Saudis ponder nationhood as reform stumbles in face of political myths
Several myths, propagated inside Saudi Arabia and outside it, continue to influence the way people assess the Saudi enigma.
One myth is the claim that the state reflects tribal coalitions. The reality is that today the only tribe which practices political tribalism in Saudi Arabia is that of the Al-Saud. Over the past 100 years the Al-Saud have evolved from being a family into being a tribe. Saudi society continues to hold onto the social and identity aspects of tribalism, but no political tribalism is evident. Sections of Saudi society adhere to the ethos of the tribe but do not exhibit the political aspect of tribalism.
Meanwhile, the tribes that once exerted a role have been pacified and are now divided and have been co-opted by the state. To imagine that Saudi tribes form coherent units with obvious overarching leadership – which will rise in protest or opposition to the regime – is absurd. The strongest tribe today is that of the Al-Saud.
Rise of Najd
The second myth is that the Saudi state is a Najdi state which dominates the rest of the regions (Hijaz, Hasa, and Asir). This discourse has featured strongly among minorities (for example the Shia) and among regional intellectuals in the Hijaz and other peripheral areas in the Kingdom, for example in the south, southwest and northern territories. This discourse is inaccurate because Najd is a heterogeneous geographical region with a diverse population, which in the past had an ambivalent relationship with the Al-Saud.
Najd consists of three regions: the first is a southern area (al-Aridh), where the strongest military and religious support for the Al-Saud existed; the second is a middle area, al-Qasim, historically a buffer zone which at one time supported the Al-Saud and at other times rejected them. This region is most interesting. The sedentary population – historically merchants, agriculturalists, craftsmen and religious scholars with a strong rivalry between the two main urban centres of Buraydah and Unayzah – produced the first intellectuals, religious scholars, atheists, and loyal supporters of the Al-Saud, but also the most liberal and anti-monarchists; the third area is the northern Najd, which is historically anti-Saudi and strongly organised along tribal lines and with an orientation towards Iraq and Syria.
Beginning in 1932, the state practised the policy of shifting coalitions in Najd itself but also in other parts of the country. It promoted one local leadership in Najd at the expense of another. It also divided tribes, families and towns as a result of unequal distribution of wealth, subsidies and other benefits in cash and kind (for example land distribution). Therefore, the population of Najd is divided: tribes are divided and even families are divided as a result of a systematic policy of co-option and exclusion exercised by the state throughout the twentieth century.
A state for Wahhab?
The third myth is that the state is Wahhabi. Although the Salafi reform movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was an ideological tool without which the three Saudi states would not have been established, the current state can hardly be described as Wahhabi.
In the second half of the twentieth century, religious Salafi trans-nationalism created an intellectual hybridity within the Salafi tradition, including within the Wahhabi movement itself. Religious trends have been diverse to the extent that any intellectual historian would have serious problems identifying the origin of religious ideas.
Today there are three trends within the Saudi religio-political realm:
First: a closed religious reactionary trend claiming to be faithful to the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and which is in control of the official religious establishment. Religious scholars belonging to this trend are more likely to be occupied with questions relating to the length of the Islamic dress for men, the beard, the ban on visitation to tombs, the veneration of saints and trees, and the total submission to wali al amr (who, according to the famous Saudi Mufti Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Ibn Baz who died in 1999, are the ulama and umara – the religious scholars and princes respectively) for fear of fitna or ‘discord’.
Those traditional religious scholars will remain in control of religious fatwa, and people will look to them for guidance in matters relating to belief and practice. They are unlikely to engage theoretically and practically in questions relating to the politics of this world, defined as umur al dunya. If ever they do, they will call for total obedience to the ruler on condition that he does not call for blasphemy. They will continue to cite the Prophetic tradition which calls for “obedience to the ruler even if he breaks your back and steals your money”, a hadith which modern Muslim scholars interpret differently and to which context they offer a rather more nuanced explanation.
