What is Behind the Clerics Royal Court Protest

As dozens of clerics staged a protest outside the Royal Court in Riyadh last week, conflicted reports surfaced over the motives behind this unusual move. Wahhabi clerics traditionally do not see the permissibility of holding street protests and they insist that advice to rulers must be conveyed secretly.

“Protests and sit-ins are disobedience of the rulers and disruptive and not permissible,” Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan, member of the Council of Senior Ulema, told Saudi state television on Friday. He added that “Western-style protests” are un-Islamic.

Early reports indicated that the clerics broke with tradition to protest the appointment of women to the Shoura Council. A short video uploaded to YouTube showed one of them talk about the appointments in the council. “These recent appointments in Shoura do not represent the good people,” the cleric in the video said. “These appointments do not reflect all factions in society.” While he did not mention women by name, his statement was widely understood to mean just that.

Liberals were divided over the protest. While some criticized the protest because they saw it as an attack on women’s rights, others defended the right of protesters to express their views even if such views, those liberal said, are backwards. Some conservatives were quick to clarify that the protest was not about women in Shoura. Yusuf al-Ahmad, a cleric who was recently released from jail for “disrupting general order,” said on Twitter that the clerics who protested wanted the government to end corruption in issues like “illegal detention, usury, poverty, television channels, Shoura, Westernization.”

Attempting to analyze the real motives behind the protest, Mohannad Najjar wrote that the main motive is to object to appointing women in Shoura but this has been combined with other demands to “give more acceptable legitimacy” to the protest.

This analysis seemed accurate. Seven clerics who were among the protesters outside the Royal Court released a statement Saturday explaining why they chose to take a measure that many would consider extreme by Wahhabi standards. The seven-pages long statement said that in light of recent changes in the country, the clerics felt obliged to take action in fear that the country could be cursed by God.

The statement offered a long, detailed list of grievances:

  • “Sponsoring ideological chaos and cultural looseness” through book fairs, literature clubs, libraries and cafes, as well as the expanding margin for freedom of expression in media.
  • Opening law schools and “weakening” Sharia courts.
  • Changes in education policy that encourage gender mixing and spending billions of riyals to send students to study abroad.
  • Allowing women to participate in sports, including the decision to send two girls to compete in the Olympic games in London last year.
  • “Normalization of gender mixing in society” through encouraging women employment in different fields like retail, manufacturing, restaurants, law firms and other businesses, as well as allowing women to join the Shoura Council and boards of public organizations and delegations.
  • Improper use of public money, including the lack of housing, bad healthcare services and imposing taxes.
  • Illegal detention.

The clerics said they have repeatedly asked to discuss these issues with the Khaled al-Tuwaijri, Royal Court chief of staff and the private secretary of King Abdullah. Many conservatives accuse al-Tuwaijri of pushing for reforms in Saudi Arabia, reforms they deem incompatible with the country’s Islamic identity. After their demands to meet al-Tuwaijri went unanswered, the clerics said, it was the decision to appoint women in the Shoura Council that has pushed them to protest outside the Royal Court. The decision to appoint women has come “despite fatwas from our respected scholars that it is not permissible,” they said, adding that the ratio of women in the council exceeds the usual in other parliaments around the world.

“Some female and male members of the council have a bad reputation” and do not represent society “in its culture, identity, manners, or the aspiration of individuals — which makes it clear that members of the Shoura Council should be elected, not appointed,” the clerics said.

However, Abdulrahman al-Ahmad, one of the protesters, said on Twitter today that this statement only represents those seven clerics who signed it. While there was an agreement between protesters on some demands like illegal detention and electing Shoura members, he said, they did not have a prior specific set of demands when they decided to stage the protest.

This lack of consensus among the clerics and the failure to express their demands coherently have contributed to the confusion and speculation about the motives behind their sit-in. The protest was reportedly dispersed by security forces in the scene, but another protest is planned for January 29 in the same location outside the Royal Court. They might want to appoint a spokesman this time around.