Reformist impulse in Saudi Arabia suffers setback

A journalist who questioned the power of the Saudi religious establishment is fired

The dismissal of an influential editor of a leading Saudi newspaper has dealt a sharp blow to the hopes of reformists here and underlined the deeply conservative nature of the kingdom.

Jamal Khashoggi was sacked last week as editor in chief of the daily Al Watan after his newspaper published searing commentaries on the potent influence of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.

The leading Saudi reformist's dismissal takes place against a backdrop of unprecedented soul-searching in the Saudi media. Since the suicide bombings of Western residential compounds in Riyadh on May 12, in which 35 people died, newspapers here have run a series of unusually bold editorials on the ills of Saudi society.

While the flourishing debate in the media has encouraged advocates of reform, not everyone here is happy. "Khashoggi went too far. He exceeded dangerous limits," says Mohsen al-Awajy, a lawyer and a representative of the more moderate strand of Islamist thought in the kingdom.

The May 12 attacks have to some extent further polarized the debate here between reform and tradition. Intellectuals, the business community, and the more liberal populations on the east and west coasts of the kingdom are pitted against the powerful religious establishment and the conservative desert heartland.

"Both coasts have been cosmopolitan for 5,000 years," says a Western diplomat. "In the middle of the country, they have been goatherders for 5,000 years. If they could close the window on the world, they would. That's the problem. You can't live like that anymore. Something has to give."

Saudis have a traditional aversion to public debate, preferring instead the time-honored tribal practice of deciding matters behind closed doors. Religion lies at the heart of Saudi society, dominating most aspects of life. Saudis adhere to Wahhabism, an austere and literal interpretation of Islam. The kingdom's traditionally insular society and the fiery sermons preached by extremist clerics are seen by many observers as the root cause of the anti-Western suspicion and hostility among many Saudis.

The promised withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia - a key demand of Osama bin Laden - has failed to dampen anti-American ardor. "They have announced their withdrawal, but in fact they are getting deeper and deeper into Arab land," says Abdullah, a professed extremist who served time in a Saudi jail for his views. He points to the continued US military presence in the neighboring states of Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq. "Al Qaeda will continue their operations until the last American soldier has left the Arabian peninsula," he warns. "If Western countries and America continue their actions against Muslims, they will generate more hostility and there will be repetitions [of the May 12 bombings]."

These days, the Saudi government has little sympathy for such opinions. Since the May 12 attacks, Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler in place of his ailing brother King Fahd, delivered a speech in which he vowed to "confront and destroy the threat posed by a deviant few and those who endorse and support them."

Yet many Saudis remain reluctant to look within Saudi society for the roots of militant actions.

Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, the chairman of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority and a powerful proponent of opening up the country to the outside world, says he believes that the militants are a result of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s rather than a homegrown product. "Those who fought in Afghanistan continue to look to fight. They want to go to war anywhere. They went from Afghanistan to Bosnia and then Chechnya. Now they have run out of fronts and decided to take it home. I don't believe Al Qaeda has support here," he says.

But most reformists insist that Saudi Arabia's problems lie closer to home. They point to the accelerating birthrate - around half the population is under 16 years of age. With oil prices falling and the economy still largely undiversified and inhospitable to foreign investment, unemployment continues to rise. That dim prospect for the future, and the restrictions of Saudi society, are fuelling increasing frustration among bored young Saudis.

"They know their lives are going to be significantly worse than their parents," says a Western diplomat.

A prominent Saudi businessman who is president of one of the kingdom's leading companies, says that the country's oil wealth has lulled Saudis into a false sense of security. "They don't realize that the government can no longer give them the good life they have been leading," he says. "As soon as these people realize that this holiday is not going to continue forever, they have got to join [the reform drive]."

Analysts and diplomats say Crown Prince Abdullah is sincere in wanting to usher in reforms and has made some headway, albeit limited. Last year, the Saudi government decided to combine male and female education under one ministry, a decision which provoked loud opposition from average Saudis as well as Islamists. A law has also been passed permitting non-Muslims to own property in Saudi Arabia, a "revolutionary" reform in Saudi terms, according to a diplomat here.

"There is a common feeling that Crown Prince Abdullah is an agent for reform in the kingdom," says Khalil al-Khalil, a professor of education at the Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University. "He's backed by the majority of the royal family and by the nation. Reform is slow, but there is some tangible progress."

Moderate Islamists, such as Mr. Awajy, are not averse to reforms, but are wary of any reformist agenda imposed by the West. "Why not?" he replies when asked if he thinks the school curriculum, with its emphasis on religious education and lack of foreign-language and technical-skills instruction, should be amended. "We are not so sensitive about changing the curriculum, so long as it is not changed by Donald Rumsfeld," he says. "Our curricula are not the word of God. We have a very flexible view of this."

But Islamists worry that the Islamic nature of the kingdom could be undermined if reforms proceed too quickly or go too far. "We are going to impress upon the government and media that this is an Islamic country and will remain so," says Awajy. "Without Islam, the royal family will lose its legitimacy."

But some analysts maintain that Saudi Arabia cannot afford the luxury of a lengthy debate on how reforms should proceed. The rapid pace of globalization risks leaving Saudi Arabia behind unless it accelerates the pace of change. "It's not easy; it is going to take a long time," says a Western diplomat. "But certain things they have to fix fast. I reckon that they have seven years, by which time reforms have to be in place - because by 10 years, it will be too late."

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