The second religious trend is a haraki Islamist trend. This is split between the ikhwanis who are willing to co-operate with the government, and those who are distant and who choose a long-term approach focusing on education, training and grass-root mobilisation to achieve their objectives.
Within the religio-political domain, al-Islam al-Haraki is perhaps the strongest in its constituency and its organisation. If ever there is a reshuffle in the relationship between state and religion, it is more likely that al-Islam al-Haraki will be incorporated into government in a formal way. For example in the case of election to a shura council, it is more likely that outspoken members of this trend will gain a substantial number of seats. Al-Islam al-Haraki has engaged in contemporary politics and other matters relating to worldly matters.
Prominent Islamist figures are a product of modernity and are totally immersed in it. They appeal to the educated middle and lower middle class, whose numbers are increasing, but whose ambitions are frustrated because of social, political and economic marginalisation. More importantly, they feel excluded from the established circle of families that has historically enjoyed royal patronage.
The third religious trend is manifested in the actions of the jihadis who have taken arms against the government and are held responsible for violence. Locally they are known as contemporary Kharijites; internationally they are known as terrorists. While the jihadis will be excluded from any future reshuffle, their actions since September 11, 2001 have opened up the debate about social, political and religious reform and to a certain point have accelerated the process of reform.
Reformers and revolutionaries
These religio-political developments need to be taken into account when formulating visions of change, such as calls for political participation. Reform – the magical word – does not mean revolutionary change except in the discourse of the radical jihadi groups, and even here it is often interpreted in a narrow way meaning severing relations with America, fighting Christians and Jews, and establishing the utopian Muslim umma.
It is still not clear whether a coherent political programme from this group will emerge. The jihadis proved to be successful in violent attacks – though recently this success is not even guaranteed – but were thin on political theorising. Jihadis have well developed treatise on the obligation to expel Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula and al wala wa al bara (association with believers and dissociation from unbelievers). But they offer little in the way of formulations of the Muslim state, the just ruler, his election, his term in office and his accountability. For those kinds of questions, one has to turn to al-Islam al-Haraki, whose theoreticians and activists are well engaged in these questions.
With the exception of the jihadis, all callers for reform agree on redistributing the ultimate booty, al-ghanima, meaning ‘the state’. They disagree on the allocation of shares and the discourse under which the distribution takes place. But the objective is the same. They call for a partnership – similar to the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “public-private partnership”, though the “private” in Saudi Arabia seems to be more complex.
Since the 1990s potential partners have used the most acceptable means to ask for reform within the Kingdom – the petition. Both Islamists and liberals signed several petitions, thus reinforcing the logic of ‘the gift’. A citizen demands sharha – a cash handout or benefit – in a letter submitted to the prince. A couple of days later cash or a letter of recommendation arrives. However, it is only recently that reformers have come to realise that the government may be willing to give economic rewards and increase the base of participation. Even so, political reform that threatens the very foundation of Saudi rule – that is, the total monopoly over the political process – is not easily given away.
Weakened by division
Saudi reformers remain weak and lacking in the power to organise. They need to establish a permanent and broad committee able to draw up a political vision that is acceptable to all pressure groups, and then be able to link the implementation of this vision to a referendum. Reformers should rise above the witch hunt that is currently going on in several circles: among the so-called liberals, among the Islamists, and between the Islamists and liberals.
Today, accusations and counter accusations are the language of political discourse within the educated elite. Sometimes, it seems that the reform movement is devouring itself, before it has achieved any of its objectives. With the exception of those who are ‘bought’ by the state, those who switch sides or show a sympathetic understanding towards their opponents should not be dismissed and insulted – as they are – in the most unacceptable language.
Reformers should also establish an agreement on the principle that only peaceful means – peaceful demonstrations, civil disobedience and strikes – constitute legitimate means for change. Open dialogue should take place outside state control and supervision. Unfortunately, in the absence of legitimate outlets for public organisation and real dialogue, Saudis resort to anonymous electronic discussion boards where sometimes extremism, vulgarity, and irrationality prevail under the cover of anonymity.
