful states’ mechanized armed forces, thus they plan in advance where to go and what to do when they’re defeated militarily.

Emboldened by their successes in terrorizing and defeating the Soviets’ (Russians’)100 thousand mechanized military forces in Afghanistan (in late 1980s), Al-Qaeda and its like-minded Afghani and Pakistani Jihadis under the leadership of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, turned against their former allies, specifically the Saudis and the US for the same reasons that led them to rid Afghanistan of foreign invaders. As stated by Osama bin Laden in these sobering interviews, their objectives from the outset were to cleanse Muslim lands from imperialist “infidels” and destroy their designated Arab and Muslim autocratic regimes.

The Jihadis were bombarded, hunted and forced to hide in caves and in inhospitable remote villages in many countries. Despite that, the Jihadis regrouped, recruited more martyrs, raised more money and became deadlier than ever. They planned and carried out some of the 21st century’s most devastating attacks the world had not expected. They flawlessly planned and executed the murderous September 2001 (9/11) attack on the most advanced, democratic and powerful nation on earth, the United States of America. Two years later (2003), they carried out another devastating attack on the most fortified and autocratically ruled country in the world, Saudi Arabia, which happens to be the birth place of Al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden and home to the ideology (Wahhabism) that has inspired his deadly organization to terrorize and kill thousands of people around the world.

After the demise of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, many governments and analysts predicted that the Jihadis organizations’ ability to raise funds and recruit a new generation of martyrs is ending. Their prognostications were premature, to say the least. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are more powerful today than they have ever been. The Taliban are ravaging Afghanistan and Pakistan more frequently than ever. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates control large swaths of strategic locations in Yemen, around the Gulf of Aden where most of Arab and Persian oil passes through the Bab Al-Mandab straight. Al-Qaeda affiliates, like Al-Shabab and Abu Sayyaf continue to grow and wreak havoc in many parts of Africa and parts of Asia.

These realities are partially the reason for heightened global anxieties instead of sighs of relief after ISIS was militarily crushed in Iraq and Syria recently, despite Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford’s assurances that ISIS is in its way out. In September 2017, he forecast that “Six months from now,” ‘we’ll have continued to degrade, most importantly, their external operations capability: the ability they have to plan and conduct external operations. I think we’ll have undermined their narrative; they will increasingly not be able to say there’s a physical caliphate in existence. I think that’ll have an impact on their recruiting. We’ve already seen the numbers drop, the numbers of individuals who are inspired to join the ISIS movement.’

If recent history is any guide, Muslim Jihadis will prove General Dunford wrong as they have done on previous occasions. Jihadis will not be defeated as long as the ideological root causes of terrorism remain intact and Muslim autocratic regimes continue to repress their populations and prevent them from debating whether Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and equality or, as many argue, inherently a violent faith.

Western powers and businesses have the means and flexibility to convince their autocratic Arab and Muslim trade partners to share power with their disenfranchised populations so that they can debate what kind of Islam they want. But first, separating religion from public policy and state functions can go a long way in defeating extremism, the incubator and nurturer of terrorism.

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Last Updated on Friday, 03 November 2017 18:59