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Reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? 28, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia, Soft Power.
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For those studying the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and attempting to discern its future directions, there are two broad schools of thought into which opinions fall. One says that the Kingdom is slowly but surely reforming; that the elite, or at least enough of the elite, are of the opinion that reforms are critical to the future of Saudi society. This line of thinking usually endows King Abdullah with relatively liberal values and a desire to open up the Kingdom. The other school suggests that the real heart of the elite is true-blue conservative, with a very large C. Concessions for greater rights and freedoms, where they have been made, were grudgingly employed because of international (or indeed domestic) pressure to do so. Whilst they may make hopeful noises from time to time about liberalisation, really, deep down, the regime just want things to remain the same as they were for their forefathers. The protagonist for this half of the argument is usually referred to as Prince Naif, the head of the Ministry of the Interior.

Therefore, for the student beginning to delve into the seemingly bipolar world of Saudi Arabian politics, there is a choice to make, and what is worse, there is ample evidence for both camps. This can most starkly be seen regarding the role of women in Saudi society and their rights, or lack thereof.

In the months around the turn of 2008, there have been a myriad of confusing, contradictory and, at times, disheartening reports on women’s rights. In November 2007 the Saudi appeal court doubled the sentence of a 19 year old Saudi woman who was gang raped 14 times from three to six months in jail and from 100 to 200 lashes. Her crime was sitting in a car with a man who was not related to her. This, understandably and justly, created international opprobrium and lead – over a month later – to Saudi King Abdullah pardoning the woman for the crime and thus sparing her the punishment.

Despite the barbarism of the initial sentencing and the staggering inhumanity and callousness of the appeal, in the end, some kind of sense prevailed. In January this year there was another small step forward for women’s rights, when it was decreed that women could now stay in hotel rooms by themselves. True, this is only provided that they had photo ID which would be photocopied and sent to the local police, but, again it is one small step in the right direction. More importantly, however, the very next day it was reported that women in Saudi Arabia would be able to drive ‘by the end of the year.’ This would be a massive step. The fact that a woman could drive is more or less incidental; it is the fact that this has become the symbol of the battle over Saudi women’s rights, which makes this so important.

Back in 1990 a group of women drove through the streets of Riyadh hoping to capitalise on the presence of so many foreign reporters in the Kingdom owing to the Gulf War, only to be arrested and have their jobs taken away. The time was, it seems, not right. However, that is all it is: time. All agree that there is nothing whatsoever in the Quran which forbids women to drive. Indeed, two prominent Saudi scholars including one of Saudi’s most senior religious figures, Abdel-Mohsin al-Obaikan, have recently reaffirmed this wide spread belief. However, aside from practical issues (is it safe for women to wear the mandatory Niqab when driving?) problems lie in the fact that many of those against allowing such a practice see this as making it easier for men and women to fraternise. Indeed, they see women driving as the first great step towards a more liberal and permissive society.

In recent years, there have been other smaller but still significant improvements in women’s rights, which could be seen as softening up the ground for the decisive decision over women driving. For example, women may now travel abroad without a male companion (though his permission is still needed), own companies and seek a divorce. Further sign of progress was seen at the end of January when the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs allowed the creation of a women’s charity – ‘Ansar Al Marrah’ (supporters of women). Its stated goal is to help women improve their social, educational, and cultural levels. The degree to which it will be able to help is, however, entirely dependant on the level of support that it receives from the authorities. Yet, this is, nevertheless, another positive sign.

Unfortunately, we may well get to see just how much power this charity has sooner rather then later. At the start of February a woman was arrested for having a coffee with a work colleague in a Starbucks. After being arrested, she was put in jail, denied the right to call her husband, and forced to thumbprint (sign) a prewritten confession. It was only when her husband found out about this and managed to pull some strings that she was released. There have been suggestions that she might seek legal advice against the religious police that arrested her and the Charity has offered their help.

The arrest was carried out by the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, who used to be a feared organisation in the Kingdom and were highlighted in a recent UN report as “reportedly often act[ing] independently and are accountable only to the governor…[and thus] said to be responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who ‘deviate from accepted norms.’” Their powers today are as wide ranging today as they have ever been, but, tellingly, in 2006 there were record numbers of attacks on the religious police by angry citizens in addition to a number of high profile incidents highlighting the seemingly growing trend against the police in more recent years. This could suggest that the Saudi population are turning a corner.

A number of factors appear to cause or support such changing attitudes. The explosion of blogging has been a well documented phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Whilst the police have been cracking down on this, including the arrest (for officially no reason) of one of the country’s most famous bloggers, Fouad Al Farhan, it is still a massively popular means for Saudi’s to discuss social and political issues. Also, the slow but sure encroachment of Western values via American soft power (i.e. through television, films, music, education in America etc) could finally be having an effect.

However, the religious police are not giving up easily, as shown by the arrest of large numbers of Saudi young men for the outrageous, scandalous, and reprehensible, moral, legal and ethical crime of allegedly “flirting” with a group of girls covered head to toe in a shopping mall in the Kingdom. Not to mention the arrest and sentencing of a lecturer at a Saudi University to flogging for meeting with a female student and the death sentence passed down to an illiterate woman who is accused of being a witch.

Perhaps it is a naïve comment to make, but despite such instances, I am personally convinced that, eventually, Saudi society will reform and treat its citizens equally. The only question is how well the country can manage this transformation. There is worrying scope for destabilisation, which King Abdullah is all too aware of. Indeed, maybe we ought to fall back on the trite, unhelpful, clichéd but thoroughly genuine fact that it took the Western world significantly longer than 150 years to give equality to the sexes. Saudi Arabia is a young country: all we can hope for is that it is a quick learner.

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1. Saudi Arabia flogs a 75 year old widow « The Gulf blog - 10, March 2009

[...] international, flogging, human rights, Saudi Arabia trackback As I have said on many occasions 1 2 3 4 5 with Saudi Arabia it is, more often than not, one step forward, several back. After [...]


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