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Saudi Arabia: Challenges for the 21st Century

Dr. Natana J. DeLong-Bas

Women journalists attend a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Ali Jarekji/REUTERS.

Since 9/11, Saudi Arabia has been in the global spotlight, challenged to assess and make changes to structures and ideologies that have permitted and enabled extremism to take root and flourish, while also remaining faithful to its religion, culture, and heritage. Many have questioned whether the Kingdom is capable of reforming itself, both in terms of types of reforms and the degree to which these reforms can and will be enacted. With the dawn of the second decade of the 21st century, it is clear that many challenges remain. What is often not so clear is how much progress has been made in addressing those challenges from the long-term perspective of enacting genuine and lasting social change.

Effective prioritization of national goals requires consideration of the context in which they are to be enacted. Although many in the West point to issues such as women not being able to drive and the lack of religious freedom as the most important issues to be addressed, domestic voices within the Kingdom tend to consider other issues to be more pressing: the burgeoning youth population (between 65 percent and 70 percent of the population is under the age of 25) accompanied by high rates of unemployment; the need to diversify the economy in order to decrease dependence on the oil and gas industries; ongoing dependence on foreign labor, particularly for highly skilled workers and domestic servants, which is fueled in part by the ban on women driving and the failure of the educational system to produce students who can meet industry needs; ongoing recognition of the need to fight extremism and promote a culture of dialogue, tolerance, and moderation, particularly by reforming the educational and judicial systems; the need to expand opportunities for women, who constitute half of the potential workforce, to participate in both the public and private sector; and the need to maintain stability as succession issues loom nearer, particularly given the recent health concerns of King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan.1 The potential of each of these issues to lead to instability within the Kingdom suggests that they should take priority over other, Western-designated issues of concern.

Perhaps the most important issue that connects all of the other concerns is the role of religion. As the geographic heart of Islam and the center of the Hajj pilgrimage, which is attended by more than 2 million people annually, Saudi Arabia has always held religion as central to its identity. Known for its ultraconservative interpretation of religion known popularly, and typically derogatorily, as "Wahhabism," the Kingdom has often found itself on the defensive with respect to religious interpretation and practice, not only in Western circles but also within the Muslim world and, increasingly, domestically.

The most important international concern after 9/11 was the reality that 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, suggesting to many that the jihadist phenomenon was the direct product of Saudi religious culture. Although it has become clear since then that a variety of combined factors, including the decades of warfare in Afghanistan; the perceived oppression and persecution of Muslim populations in a variety of locations, including Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, Kashmir, and Palestine; and the general frustrations of Muslim youth seeking meaningful work opportunities and means to express themselves, were also at play, the Saudi religious establishment and culture have been under intense scrutiny for nearly a decade. Many international concerns have been addressed, although reforms and developments have followed at different paces and have produced varying results.

With respect to jihad, the Kingdom has pursued a tough military campaign to identify and root out terrorist cells—both militants and financiers—resulting in periodic announcements of mass arrests and occasional shootouts with police, as well as the deaths of many Saudi national guardsmen and police officers. Saudi citizens have become more willing to work with the government in reporting suspected family members of potential involvement with jihadist organizations, including some cases of parents making public, televised pleas to their sons to turn themselves in to government authorities. This transformation dates to May 2003, when Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) began a series of domestic attacks, bringing the threat home to Saudi citizens.

