After nine months of increasing internal and external pressure, the Saudi royal family has recently appeared ready to make major changes in the way government is done in the Arabian Peninsula. On October 13, 2003, the Consultative Council—a nominally autonomous body that in reality reflects the royal will—announced limited municipal elections to be held within the next 12 months, and hinted at additional electoral initiatives in the near future. In Riyadh the following day, the government opened a conference on human rights sponsored by the Saudi Red Crescent Society. Whatever optimism these two events may have generated was crushed at the gates of the conference, where Saudi riot police used live ammunition to break up a march of peaceful demonstrators protesting the slow pace of reform. The authorities detained hundreds, administered beatings and affirmed that, in spite of suggestions to the contrary, it is business as usual in the desert kingdom. Meanwhile, presumed Islamist extremists continue to wreak havoc in the country, killing at least 17 in a shooting and bombing attack in the Saudi Arabian capital on November 8.

The demonstrations, the regime’s heavy-handed response and its inability to curb extremism emphasize the continued turbulence that characterizes the Saudi Arabian domestic drama. While terrorism grabs the headlines, recent events demand a closer look at the current political crisis surrounding reform, as difficulties in this arena suggest the worst may be yet to come.

When viewed alongside the most recent petition calling for reform, promulgated on September 24, the demonstrations of October 14 reveal growing impatience among Saudi Arabians. As the regime persists in stonewalling what are considered to be fundamental changes, anger with the House of Saud escalates. The state’s readiness to resort to violence to quell public unrest, at the doorstep of a human rights conference, exposes the frailty of its commitment to basic principles of reform and the depth of its attachment to police action. Large turnout, perhaps numbering in the thousands, for the demonstrations called by the London-based opposition Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), raises questions about the mass appeal of the various reform groups operating inside and outside the kingdom, and their role in the domestic situation.

Onions and Saddam Hussein

Since January and April, when the first reform petitions of 2003 were submitted to, and verbally welcomed by, de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdallah, the ruling family has made little actual progress. The highly publicized August opening of a Center for National Dialogue—allegedly a site for the exchange of ideas and the promotion of pluralism—had already become something of a running joke throughout the kingdom by September. The announcement of regional elections, which the regime hails as a major move toward fundamental reform, has been met with considerable skepticism. In the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, Saad al-Faqih, director of MIRA and one of the leading opposition voices outside the peninsula, denounced the long-awaited step as cosmetic and likened it to “breaking the [Ramadan] fast with onions.” He reminded observers that Saddam Hussein held elections, too. Even before the October announcement, glacial liberalization and the effects of the royal campaign against domestic militants fostered deepening doubts that the regime is sincere about reform.

On September 24, 306 Sunni and Shiite men and women, a group widely known as the non-Islamist liberals because of their secular tendencies, submitted the most recent in a series of reform petitions, under the title “In Defense of the Nation,” to the royal family. They reiterated previous calls for political reform, emphasizing the separation of powers, freedom of speech, the right of assembly and religious tolerance. One of the petition’s organizers told Middle East Report that they aimed to appeal to a wider social base and to assert their mounting frustration with the regime’s unwillingness to act to resolve the kingdom’s multiple crises. These reformers are wary of royal slogans like the “iron fist” with which King Fahd vowed to smash militant networks after the November 8 bombing.

Citing the aggressive security campaign underway since the coordinated suicide bombings in Riyadh in May, the petition stated: “It is impossible to defeat the forces of violence and terrorism through security measures alone.” Along with the royal family’s monopoly on the decision-making process, the petitioners noted that “the decisions that long delayed us from adopting fundamental reforms…are among the main reasons that our country has arrived at its current dangerous situation.” Fighting the militants, they wrote, “can only be accomplished by identifying and eliminating the political, economic, cultural and social factors that mobilize them. This can be achieved by immediately carrying out the political and economic reforms envisioned by a number of proposals.”

The reformers articulated a more confrontational attitude toward the nature of Saudi governance than had appeared in their previous letters. On September 24, they labeled administrative corruption, fiscal irresponsibility, poverty, unemployment and the second-class status of women as byproducts of an anachronistic political system. These problems will only end, the petitioners averred, “through carrying out the demands for total reform.”

The regime’s campaign against suspected militants, while endorsed by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and welcomed with relief by American commentators, has also provoked anger among reform-minded Saudi Arabian Islamists, prompting their return to political activism after years of state repression. These Islamists, who call for an Islamic state run by religious leaders, echo the liberals’ demands for political change, but see themselves as unfairly targeted by the anti-militant sweeps. MIRA, founded in 1996 after Saad al-Faqih split from an earlier opposition group, has emerged as the group with the highest profile. Exiled since the early 1990s, until recently MIRA had been largely alienated from Saudi Arabians inside the kingdom. With the omnipresence of satellite services in the kingdom, the group reasserted itself into peninsula politics via radio satellite broadcasts. They bristle at state corruption, the royal family’s abuse of power and, most importantly, the marginalization of what MIRA considers the “legitimate” religious leadership (‘ulama) from positions of responsibility. Mass arrests of these “legitimate” Islamists in the campaign against extremists prompted MIRA to call for civil disobedience.