Reformers should not fall victim to royal patronage. While one might argue that cracks within the royal family can be manipulated by pressure groups, this logic has proved its futility. I refer to the 1960s when a certain prince surrounded himself with a circle from society to promote oppositional discourse. More than forty years later, the only people who paid the price are those supporters who lost their jobs and were exiled. If ever we have princes calling to give power to the people, such call often comes from those princes who do not have any power to give away.
Don’t wait for America
Reformers should dismiss the illusion that the US will put pressure on Saudi Arabia to become a democracy. The change in American enthusiasm for democracy after the invasion of Iraq attests to the real motives behind America’s call for democratisation.
Democracy or shura – consultation, as Islamists prefer to call the process of political participation – does not come with a tank. But nor does it come with a petition. It comes as a result of social mobilisation that is successful only if specific historical, economic and social contexts prevail, and the United States has been advised by its own academics and think tanks to push for liberalisation but not democracy in Saudi Arabia. This is the recommendation to the US administration by Gregory Gause, an American political scientist:
“Those Americans who emphasise the virtues of democratic change have to face a stark reality. Early elections in Saudi Arabia would likely produce representative assemblies that would push the regime in anti-liberal directions. Washington needs to resist the temptation to press the Saudis to institute democratic elections now.”
In other words, democracy in Saudi Arabia is against American national interest. It seems that the American administration listened to this academic advice, which obviously does not take into account the aspirations of some Saudis. Reformers must be wary of American patronage and sponsorship of democratisation initiatives. There is nothing worse than having your name listed on the internet as a recipient of US dollars in your fight against your own oppressive regime. It seems that this sponsorship has become problematic to all oppositions to authoritarian rule: Iraqi examples are a very bad precedent.
Without social mobilisation of the constituency, such patronage is bound to fail and is counter-productive. It will also be counter productive when we know that – according to Zogby International opinion polls, conducted in February-March 2003 – 95 per cent of Saudis polled had either a very or somewhat unfavourable attitude towards the United States. Since America gave its total support for Israel during the onslaught on Lebanon, the figures must have rocketed.
Majorities and minorities
Among the majority, a fear of the Shia rising power is often expressed and became exaggerated since the American occupation of Iraq and the Hizb Allah resistance in Lebanon. Several Saudi fatwas denouncing the Shia were released during Israel’s war on Lebanon. The occasionally mentioned idea of establishing a Shia protectorate in Eastern Arabia under American patronage is a nightmare scenario for the majority of Saudis.
But this fear has no basis in reality. It suggests that the US government has a capacity to implement strategies which – as can be seen already – it has already failed to implement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. Both Saudi Shias and Sunnis should rest assured that the US is not capable of such far- fetched scenario: it could not even guarantee that a Taliban-style mini emirate would not emerge in Central Arabia, should the country disintegrate.
It is incumbent on both Shias and mainstream Saudi society to dismiss such fears.
The Sunni majority will also need to extend its sympathy, tolerance and acceptance of the Shia as full citizens. This does not mean that theological debates should stop. What it does mean is that the stories of al-Alqami and al-Tusi – considered by Sunnis to be those responsible for the fall of Baghdad to the Mughal invaders in the thirteenth century – should not be stressed and used as metaphors to account for the current political situation in either Iraq or Lebanon, rising Shia power in both countries having revived historical narratives that see continuity with a distant past.
Specifically, the Saudi regime and its religious scholars should not dig up historical references to teach lessons in bigotry, intolerance and hatred. Aware of the volatile situation in the Shia region of the Eastern province, the regime announced that a famous Shia leader, Tawfiq al-Saif, had returned to the country. The regime, however, remains limited in its accommodation of the Shia, given its rising hostility towards Iran and the general outlook of its Wahhabi ulama.