One of the Kingdom's most successful programs has focused on rehabilitation (munasahah) of known militants. The brainchild of Deputy Minister of the Interior Prince Muhammad bin Naif, the Munasahah program is considered to be one of the most important programs in the Muslim world and has claimed success not only in decreasing Al-Qaida membership and activism within Saudi Arabia, but also in neighboring Yemen. Although it remains to be seen how successful the program will prove to be in the long run, short-term results indicate strong success rates, claimed by the Saudi government to be as high as 90 percent. Officially, the Kingdom claims to have rehabilitated more than 300 terrorist prisoners. The program not only works with prisoners to "correct" their "deviant" religious ideology by presenting them with more "moderate" views, it also, just as importantly, strives to reconnect them to their families and communities. This has proven to be pivotal for those who joined the jihadist movement seeking a sense of community, identity, and extended family based on shared concerns and interests. Although there are known cases of Munasahah "graduates" returning to their previous lifestyles, such as the current number 1 on the Saudi 85 Most Wanted List, Said al-Shihri, others who have shared the experience of imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, going through the Munasahah program, and resuming the Al-Qaida path, have chosen to depart from it again to return home. The most prominent case of this occurred in November 2010 when Jabr al-Faifi (previously number 20 on the 85 Most Wanted List) left the AQAP in Yemen to turn himself back in to Saudi authorities, providing the intelligence that subverted the plot to use air freight originating in Yemen to ship bombs for explosion over the United States. Al-Faifi's stories of his time in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Munasahah, and Yemen, as well as his deep concerns about the ongoing crises in Iraq and Palestine, have been televised nationally as a series of episodes in an effort to increase transparency and understanding of the issues fueling jihadist involvement. These programs have been presented in a format that encourages understanding, rather than focusing simply on confession of wrongdoing, as was the tendency in the past.

As important as military and police work have been in counteracting those who have already joined jihadist organizations, the role of the religious establishment in denouncing jihadist ideology to prevent additional people from joining them has also been critical to Saudi counterterrorism efforts. While some voices, such as the Grand Mufti, the Council of Senior Ulama (CSU), and various imams and khatibs of mosques, have gone on record denouncing jihadist ideology and extremism in favor of promoting "moderation" and "centrism" and rejecting takfiri ideology, others have maintained an ultraconservative interpretation that calls for an ongoing division of the world into Muslim and non-Muslim and rejecting other sects within Islam that are not in keeping with their own interpretation. Among the more hopeful and productive initiatives undertaken in the Kingdom are the pursuit of dialogue, both national and interreligious, and growing controls over the official production and consumption of religion within the Kingdom in order to try to silence and stem the impact of rejectionist voices.

One means of controlling religious production has been the August 2010 Royal Decree declaring that only members of the CSU and other government-approved voices will be permitted to issue fatwas (legal opinions). Prior to the Decree, there were many uncontrolled, unqualified individual voices issuing fatwas. The purpose of the Decree is to regain control over fatwa production and also to cut down on the number of fatwas issued, particularly given the proliferation of call-in radio and television programs in which fatwas are given on the spot, rather than being the product of deep contemplation and consideration of both scriptures and past legal opinions. While some have expressed concern that this represents the emasculation of the ulama and firmly co-opts them back as an arm of the state, many within the religious establishment have expressed relief and support for the move, noting how dangerous the religious environment can become when unqualified people issue extremist fatwas. Under the current Decree, fatwas are supposed to represent the consensus of officially recognized senior scholars. The impression of consensus is intended to promote a sense of national unity. At the same time, some are concerned that this move may prove to be counterproductive to the broader social goal of promoting acceptance of diversity as part of the national character.

Prior to 9/11, there was little momentum to recognize diversity within the Kingdom, to engage in interreligious dialogue, or to call for a culture of tolerance with respect to alternative interpretations of Islam. Officially, Saudi Arabia had long permitted non-Muslims to engage in religious observance in the privacy of their own homes, although the law prohibited the presence of non-Muslim clergy in the Kingdom. In practice, this official position has not always been observed, particularly where the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) was concerned. Periodic reports of CPVPV invasions of peoples' homes and confiscation of their religious paraphernalia surfaced fairly regularly, as did arrests of known leaders of the Christian underground, in particular, typically followed by repatriation to their countries of origin. Although some willingness was expressed by Saudi officials to address the need for greater tolerance,2 major initiatives were not undertaken until King Abdullah's succession in 2005.

