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Grappling With the Implications of Saudi Arabia’s Transition 26, February 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud died and his half-brother, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, in a smooth transition, became King. This was the sixth succession in Saudi Arabia since it formally became ‘Saudi’ Arabia in 1932 under King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (d.1953).

So far, each Saudi ruler has been a son of the state’s founder, Abdul-Aziz. The first three kings (Abdul-Aziz, Saud, and Faisal) were in their fifties on ascending to the throne, their next two successors (Khalid and Fahd) were in their sixties, Abdullah was in his 70s when he became regent and in his 80s when he finally became King. Salman was three weeks into his 79th year when he became King. This mode of succession begs the question of what will the Kingdom do now that it is rapidly running out of compos mentis sons of Abdul-Aziz. This succession event was more important, therefore, in terms of what it sets in motion regarding the transition to the new generation than for weighing up the similarities and differences of Kings Abdullah and Salman.

The ministerial merry-go-round

Less than two months after eight new ministers were appointed under Abdullah, on assuming power, Salman swiftly instigated a raft of decrees shuffling the Saudi chess board once more. But, rather than the relatively cosmetic changes of the ministerial reshuffle of 8 December 2014, Salman’s changes concerned more important ministries and personalities. Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, a former intelligence chief, close US-ally (sometimes referred to as ‘Bandar bin Bush’), recently in charge of the Syria file, and who retained a key position advising Abdullah and as the head of the national security council, was sacked. Indeed, the council itself was dissolved, as were a dozen other committees and quangos. The upshot of this is the significant centralisation of the work of these defunct institutions to two bodies: the Council for Economic Development Affairs (CEDA) and the Council for Political and Security Affairs (CPSA).

One of Salman’s sons from his second marriage, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud (MbS), has gained significantly in the reshuffle. Aged somewhere between 29 and 35, MbS heads the hugely powerful CEDA institution. Though his father the King has followed the tradition of being his own Prime Minister, in effect, the purview of this position means that MbS is ‘Prime Minister in training.’ Of equal significance was his promotion to become the world’s youngest Minister of Defence; quite a surprise given his lack of a military background. He remains the head of his father’s court and so replaced the arch insider and power broker Khalid al-Tuwaijri , who was the head of the Royal Court for Abdullah and who is, according to some reports, now under house arrest.

Only Mohammed bin Naif al-Saud (MbN) can claim to have benefitted as well from the reshuffle. The 55 year-old MbN, a son of a former long-term Minister of the Interior and Crown Prince, Naif bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, has long been regarded as one of the most capable and efficient Ministers and consequently seen as primus inter pares of the second generation Princes in the race for the top job. He was promoted and officially anointed by the Allegiance Council [a body formed in 2006 to ratify such matters] as second-in-line to the throne. Though competition remains, as the second-in-line and as the head of the powerful CPSA, he is well positioned. In between MbN and the top job is Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the 69 year-old promoted to Crown Prince by Salman. That his mother was a Yemeni slave girl was often assumed to put him out of the reckoning for the position of King, but he now finds himself a heartbeat from ultimate power.

So what?

Rooting around in the tactical weeds of the who, what, and why of the changes in Saudi Arabia’s elite politics is, while interesting, not necessarily that useful. Firstly, it is too early to draw any substantive conclusions as to the wider ramifications of the changes. Secondly, it is a debatable point as to whether it is more generally possible to accurately plot the trajectory of change in the Kingdom. So opaque is the politics that deveining a link between action and reaction, of not confusing causation with mere correlation, is tediously difficult.

An analyst wanting to paint a doom-laden picture could point to the replacement of the head of the infamous Saudi religious police who was, much to the anger of those within the organisation, (slowly) reforming the medieval intuition. Similarly, the Game of Thrones-style replacement of two of Abdullah’s sons from positions of influence could easily be spun into a narrative of archetypal Machiavellian cutting and thrusting political intrigue. The blowing of $32 billion on gifts and bonuses for Saudis – a sum, as Hubbard notes, larger than Africa’s largest annual budget in Nigeria – also does not inspire confidence as to wider issues of fiscal prudence.

Those in search of a more positive twist could point to the technocratic appointment of a trained lawyer as the head of the stock market regulator, the installation of a military-trained commoner as intelligence chief, or the appointment of the editor of the secular al-Arabiya news channel as Information Minister. Other examples of pragmatism reining over politics include the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, and, crucially, petroleum and mineral resources remaining in post.

