Reform and Dissent in Saudi Arabia since 2011

From BBC Arabic on release of documentary Saudi Secret Uprising

_75195397_safaincarThe Saudi regime likes to present the country as an apolitical space where the rules of normal politics don’t apply. It promotes a vision of Saudi Arabia as an Islamic utopia, replicating the Sharia state of the early Islamic era, with Al Saud in charge of the political affairs of state and the religious scholars (ulama) assuring the application of God’s law in society. This schema obviates the need for political parties, elected legislature or right to public protest since the divinely-ordained society would have no differing opinion and the ulama have in any case arrogated the right to rule to the dynasty.

So when dissent has spilled out in public the regime has acted quickly and decisively to squash it. This has been the case especially since King Faisal came to power in 1964, ending 10 years of Arab nationalist and leftist mobilization when the ruling family was under pressure to devolve power to its subjects. The most prominent occasions came in 1979 when a group of Salafi zealots seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Shi’ite protest in the Eastern Province in 1980, calls from within the ranks of the ulama in 1991 for a parliamentary system, the al-Qa’ida insurrection of 2004-6 and series of petitions for democratic reforms in the early 2000s.

In the last three years Saudi Arabia has witnessed a round of dissent that follows an established pattern of periodic activism in a repressed political system. This time, however, it would seem that the regime perceived the threat as arguably more serious than before. The Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 were a jolt to Al Saud for several reasons: The United States was unwilling or incapable of saving a long-time ally like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the uprisings spread into the zone of the Gulf Cooperation Council with protests in Bahrain and Oman, and the movement of political Islam offered an Islamic model for democratic representation and change.

The government avoided the worst – a mass movement forcing Al Saud to concede powers – through massive spending on key constituencies in the country, securing the collaboration of the state-backed ulama in denouncing protest and dissent as un-Islamic, and seizing the opportunity, presented by Eastern Province protests in March 2011, to discredit reform and street mobilization in the Saudi context as a Shi’ite-led phenomenon encouraging separatism and opening doors for Iran.

Al Saud also benefit from the atomized, geographically disparate nature of dissent in Saudi Arabia. In this regard, however, it is worth noting the extent and diversity of the voices for reform and change. There are a number of elements involved: Shia in the East, women in Buraida north of Riyadh who protested against detention without trial for their male relatives, prominent religious scholars who made public calls for popular representation, a series of reform petitions, and trials of prominent rights activists including those whose medium of activity was Twitter and other social media platforms.

Perhaps the ruling family’s most important success has been to keep these different constituencies apart, so that they have been unable to coalesce as one movement for change. It is interesting to note that Jeddah-based Islamists arrested in 2007 and convicted in 2011 such as Saud Mukhtar al-Hashemi have been kept in separate prisons from the Riyadh-based rights activists like Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed who were tried and convicted in 2012. Al-Hamed is a prominent Islamist thinker who was convicted in 2005 on similar charges of disturbing public order and disobeying the ruler through calls for reform.

Sheikh Salman al-Odah is one of the most influential religious scholars in the country and a leading figure in the clerical movement for reform in the early 1990s (often referred to as the Sahwa, or awakening). His television show on Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel MBC was taken off air because of his early support for the Arab uprisings, and he has been banned from leaving the country due to regime fear that he would become a religious leader-in-exile as Ayatollah Khomeini was for Iran. Al-Odah published a pro-uprising book, As’ilat al-Thawra (Questions on the Revolution), which was banned yet achieved hundreds of thousand free online downloads. He has periodically taken to Twitter to warn the regime that it must change or face consequences. The mass online presence in Saudi Arabia has alarmed the authorities, and the Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Al-Sheikh, the government’s official voice on religious affairs, last year warned the public of impending damnation for using it to critique the rulers.

Persecution of online dissent has been severe but highly selective. While al-Odah has been left alone – the regime has allowed a view to form of him as someone who is all talk but no action – young activists have suffered. For example, Raif Badawi was arrested in 2012 over his work with a website he established called Free Saudi Liberals. In May 2014 he was sentenced in a retrial to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison, with a 1 million riyal ($267,000) fine. In keeping with its alliance with the clerics, authorities have also stepped up prosecutions over religious belief: Hamza Kashgari was extradited from Malaysia in 2012 over Tweets deemed blasphemous. In 2013 Riyadh also saw rioting by thousands of immigrants during an attempt to deport visa over-stayers.

While social media has not managed to bring liberals and Islamists in different regions together as a physical presence in one movement for change, it has facilitated a blurring of the lines within Islamist politics, for one. The ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013 presented a living example of an Islamist project to Saudi Salafis preachers close to the government who would normally maintain their distance from what they view as faddish post-colonial political Islam. Some such as Mohammed al-Arify, who is at least as popular as al-Odah, visited Cairo during Mohammed Morsi’s year in power and gave a celebratory sermon at al-Azhar mosque. Those were worrying trends.

This year the Saudi government instituted a terrorism law that brought many of these elements together. The terms of the legislation allowed almost any form of political dissent to be framed as proscribed activity, from expressing sympathy for the Egyptian Islamists killed at the Rabaa sit-in in 2013 to fighting in Syria amongst jihadists (three years into the civil war). Faced with a widening range of possible sources of dissent, the regime has cast as wide a net as possible in its post-Spring epistemology of repression.

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