Interfaith dialogue initiatives were placed on center stage in 2005 when the King Abdulaziz National Dialogue Center dedicated its Fifth National Dialogue to dealing with the "Other," defined by participants in many different ways, including national and religious. In November 2007, King Abdullah made an unprecedented visit to the Vatican to address misconceptions about Islam and to jump-start dialogue. This meeting was followed by a series of other meetings arranged for scholars and intellectuals to discuss the concept of dialogue and greater religious openness, beginning in Makkah and extending ultimately to Madrid, the United Nations in New York City, and Geneva. Although some ulama have continued to resist interfaith dialogue in favor of maintaining boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims and even between different Muslim sects, there is nevertheless a strong and discernible level of public support for the King's initiative, both domestically and internationally. Many senior religious scholars have added their voices, going on record to support conversation and the protection of life, honor, and wealth and to call for the elimination of disunity, extremism, and ignorance. They have also publicly opposed takfiri ideology,3 "deviant" thinking, terrorism, killings, suicide bombings, and "martyrdom" operations as activities that will lead to eternal damnation. The use of such strong condemnatory language has made it very clear that there is no middle ground with respect to terrorism and extremism, even in the midst of dialogue.

Every bit as important as interfaith dialogue has been intrafaith dialogue within the Kingdom. In the past, Shi'is were officially considered religious outsiders, a vision that translated into discrimination in schools, workplaces, government offices, and even in terms of public funding for development of Shi'i-majority areas. The publication of a book titled Doctrinal Dialogue in Saudi Arabia in March 2006 marked a new official willingness to pursue the conclusion of the national dialogue that Saudi Shi'is must be included in national conversations, as must members of madhahib (schools of Islamic law) other than the nationally adhered-to Hanbali school. It was hoped that getting different religious sects to talk to each other would lead to more positive interactions with and dialogue between them, eventually trickling down to the general population. Rather than the potential for division opponents had cited in the past, Doctrinal Dialogue called for the commitment to coexistence between sects as the basis for national unity, arguing that political and social stability and domestic unity can only result when difference is acknowledged and accepted, rather than denied and suppressed. This official challenge to the general public to recognize and accept the reality of diversity was unprecedented. The opposition it evoked in some sectors also highlighted the complexity of dialogue, as a certain openness of spirit is required.

Intrafaith efforts did not remain only at the theoretical and religious levels; it also translated into practice, as improvements were made in the treatment of the Shi'i community, including the pardoning and release of many imprisoned following a 2000 rebellion in Najran, and Shi'i freedom of religious expression was expanded in certain Shi'i-majority areas, such as Qatif, in allowing public observance of Shi'i religious rituals, such as Ashura celebrations, that had previously been banned. Shi'is also publicly ran for office and, in many cases, won in the 2005 municipal elections in Shi'i-majority areas. A Jafari Shi'i and an Ismaili Shi'i were appointed to the Human Rights Commission, and the number of Shi'i judges in the court system was expanded from one to seven in 2006. The government has also increased funding and has made a more concerted effort to promote development in Shi'i-majority areas, specifically the Eastern Province and Najran, in order to diminish the officially recognized imbalance that existed up until then. Planned projects include the construction of a community center, dams, roads, universities, and technical colleges for both men and women.