The best an analyst can do is to humbly plot the potential contours of the implications of the changes starting with what seems to be certain.

The known knowns

Salman has been at the heart of Saudi decision making for much of the past half-century. Though Abdullah is believed to have had a significant impact on the direction of Saudi policies, there is no evidence that suggests that Salman was an especially reluctant follower. Abdullah, after all, made him his Crown Prince. Some kind of about-turn in the pace of glacially slow reform – with occasional faster spurts – instigated by Abdullah seems unlikely.

With a strong record within the Kingdom for probity and having dealt relatively effectively with a wave of bombings in the mid and late-2000s (including being nearly killed by the world’s first rectal-bomb), and an apparently strong relationship with America too, MbN remains the favourite to be the first leader of Saudi Arabia from the new generation.

But Salman’s changes have quite clearly catapulted his young son, MbS, into the wider reckoning. No one else has as influential a seat in both the economic and the security camps in Saudi Arabia, not to mention his role as gatekeeper to his father’s court.

While MbN seems to offer a tried and tested safe pair of hands, MbS does not. He has no pedigree of any import whatsoever to take to his new, centrally important roles in the Kingdom. Doubtless his father saw some signs within him that persuaded him to heroically over-promote this son over others, but these skills are yet to be seen on the wider stage.

The known unknowns

Given the near-vertical rise of MbS and the real power that he now wields but the profound lack of knowledge about his skills, this situation must be classified as concerning. Partly this is an issue of basic capability of the Saudi-educated young Prince. But partly this is about the installation of an entirely untried and untested Prince at the centre of Saudi politics for, potentially, a number of decades. Four Deputy Defence Ministers have been sacked in the last 15 months alone, which some analysts suggest may be to do with MbS’s growing influence; a notion given more credence now that he has been appointed Minister of Defence. This could, of course, be a good thing: perhaps he demands a level of professionalism that they could not meet; equally, perhaps the opposite is the case.

Linked to this issue is the wider speculation surrounding the battle for prominence of the Princes of the next generation. Given the historical importance of a military background or otherwise developing strong connections to some form of hard-power, there are three key princes: MbN the Minister of the Interior and head of the security-orientated committee, MbS as the Minister of Defence, and Miteb bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, who, though he has lost influence and backing of his brothers who were sacked from their Governorship roles, retains a loyal, effective, fighting force (and his brothers could well return).

La Plus Ca Change? 

Eschewing the fatalistic supposition that all of Saudi politics belongs to the realm of the unknown unknowns, it is tempting to conclude that the near-term successions are not looking too challenging. Muqrin is in line to take the throne and, though the strength of his mandate on becoming Crown Prince (i.e. the number of votes he received in the Allegiance Council) is not known, it may be assumed that he will succeed. But even if he does not, the only logical alternative in view at this juncture is MbN usurping him. Such an outcome, though not immediately likely, does not present too problematic a challenge.

Perhaps the only clear outcome from this past transition is that issues surrounding jumping down a generation have actually been complicated, potentially worryingly so, and not simplified. If MbN had been made second deputy Crown Prince amid a cabinet reshuffle, then the only reasonable conclusion would have been to see him as a clear favourite. But the rise of MbS in and of itself poses MbN a direct challenger with the portfolios to gather support and influence.

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Saudi Arabia’s succession: runners, riders, and dynamics 16, June 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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The key positions in Saudi Arabia are still mostly held by sons of the founder the modern Saudi state, Abdulaziz Al Saud (or Ibn Saud, as he is commonly known). This means that those in power are often exceedingly old and thus in ill-health and the death of two Crown Princes within nine months testifies to this concern.

There is a paradoxical issue here. On the one hand, the passing of power from one man to the next does not make a huge amount of difference. Change in Saudi Arabia occurs at a glacial pace. There is just no room for a new, dynamic leader to take the top job, ‘clean house’, and institute significant changes. Thus, there is no real concern that immediate policies and practices will change. However, simultaneously, Saudi Arabia’s politics is heading towards a cliff of some description. It is running out of sons of Ibn Saud and the stints in power of coming Kings will necessarily be short. There need to be practices and procedures in place to manage the transition to the next generation, the grandsons of Ibn Saud. An Allegiance Council was set up to deal with this but this is essentially untested and everyone is fully aware that it will only play a role if it is allowed to by the more powerful Princes.

