Waiting for God’s Will: Falsehood of Open-Ended Gradualism in Saudi Reform

By Ohoud al-Lami

What is the problem with gradual reform promised by the government?

Part of the response to reform demands in Saudi Arabia is that the state is seeking reform and giving promises in that regard. But the problem of government-sponsored reform is that it is often the result of outside pressure, which means it is usually slow and nominal. This is not new and we have many examples to make that case. Slight political reform that came after 9/11 was forced thanks to US intervention. Reform of the judiciary was a prerequisite for joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even the regulations to protect intellectual property in publishing and computer software only came after Saudi Arabia scored dismal results in that area and the government needed to polish its image in order to join WTO. This also includes improvements in women status that came as a result of the pressure to join the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) which requires women membership in parliament.

People who defend the government approach to reform are unable to recognize the government failure to deliver on its promises. That’s why they wave the banner of “gradual reform” based on statements by officials. They cite, for example, the words of King Abdullah after he was presented with the petition reform of 2003 that called for a constitutional monarchy: “With God help, the state continues its march to considered gradual reform, and will not allow anyone to block the path of reform, neither under the pretext of stagnation nor leading the country to jump into the unknown and engage in crazy adventures,” the king said.

Gradualism here is a moot point, because it leads to uncertainty. The timeframe can be until God is willing. The state does not set a clear timetable, and there is no one to monitor the progress of reform. It is up to the whims of officials and their personal desires and the absence of conflicts with the interests of some elites, and it is also affected by changes and conditions inside and outside the country.

This state policy of giving promises to absorb popular anger without a timetable explains the harsh response to the activists who signed the petition of 2003 because they have set a timetable for the state to achieve their demands. Authorities do not usually accept deadlines or timetables.

The repeated gradual reform mantra may give the impression that these demands are new and that those activists who demand reform are a reckless bunch. However, followers of Saudi history would see a pattern. When Prince Faisal became prime minister in 1962 he announced a program of 10 points that included a basic law of governance, the formation of Shoura Council and a law for local government. Some of the ten points were implemented decades later, and some of them are yet to be implemented. Prince Faisal has only managed to implement one point which is ending slavery.

Many give credit to Faisal for that achievement, but the truth is Saudi Arabia was under constant pressure and criticism from the international community. That’s why, and inline with an international campaign launched by the United Nations after the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery was amended by a Protocol that entered into force in 1955, Saudi Arabia finally moved to end slavery. President John F. Kennedy sent a congratulations latter to Prince Faisal thanking him for taking that step and declaring a new era in Saudi-US relations. As a consequence to the decision to end slavery, the state gave a compensation worth $700 for each slave to be paid to owners. It is said that the state allocated SR15 million as compensations, and most of it was paid to princes who most probably abolished the ownership of their slaves in name only.

After reviewing Faisal’s promises as an example of government reform, let’s now return to the popular demands of reform to show that they did not appear out of the blue nor they are the result of rashness hoping to take advantage of the regional conditions. For example, Ahmed Adnan observed in the book “Al-Sajeen 32” some demands from the early 1960s that read like they have been written in a newspaper published today because the demands of the 1960s are the same demands of today. Aziz Diya wrote in al-Nadwa newspaper in 1962 demanding a conversation about the governance and judicial systems. Mohammed Saeed Tayeb wrote in 1963 to demand taking significant reform steps like holding elections. In the same year Hisham Ali Hafiz criticized appointing a member of the royal family as emir of Mecca, demanding the right of the people of Mecca to elect their emir.

Moving from newspaper articles to reform petitions, we would find that the first civil statement demanding reform was the “Civil Petition” of 1990, led by Sheikh Ahmed Salah Jamjoom, asking for regulating fatwa and the judiciary and reinstating municipal councils, protecting freedom of the press and women empowerment. After that in 1991 the demands continued with the “Petition of Demands” followed by the “Memorandum of Advice.” Despite differences between signatories of these petitions, there was a consensus on specific demands like independence of the judiciary and preserving public money.