Perhaps the most encouraging evidence of broader acceptance of the religious "other" has come through the increasing interactions between certain prominent shaykhs, such as joint public appearances by Shi'i Shaykh Hasan al-Saffar and Sunni former Sahwa dissident Shaykh Salman al-Oudah, and the willingness of shaykhs of one sect to speak out in support of issues sensitive to the other. Most recently, during Ramadan in 2010, a television program called "Straight Talk After al-Taraweeh," broadcast from London but accessible in the Kingdom on Al-Mustakillah TV, decided to try to build bridges between Sunnis and Shi'is by discussing "misunderstandings" the two sects have about the Prophet's Companions and wives. When some Shi'is in London attacked the show's conclusions and launched a verbal assault on the Prophet's Companions and wives, two prominent Saudi shaykhs, Shi'i Hassan al-Saffar and Sunni Hassan al-Nimr, issued statements denouncing this assault. A Saudi newspaper columnist also joined the foray, calling for recognition of Jafari Shi'ism as "an Islamic doctrine, rather than an Islamic sect." The nuance of the terminology is important: "doctrine" recognizes legitimacy, whereas "sect" implies a broken-off heresy from the main tradition. The author further observed that the founder of the Jafari doctrine, Jafar al-Sadiq, was one of the early teachers of Abu Hanifa, a founder of one of the major Sunni schools of Islamic law, thus leading to the natural conclusion that "working together side by side with mutual respect and dignity" should take the place of today's "incitement, violence, and ignorance."4 While it is clear that sensitivities remain with respect to sectarian loyalties and differences, and that Shi'is and non-Muslims are not fully accepted at every level of society or treated as equal citizens, these indicators of change nevertheless mark progress along the path of greater acceptance and tolerance of diversity of opinions.

As for the CPVPV, it is also undergoing substantial transformation, accompanied by a major public relations overhaul, particularly following negative print, electronic, and television media coverage, including a highly controversial episode of the Ramadan satire "Tash Ma Tash," featuring some of the worst reported behavior of the mutawwa (religious police) and several highly publicized incidents of deaths of "suspects" in CPVPV custody in 2005. Greater levels of control and regulation have been placed over the CPVPV since 2006, including limiting their rights in terms of home invasions, arrests, and questioning by requiring liaison with the police and legally allowing only the police to detain suspects. An unprecedented step was also taken in 2006 when some mutawwa were placed on trial for overstepping their boundaries. The trials were widely covered by the media and marked an end to official tolerance for draconian measures.

Since then, the public has been encouraged to recognize the important role of the CPVPV in preserving and enforcing religious values and behaviors, as well as moral standards, as a matter of public duty, while the CPVPV has been pressured to adopt a much higher level of professionalism and courtesy in dealing with the public. One other unusual development has been the change of the relationship between the CPVPV and Saudi women. In the past, the CPVPV were notorious for harassing women for being out in public spaces, intrusive inquiries into the people they were with, and denunciation of their failure to "veil properly" according to the CPVPV's desired standards. In recent years, in addition to stories of the CPVPV arresting couples in "suspicious" circumstances, there have also been many reported stories of women deliberately seeking CPVPV assistance in dealing with male harassers and blackmailers, demonstrating that the CPVPV can serve a useful and helpful social purpose. Although much remains to be done, even the International Religious Freedom Report for 2007 issued by the US Department of State recognized progress in promoting greater religious tolerance and a marked diminishing of incidents of the CPVPV violating private worship.

With respect to women's issues, the Kingdom clearly has a mixed track record. On the one hand, women remain unable to drive, physical education is forbidden in girls' schools, the hijab remains mandatory dress for all women in the Kingdom regardless of religious affiliation or country of origin, job opportunities for women remain limited, and men still retain legal guardianship over women. On the other hand, significant progress in expanding social acceptance of a more public and, in some cases, independent role for women has been made, women's contributions are being more widely publicized, and women are playing a more prominent role in local and national debates and conversations. Women participate in the national dialogue, not only as observers but, more importantly, as invited participants. The government now permits women to obtain their own personal identification cards, rather than solely relying on a male family member to serve as the guardian of family identification papers. Women are not permitted to serve on the Shura Council and are permitted neither to vote nor run for office during municipal elections, but they have been elected and appointed to the boards of the chambers of commerce and industry in several major cities, providing them with practical experience in both business and governance that is expected to justify expanding their public sector role in the future. In 2009 Nora Al-Fayes was appointed the first woman deputy minister in education, women are now permitted to legally represent female clients in family courts, and there have been repeated calls for a ministry of women's affairs to be established to expand women's access to government resources and representation.