Another key piece of the succession pie lies in the blocks of power within the Kingdom.

The Sudairis

Carrying a disproportionate amount of sway are the descendants of Ibn Saud and his marriage to his favored wife, Princess Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. Former King Fahd was the leader of this block and held power – nominally at least – from 1982 to 2005 allowing several Sudairi to be firmly inculcated into seats of power in Saudi Arabia. Despite this ‘good start’, this branch has suffered recently so some degree, with the deaths of Crown Prince Sultan in 2011 and Crown Prince Nayef.

Nevertheless Sudairis still include Defence Minister Salman, Deputy Minister of Interior Prince Ahmed, a former Deputy Minister of Defence Prince AbdulRahman, and Prince Turki, who seems to be agitating after his return to Saudi Arabia for a position.

The Faisals

Successors to King Saud, the immediate successor to Ibn Saud, the current long serving Foreign Minister, Saud is the leading Faisal member. Other prominent Faisals include Prince Khalid who has the centrally important role as Governor of Mecca, and Prince Turki who was the intelligence chief from 1977-2001. Turki was subsequently Ambassador to America and the UK, but subsequently disappeared from view for some time, though he retains a latent importance.

The Abdullah faction

The current King, Abdallah, has, so to speak, his own faction. He forged his place as head of the well regarded Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) from 1962-2010 as key to balancing to the ordinary Saudi Arabian Land Forces under Sudairi control. His problem stems from the fact that he has no full brothers in key positions, so his power has been invested in his sons.

Miteb was recently given charge of the SANG in a move which guarantees that he will be powerful for the foreseeable future, while Khalid is on the Allegiance Council, Mishal is the Governor or Najran province, and Abdulaziz as an adviser in the Royal court.

 

Runners and riders

Salman bin Abdulaziz (b.1936, Defence Minister)

Elevated to Defence Minister in November 2011 after being Governor of Riyadh. In his 9 months at the MOD he became highly respected for his work ethic and his desire to implement changes to the archaic practices and procedures. He is widely seen as likely to be elevated to Crown Prince.

Muqrin bin Abdulaziz (b.1945, Saudi Intelligence Chief)

A Minister with a key portfolio and an impressive track record in his post. Moving him would be a tricky matter and he does not have a good lineage, with his mother being non-Saudi. Unlikely to become Crown Prince. Could move to Defence, but will probably stay where he is.

Khalid Bin Sultan (b.1949, Assistant Defence Minister)

Performed poorly in battle in Yemen in 2009 and thus was not elevated to Minister of Defence when his father died. Given this public rebuke, he cannot become Crown Prince, but could conceivably finally become Minister of Defence if Salman becomes Crown Prince, though this is far from guaranteed.

Bandar Bin Sultan (b.1949, Former Ambassador to America)

Formerly a hugely important figure who has more recently been lost in the proverbial desert. Despite this and his non-traditional lineage on his mother’s side, he is a widely respected figure who could play some role.

Saud Bin Faisal (b.1941, Foreign Minister)

Widely respected but old and ill. There has been talk of him stepping down from the Foreign Ministry so taking on another role would seem to make no sense.

Prince Turki Bin Faisal (b.1945, Former intelligence head; UK & US Ambassador)

Still an influential and ethereal figure today. A chequered history, though, and a decidedly non-conservative streak suggest that he will not be promoted.

Mishaal Bin Abdulaziz (b.1926, Former Defence Minister, Governor of Mecca, Chair of Allegiance Council)

Far too old even in a Saudi context to be considered.

Sattam Bin Abdulaziz (b.1941, Governor of Riyadh)

Recently became Governor of Riyadh, a key position; it is distinctly possible that he would be elevated at some stage.

Ahmed Bin Abdulaziz (b.1941, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Deputy Governor of Mecca)

Largely overlooked thus far, Ahmed nevertheless has a strong reputation and could conceivably find himself with another job in the coming weeks.

…..

Mohammed Bin Nayef (b.1959, Assistant Minister of the Interior)

He has earned an excellent reputation in the MOI for improving its counter-terrorism and intelligence abilities though being a worldly, un-dogmatic, and diligent worker. Would have been a clear leader to be a future Crown Prince had his father lived to be King. Will still be among the key contenders; he is the son of a key Sudairi after all, though he is very young.