Then came the petitions after 9/11, the most significant of them a petition titled “A Vision for the Nation’s Present and Future” that was written by Tawfiq al-Saif after consultation and coordination with Abdullah al-Hamed, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Ali al-Demaini, Najeeb al-Khunaizi and others. The petition has generated wide attention due to raising the bar of demands and also because the petition represented many different currents and personalities from across the kingdom.

Listing some of the popular demands for change above might not be new, but the goal here is to review the time that has passed on these demands to highlight the injustice and falsehoods committed by those who silence the voices of reformists under the pretext of gradual reform.

The answer to our initial question: what is the problem with gradual reform promised by the government? we can say that the main complaint is the open-ended timeframe which —as we have seen in this quick review— could take decades without achieving any true transition to reform. Gradualism can only be understood as procrastination as long as there are no clear action plan that leads to real reform. The repetition of reform demands for decades is a clear sign that undermines the defenders of open-ended gradualism.

Ohoud al-Lami is a Saudi writer. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in digital media at King Saud University in Riyadh. You can follow her on Twitter: @ohoudff. This article has been translated and published with permission from the author. The original Arabic text can be found on al-Mqaal website. Photo courtesy of Alexander Cheek via Flickr


Paradigm Shift

Fahad Nazer:

The government’s efforts to diversify the economy, create jobs, and replace the estimated nine million expatriates with Saudis could very well pay dividends and help ameliorate some of the hardships about which an an increasing number of Saudis are complaining. However, being the world’s biggest, single repository of crude oil — and the birthplace of Islam — does not guarantee a Utopian existence in which the public sector operates like clockwork, government planners are all visionaries, and for-profit enterprises “answer to a higher source.”

Nevertheless, Saudi leaders need to stress that while they might have been thought of as “shepherds” looking after a “flock” when the “ruling bargain” between them and the people was first struck, it might be instructive to think of them now as mere “custodians” of the county with the people at large in the driver’s seat. It is not a coincidence that “the people are our greatest asset” has become a mantra of sorts among Saudi officials. This message will have to be amplified and repeated.

‘Human Rights Horror Show’

David Mizner:

At a recent energy conference, Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, had reassuring words for attendees. “If Saudi Arabia were to become unhinged,” he said, “the consequences are almost impossible to imagine—politically, economically, at every level. But I don’t see it happening.”

This might not be a wise bet. While the regime won’t fall any time soon, it probably won’t be able to preside for many years over a population that’s increasingly young, wired, and unemployed. And if there’s one thing we should’ve learned from ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, it’s that the stability created by repression is illusory.

House Built on Sand

The Guardian has an editorial on the instability of Saudi Arabia and the drama of its succession:

No palace intrigue is complete without a power behind the throne, an uncrowned prince, a Cardinal Richelieu. That role is played by Khalid al-Tuwaijri, who, as president of the royal court and private secretary of the custodian of the two holy mosques, is the king’s gatekeeper. He brought Prince Bandar back after a long period of absence to become the powerful chief of the Saudi General Intelligence. The Tuwaijri-Bandar axis has been key, along with United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, in organizing against the Muslim Brotherhood-led governments in the region.

This axis, however, is now facing opposition from other members of the Saudi royal family. Mohammed bin Naif might emerge as an important counterweight. It is essential that the voice of reform is heeded in the transition that is about to take place. There is still an opportunity to change peacefully. Ignore it, and what happened elsewhere could well happen here too.

Can Saudi Arabia Reform the Religious Police?

Louise Lief provides a good overview of steps taken by the Saudi government to reform the notorious religious police:

The Saudi king showers the Hai’a with resources while seeking to rein it in. He is expanding the Hai’a’s staff, building expensive new “guidance centers,” and purchasing fleets of new GMC SUVs for the Hai’a men. But in January, the Saudi cabinet ruled that Hai’a men may no longer interrogate suspects or determine the charges against them. They may still arrest people, though, for offenses like practicing witchcraft and consuming alcohol, and they continue to enforce the ban public entertainment, women driving, and other religious rulings.

The talk of reforming CPVPV is often repeated every time the King appoints a new chief of the organization. One of the reasons why reform is an extremely difficult challenge is that many of CPVPV employees seem to believe that what they do is not merely a government job but rather a religious duty mandated by God. So despite these efforts to reform, misconduct continue to take place on the country’s streets all the time.