Responding to previous Shia demands for greater visibility, Sheikh Safar al-Hawali issued a warning signal. He considered any overture towards the Shia would eventually lead to the minority ruling over the majority, and would allow other dispossessed groups to call for similar favouritism. He raised the point that his region – Asir – is worse off than that of the Shia, as it lacks basic services compared with other more central regions. He warned the regime that some groups, especially the Hijaz, might call for the crowning of a descendant of Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe, to whom the current monarch of Jordan claims descent.
These warnings are bound to send shock waves among the higher echelons of the Saudi princes, who have no claims to any prestigious genealogy.
With the tribes weakened, the regions divided, and Wahhbaism fragmented, the future of Saudi Arabia remains uncertain.
There will be a number of Saudis who will adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy, hoping for a Velvet Revolution or some ‘behind the scene’s perestroika. Let us remember that the latter path to change did lead to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Today there is no consensus in Saudi Arabia over the course of change and its substance, although there is a consensus over the need for reform: a general demand which is still in need of refining.
Society has become too polarised to make a ‘Velvet’ or ‘Silent’ revolution possible. What we are going to witness is a redrawing of the political map and a redistribution of the ultimate ghanima, the state, among excluded sections of society which in the past had been marginalised. This will come under the rhetoric of gradual reform – al-Islah al-hathir – which is “faithful to our heritage and Islamic tradition”, according to Saudi propaganda. This can be translated as liberalisation without democratisation, i.e. superficial elections that redraw the political map and increase the participation of groups which are already close to the centre of power.
Abrupt change is perhaps unlikely in the near future, but cannot be ruled out in the long term. A ‘palace coup’ which would replace the ageing clique with a more dynamic and energetic royalty, cannot be ruled out. Recently, the famous Talal ibn Abd al-Aziz, who was the star of the aborted constitutional movement of the 1960s, met with the ‘grandsons’ of the family: a meeting described as “routine”. The meeting was, however, significant. While each one of the senior princes had already made his favourite son his successor in the ministry over which he presides, it remains to be seen how the huge number of young princes will divide the inheritance of the family.
There is also the possibility of an ‘Islamist coup’, which is more likely to be organised under the patronage of one or a group of princes. A royal/Islamist coup – whereby a young, nationalist prince allies himself with a rising Islamist star in order to stage a real break from the existing stalemate – cannot be ruled out.
None of the possible scenarios will be an easy path, given the demographic complexity of the royal family, and the divisions within the Islamist movement itself and Saudi society at large.
With the oil prices still high and weapons contracts with Western governments under discussion, the West will resist any drastic change in Saudi Arabia. It will continue to support an ageing leadership, and will refrain from open criticism of the regime. With al-Qaida violence subsiding, the West could not care less, and with the Iraqi wound festering, Saudi authoritarianism is appreciated for nothing but keeping the lid on volatile scenarios.
New myths needed
The early years of the twenty first century have proved to be extremely volatile in Saudi Arabia. Let us hope that the regions do not give way to regionalism, the sects do not give way to sectarianism, and that the tribes do not give way to tribalism, as such shifts would eventually lead to more violence of the kind witnessed since 2001.
The rigidity of the government in dealing with societal pressure for reform, coupled with applying its old method of divide and rule, will eventually lead to the disintegration of Saudi Arabia as we have known it in the last seven decades. The Saudi position during the Lebanese crisis was seen as boosting the Israeli war. The regime lost its greatest myth – that is, the claim of supporting Arab and Muslim causes. The fig leaf was dropped the moment the Saudi regime described the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizb Allah as an “adventure”. Saudi statements featured in the Israeli press; many Saudis felt ashamed by their own government.
In consequence, Saudi Arabia is urgently in need of forging new myths – myths which endow the regime with a new and fresh legitimacy, albeit a legitimacy that is superficial.
Welcome to the personal website of Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed. I hope that you will find the information published here of interest. The views expressed are my personal views and do not represent any organisation.
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