Khalid Bin Faisal (b.1940, Governor of Mecca)

The Governorship of Mecca carries with is significant responsibility and prestige. He has been in the post for five years now. He is one of the older candidates of those not a son of Ibn Saud, which in the Saudi context could be significant.

Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah (b.1963, Deputy Foreign Minister)

Formerly of the SANG where he spent over a decade, he has for almost a year been the Deputy Foreign Minister. He is also on the board of KAUST, hoped to be one of the key institutions of change in Saudi Arabia, and stands a good chance of being the next foreign Minister at least.

Abdulaziz bin Salman (b.1960, Minister of Oil)

His position as Minister of Oil guarantees him a prominent role in Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen how much Salman will seek to elevate him.

Miteb bin Abdullah (b.1953, Commander of SANG)

In control of arguably the most potent army in Saudi Arabia and carries significant sway. Certainly a potential for future Crown Prince, though it depends upon whether his father can make a deal to see this come to fruition after he passes, or whether he can arrange a ‘second Deputy Prime Minister’ spot as he did for Nayef in 2009, effectively lining him up to the throne.

Mishaal Bin Abdullah (Governor of Najran Province)

Najran Province borders Yemen and is thus of huge strategic importance to Saudi Arabia. This kind of ‘training’ can be played upon to secure his future elevation in position.

Mohammed bin Fahd (b.1951, Governor of the Eastern Province)

Like Mishaal, with ‘training’ in such a key areas as the Eastern Province, Mohammed is potentially ready for a higher role.

Saudi King in ‘co-ed’ picture shock! 8, May 2010

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Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appears in a picture with women at a conference. As small as this picture or gesture may seem, this is really quite a progressive statement. Not only does it explicitly go against the Saudi rhetoric of the strict separation of men and women, but the majority of the women are not wearing Niqabs and I can even – sacre bleu! – see a few strands of hair.

This is but the latest example of the elderly King’s clear statements on reform in Saudi Arabia. Not only did he inaugurate the Kingdom’s first co-ed educational institution but he decreed that it be free from the depredations of the religious police. Therefore, on campus, women can drive, do not need to wear headscarves and can mingle freely with the opposite sex. When challenged by a senior cleric on this, he responded immediately by sacking him. Another bold move.

The questions that is now on everybodys’ lips is what till happen after Abdullah is no longer King. Although Prince Sultan the Crown Prince practically returned from the dead, it is unlikely that he would take over for his health is surely still too fragile. Instead, Prince Naif, an arch conservative, was made deputy Crown Prince. He is generally accepted to be the logical successor. Whether he would seek to roll back some of the reforms is the million dollar question.

One last quick note: people often innately assume that ‘it must’ be a case of the Saudi rulers holding back their people who ‘automatically’ want more progressive laws because – well – that’s ‘just’ what people want. Not in Saudi Arabia. Overall, I’d be tempted to say that in fact it is the people who are more conservative than the government and it is the average Saudi who is resistant to change. How the younger generations will change this balance is another interesting question.

KAUST: a summary 27, December 2009

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I have commented many a time on Saudi’s new high-tech University (here, here, here and here) but Saudi Jeans offers a pithy, concise summary of the state of play so far, concentrating on the back-tracking of the great and the good in Saudi as soon as it became clear that King Abdullah really wasn’t joking when he said that it would be a ‘liberal’ coeducational  institution.

Before KAUST, segregation was the norm and mixing was haraam. Then KAUST happened, and suddenly mixing turns out to be okay. Al-Shethri opened his mouth. He was sacked. The others got the message.

The new Minister of Justice explained in detail how segregation is a foreign concept and mixing is actually cool. Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of haya’a in Makkah, gave a lengthy interview to Okaz where he basically said that there is nothing wrong with mixing and those who oppose it are opposing Sharia. Meanwhile, his organization continue to terrorize people in other parts of the country.

Clown Mohammed al-Nujaimi before KAUST was inaugurated stressed the importance of segregation in education, something he described as one of the fundamentals on which the Saudi state was built. Few weeks later, after al-Shethri was sacked, he took a full U-turn.

Problem is, apologists like Jamal Khashoggi now have to make up lies to make this sounds normal. Mixing at KAUST is very restricted, he says, that a Venezuelan student can’t have his Mexican female friend over at his place.