Take, for example, this story of a Saudi woman and her British husband who were accused of being unmarried outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina of all places. The husband writes:

My wife told the aggressive Mutaween that I would go and get the marriage certificate, which was only a few kilometers away in our hotel room. However, they kept hold of me and demanded that my tearful wife walk to the hotel to retrieve it. Here we were outside the Prophet’s mosque, being treated so shamelessly by a bunch of thugs!

While my wife was trekking back to the hotel, the Mutaween made several attempts to drag me in to one of their security cars. I constantly resisted, as I was innocent of all the things they were stupidly accusing my wife and me of having done. She returned, still in tears, an hour later with the marriage certificate. The Mutaween inspected the certificate and found that we were telling the truth.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in their interview with the religious police chief last October, “observers are skeptical of the durability of Mr. Sheikh’s reforms, predicting he will meet tough opposition from rank-and-file members of the Hia’a.” Based on recent incidents like this one, these observers are probably right to be skeptical.

Real Truth Becoming Increasingly Transparent

Interesting Q&A with Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says:

The human rights situation in the country remains dire by any objective measure. But with the advent of social media, the real truth is becoming increasingly transparent to Saudis. This is particularly the case with political prisoners. 

Saudis are increasingly debating their government’s behavior and old limits on criticizing the royal family are being breached. They are questioning whether the religious establishment should have a stranglehold over the country’s judiciary and legal process. And some high-profile incidents are sparking debate.

PS. The photo on top of that page is from Kuwait, not Saudi Arabia.

Prominent Saudi Cleric Calls on Government to Reform Or Risk the Wrath of People

A prominent Saudi preacher called on the government to initiate reforms and release political prisoners or risk facing popular anger that will drive people to the streets. In an open letter published online Friday night, Sheikh Salman al-Odah said that security concerns have dominated most state activities in recent years and warned that such handling of issues would have disastrous consequences.

“People here, like people around the world, have demands, longings and rights, and they will not remain silent forever when they are denied all or some of them,” al-Odah said. “When one becomes hopeless, you can expect anything from them.”

Al-Odah is currently one of the most popular clerics in the country. He was detained in the mid-1990s when he helped mobilize an Islamist opposition against the government and remained in prison until 1999. After his release, his views have become more moderate, a shift that helped attract a large following of youth in Saudi Arabia. He used to have a weekly television show broadcasted by the MBC network, but his show was terminated after he expressed views supportive of the Arab uprisings. Even without his TV show, he still has a wide reach thanks to his active online presence. His open letter was first published on Twitter, and the sites hosting the full text of the letter experienced problems staying accessible presumably due to the high traffic.

“More than 5,000 people are reading Sheikh Salman al-Odah’s letter at the same moment,” said Saleh al-Zaid, founder of the website TwitMail where the cleric initially published his letter. The site struggled to remain up in the few hours following the letter release, and the high demanded reportedly brought it down more three times in less than one hour. The letter also sparked a big debate on Twitter, where supporters and opponents of the cleric offered their take on its content.

Al-Odah said he decided to publish the letter after he sensed deep anger shared by many people who, according to him, represent different segments of society and hail from different regions in the kingdom. “As rage escalates, religious, political and social symbols lose their value,” he said. “Leadership becomes in the hands of the street.”

The 57-year-old cleric dedicate a large part of his letter to the grievance of prisoners and their families, an issue that has become a hot button in the country as these families have taken to the streets in recent months to protest their prolonged detention. In late February, a group of women and children staged a protest in the central city Buraida to demand the release of their relatives. During the protest, they burned photos of the Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif and demand his resignation. Al-Odah condemned the lengthy detention of prisoners and the abuse they face inside prisons. “When a policeman abuses a prisoner, it is a gamble of the nation’s future,” he said, calling on the government to immediately either put the prisoners to trial or release them immediately.

Al-Odah said the people are worried about the future and must be reassured by the government that their country can face the upcoming challenges. “How is it possible for a country that is run by personal connections and not institutions to face challenges?” he asked. “People are wondering, especially the youth, what are the communication channels between them and the state?”