Sometimes the government and the religious establishment take contradictory positions with respect to women's issues, such as the Ministry of Labor issuing a directive requiring female salespersons to sell lingerie while the Permanent Committee of Ifta' issued a fatwa prohibiting the same. The government has repeatedly made its position in favor of expanding women's empowerment clear. Perhaps most importantly, the Council of Ministers passed Decree No. 62 to provide formal procedures for regulating female employment in the government and private sectors; this includes establishing a permanent high commission for women's affairs and calling for official actions to promote female employment and help women achieve equal rights and opportunities. The rising number of women in business and the workplace, along with their strong academic achievement and high levels of enrollment in higher education, indicates a trend toward women's empowerment that is strongly supported by King Abdullah. There has also been external recognition of the Kingdom's progress with respect to the status of women, including the October 2010 appointment of a Saudi to serve on the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, established on 1 January 2011, to oversee UN programs aimed at promoting women's rights and their full participation in global affairs.

At the same time that women are advancing in the public arena, women's rights within the home are often a mixed bag. On the one hand, Saudi society is treating the issue of domestic violence much more seriously, establishing shelters for victims and mechanisms for reporting and investigating abuse. While there remain tragic cases of victims being returned to their abusers, public outrage over abuse and forced marriages of young girls has created a social atmosphere of low tolerance for such cases. The media has played a prominent role in publicizing these cases—a major change from several years ago when such topics were still considered taboo, suggesting that the tactic of raising public awareness is an important and effective one in building social momentum for change.

While some social progress is discernible, there remains considerable social pressure on women to be obedient to men and to fulfill their roles as wives and mothers before any others. Marriage remains the norm for everyone in the Kingdom as the only legitimate outlet for sexual desire and reproduction. However, challenging economic times have resulted in couples waiting until later in life to marry because of the sheer cost associated with wedding celebrations. The government periodically hosts mass weddings to try to help mitigate the cost of marriage in the interest of preserving society, but the rising age for marriage, added to skyrocketing divorce rates, has led to a proliferation of unmarried women, resulting in fears of a "crisis of spinsterhood." Some ulama have called for increased polygyny as a means of solving this "social problem" and also fulfilling a purported religious duty of men to serve as protectors and caretakers. All of this suggests that a woman's value continues to be seen through her capacities of sexuality and reproduction, rather than as an individual with her own preferences about marriage or as a contributor to national development and the economy.

Some women have chosen to rebel by pursuing "romantic" liaisons with men through newly religiously approved types of "marriage," such as misfar and misyar, which do not carry the same financial and legal rights as nikah but which permit the woman a greater level of freedom and independence in terms of her duties to her husband, outside of sexual fulfillment. Youth are also experimenting with new communications technology and its potential for fostering previously forbidden relationships, using the Internet, cell phones, Bluetooth technology, and e-mail to contact members of the opposite sex and sometimes engage in illicit relationships. Many of the cases of blackmail addressed by the CPVPV stem from cases involving technology used to harass girls and pressure them for money and/or sexual favors. This includes threatening to post their pictures on the Internet if they do not comply, an act that would bring dishonor upon the family.

Finally, the status of human rights has been an issue of continuing concern in international circles, particularly given numerous reports of abuse of foreign domestic servants. One of the longer-term methods of addressing human rights concerns has been the establishment of two human rights organizations in Saudi Arabia, one affiliated with the government (the Human Rights Commission [HRC]) and the other an NGO (the National Society for Human Rights [NSHR]). Both have gained power, visibility, and credibility in their work, as well as expanded resources for it, both material (such as the creation of domestic violence shelters) and legal (including liaising with law enforcement and the judiciary). The NSHR has become particularly well-known for its intervention in cases of domestic violence involving either spousal or child abuse, in part because the media has been freer to report the cases. Indeed, the rising freedom of the media since King Abdullah's accession to the throne has placed in the spotlight a number of issues of national concern, opening the opportunity to acknowledge the existence of problems, to raise public awareness about them, and to generate public support for addressing them.5 The next important future step will be to turn the awareness and support into actionable programs and policies.