Is that true, Nathan? I know you threw a nice Thanksgiving party earlier this year, and from the pics I can see you had some girls over. I hope you didn’t get any trouble after that party.

So confusion prevails. In the past we were told mixing is sinful. Now we are told it is alright. Those who don’t want to appear contradicted talk about good mixing and bad mixing. Are we supposed to believe the “mixers,” the “segregationists,” or the “hypocrites”? Such a dilemma…

KAUST: criticisms and its future 5, November 2009

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Ibrahim Al Rubaish, a member of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has released a tape decrying Saudi King Abdullah’s decision to allow mixed sex education at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near Jeddah. The recording treads a familiar and predictable path accusing Abdullah of violating Sharia law and failing in his duty to protect Islam.

Al Rubaish himself is quite interesting. Interred at Guantanamo until his release into Saudi’s custody back in 2006, he entered their much vaunted rehabilitation programme until he left and promptly fled to Yemen and joined up with what passes for Al Qaeda there.

He is neither the first nor will he be the last to criticize King Abdullah’s $7bn pet project. More or less as soon as it was opened it was heavily criticised from within Saudi Arabia for – amongst other things – barring Saudi’s religious police from entering its perimeters. Therefore, in the compound, women can drive, do not need to cover their hair and will mix generally with the men, all of which is prohibited outside KAUST.

As I have discussed before, KAUST’s future is, as far as I see it, uncertain. Despite having world-class technology such as one of the world’s fastest super-computers, getting staff to move to Saudi Arabia to use it may well be a problem. Agreements with, for example, Oxford University and Stanford University, will get scientists and researchers there for relatively short-term stints, but this is hardly building a base of qualified staff for the long-term. Indeed, despite the no doubt high salaries, overall, I still expect that they will struggle.

Of greater concern to KAUST is, or at least should be, the thorny issue of Saudi’s succession. The current Crown Prince is, it seems, all but dead. I do not mean this in an unkind way, but simply that his death has been expected for some time now and reported on some occasions. Therefore, Prince Naif, the 34 year veteran of the Ministry of the Interior was made Second Deputy Prime Minister in March 2009. It appears that this position was made to simplify the route of succession, given Crown Prince Sultan’s severely ill-health.

Prince Naif is, however, generally believed to be something of an arch-conservative which, when said in a Saudi Arabian context, ought to give one pause for thought. His tenure at the head of the Ministry of the Interior has seen him, for example, crackdown repeatedly on Saudi’s Shia minority whom, I believe, greatly fear him coming to power. I have not come across an account of his personal views on the KAUST project but if (as seems reasonable) they can be extrapolated from his other long documented conservative tendencies, then it is safe to say he would disapprove.

However, this is not to say that he would automatically clamp down on KAUST were he to ascend to the throne. There is a powerful argument running through ‘Saudi studies’ which dictates that Saudi’s leader’s policies are shaped more by Saudi’s situation than by their own personal proclivities. King Abdullah’s reforms are, therefore, as much if not more due to the mandates of, for example, the international situation post 9/11 and Saudi’s ever more pressing need to seriously address their lack of top-class educational institutions as it was because of his own ‘liberal’ tendencies.

The truth, as ever, no doubt falls somewhere in the middle. So far, it does seem unlikely – though far, far from impossible – that the unquestionably negative and conservative signal that clamping down on KAUST would send for would-be academics as well as for those on a governmental level might stay Naif’s hand. This is, of course, pure speculation but that is almost beside the point. The very fact that this concern is a factor worth discussing is, in and of itself, a perfect example of the uncertainty that will, in addition to structural and other issues, continue to make KAUST’s job of recruiting, teaching and excelling all the harder.

Abdullah fires KAUST critic 5, October 2009

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Saudi King Abdullah has fired the recent outspoken critic of his newest project, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST). Sheikh Saad Al Shethry decried the University where sexes can mix together freely, women can drive and do not have to wear the Hijab. Perhaps worst of all for Al Shethry, the curriculum itself along with the University as a whole is outwith the remit of the Religious Authorities.

Abdullah’s quick removal of this vocal critic is a strong sign of his intent to protect the integrity of the University. However, as I said in an earlier blog posting, the real challenge comes when the presumed successor – the arch Conservative Prince Nayef – takes over. If he carries on with his Conservative outlook that has epitomized his time in the Ministry of the Interior, it seems unlikely that the University will retain such protection.

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.