Media freedom has been pivotal in encouraging continuous and comprehensive coverage of the maltreatment of foreign workers. There are approximately 6 million expatriates living in Saudi Arabia, many of whom work as domestic servants, either as drivers or maids. The mass media has provided substantial coverage of several high-profile cases of the abuse and torture of maids that have sometimes resulted in death. A controversial advertising campaign was also undertaken to raise awareness of the human rights of domestic workers and to encourage better treatment for them. The goal of the media has been twofold: one, to raise public awareness about the realities of abuse and that abuse of a servant is a crime punishable by law, as well as a violation of Islam; and, two, to call for greater seriousness in addressing these crimes at an official level. Although public debates continue to rage about the rights of workers versus the rights of employers, public outrage over horrific cases of torture and abuse are being clearly and strongly expressed, marking a major change from the past tendency to ignore and deny the reality of these cases.

In conclusion, it is clear that serious challenges continue to face the Kingdom as it forges into the next decade. The seriousness of those challenges has been acknowledged and is being addressed with the adoption of a long-term strategy for social change. Only time will tell how effective and lasting these changes will be and whether they will survive the next succession.

1Although the immediate succession is clear, succession after the current Second Deputy Prime Minister, Prince Naif, is not. Prince Naif will be the first Saudi king unable to choose his successor. Instead, the task will pass to the Allegiance Council, a group of senior royals who will formally make this decision collectively. Historically, the throne has passed to a son of King Abdulaziz; however, given the advanced ages of the most senior princes, many expect that the throne will soon pass to a grandson, fueling speculation about the rising prominence of the sons of both former kings and current powerful figures and the apparently rising tendency to consider various ministries and other government positions as personal positions of power that can be passed down to sons. Examples include King Abdullah's recent appointment of his son Prince Miteb as the head of the National Guard; the prominent role in counterterrorism played by Deputy Minister of the Interior Prince Muhammad, son of Minister of the Interior Prince Naif; the powerful military role of Desert Storm Saudi general Prince Khaled, son of Crown Prince Sultan, who serves as Minister of Defense; and the rise of two of Riyadh governor Prince Salman's sons to positions of prominence in tourism and environmental issues (Prince Sultan) and the media (Prince Faisal).

2 For example, in July 2001, a new openness on the part of Saudi officials to address the need for greater tolerance was recognized by some members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

3 This means declaring someone who disagrees with your religious interpretation to be a kafir, or unbeliever. For extremists, this legitimates jihad as military action against such a person.

4 Hussein Shobokshi. "Hopes and Greetings," Asharq Alawsat, 14 September 2010.

5According to the annual report of Reporters Without Borders issued in October 2010, Saudi Arabia still ranks in the second half of the world in terms of press freedom, but it is acknowledged that there has been great expansion of media freedom and media outlets over the prior ten years, in particular.

Selected Bibliography

  • Alsanea, Rajaa. Girls of Riyadh, translated by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth. New York: Penguin, 2007.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J. "Children in Saudi Arabia," in Greenwood Encyclopedia of Children's Issues Worldwide, Vol. 6, edited by Ghada Hashem Talhami. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J. Wahhabi Islam; From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad, rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Hegghammer, Thomas. Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Mehdi, Anisa, dir. Inside Mecca. Washington DC: National Geographic Television & Film, 2003. Film on the Hajj.
  • King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue [].
  • Al-Rasheed, Madawi. Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Yamani, Maha A. Z. Polygamy and Law in Contemporary Saudi Arabia. Reading, UK: Ithaca, 2008.

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Women and Islam
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