Other Islamists living inside the kingdom, like Muhsen al-Awaji, agree. Imprisoned for his activism in the 1990s, al-Awaji wrote in the Beirut-based Daily Star that militancy has afflicted Saudi Arabia “as a consequence of long-term oppression” and “the lack of democracy.” Al-Awaji argues that neither tight security nor limited reform is sufficient and that both measures have come too late to avert additional violence. In recent statements, al-Awaji and other domestic Islamists have called upon the royal family to end its crackdown and engage in dialogue with the extremists. Short of this, he suggests, the opposition will gain strength and grow increasingly militant.

Business as Usual

The Saudi response to rising pressure has, in the words of Human Rights Watch, made “a mockery of the kingdom’s pledges of political reform.” Following the October 14 protest, Saudi police detained approximately 270 men and women. The New York Times reported at least one incident of brutality, when authorities beat and arrested a 65 year-old woman who demanded the return of the body of her son, who had perished in a prison fire earlier in the summer. A week later, MIRA called for an additional round of demonstrations to be held in nine cities across the country on October 23. In a statement published on its website, the opposition group declared that “the movement affirms its insistence in continuing with a peaceful program.” Despite this declaration, Saudi authorities deployed a massive armed presence throughout major cities to preempt the protests. Video monitoring, plainclothes security, traffic checkpoints and police blockades stymied the would-be demonstrators, and authorities jailed at least 70 additional persons.

In the aftermath of the Riyadh protests and the failed demonstrations the following week, Saudi authorities turned from police tactics to an ideological campaign against freedom of speech. Initially, the regime silenced the domestic media, forbidding comment on either the thwarted marches or the repression that thwarted them. On October 27, in a speech commemorating the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Sheikh called the demonstrations un-Islamic and forbidden, in what amounted to a fatwa (religious ruling) on the subject. The fatwa generated an intense response outside the kingdom. Letter writers and editorials in various newspapers ridiculed the decision. One reader of al-Quds al-Arabi asked if the mufti had been on the moon, noting the religious leader’s silence about demonstrations against the war in Iraq or on behalf of the oppressed in Palestine and Afghanistan. The newspaper itself blasted al-Sheikh, commenting that “it was hoped that the mufti would not have condemned the demonstrations, but rather those who met them with brutality.”

While police brutality and the ideological campaign are odious and antithetical to the Saudis’ alleged commitment to reform, they are hardly surprising. The carrot-and-stick strategy—promising and undertaking limited changes, while relying on oppression to get the real message across—is a time-tested method of Saudi rule. Since the founding of the state in 1933, dissident groups have periodically challenged the regime’s authority. When their challenges coincided with external pressures, like the 1979 Iranian revolution or the US military buildup during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, the regime has been forced to “deal” with internal problems by confronting, but not necessarily resolving, the contradictory outcomes of its dictatorial ways.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, the Saudis feigned interest in political change while simultaneously cracking down on those who challenged them. A group of outspoken Islamist dissidents demanded political reform. Angry that the regime proved incapable of providing for its own security needs, particularly after spending billions of dollars on US and other foreign weaponry, these early reformers were bitter about the deployment of non-Muslim troops in the peninsula. In response, the kingdom announced several reforms in 1992, the most important of which were the Basic Law of Government and the establishment of the Consultative Council. In theory, these steps radically transformed government, creating an “independent” legislative body and codifying a constitution that promised an independent and just judiciary, human rights and the sanctity of Islamic law (shari’a).

The reforms proved empty, however. As the historian Madawi al-Rasheed has written, “the government reforms went hand in hand with the augmentation of state control through the use of violence against suspected dissidents.” From 1992-1994, the regime’s dragnet snared hundreds of Islamist reformists and drove many others into exile. In a manner eerily similar to today, Saudi rulers mobilized the media and religious leaders close to the throne to inveigh against the reformers.

The Reformers

Until the fall of 2003, it seemed that the liberals—a coalition of intellectuals, businesspeople, moderate religious and community leaders—represented the sole remaining voice of reform in Saudi Arabia. MIRA’s reappearance on the scene, however, complicates the picture. The liberal and Islamist factions rely on similar language in advocating change. Both liberals and Islamists have expressed growing disaffection with the perennial delay of change. Yet semantic parallels and mutual impatience are where the similarities end, at least for the time being.

Liberal and Islamist reformers are distinguished by the content of their political visions and the strategies they embrace to achieve them. Khalid al-Dakhil, professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote in the Arab Reform Bulletin that the liberals “assume from the start that the Saudi monarchy is legitimate and reflective of the social and political reality and history of Saudi society. Thus, it provides a badly needed framework for maintaining national unity.” Since January, when 104 petitioners submitted the letter, “A Vision for the Nation and Its Future,” to Crown Prince Abdallah, the liberals have consistently sought change from above. Fundamentally, they see themselves and the regime as allies in a campaign against radical forces in the country. Al-Dakhil claims that the main point of contention between them is the government’s refusal to address social inequity in Saudi Arabia. He wrote recently that “when the government responds [to crises], it does so by trying to maintain old values and institutions, such as by appeasing the most radical and narrow-minded `ulama and preachers. In this sense, the threat to the Saudi state comes not only from the spread of religious radicalism, but also from the government’s response to this radicalism.”

It is in this willingness of liberals to work with the regime that Saudi hardliners may have miscalculated. While al-Dakhil argues powerfully that the liberals are committed to state-led reform and preserving the monarchy, this political strategy is more likely an expedient gambit than a real pillar of their beliefs. Working inside the repressive kingdom, they cannot openly pursue a more hostile line lest they undermine their hopes for peaceful reform altogether. In addition, the liberals are well aware that the state considers them an ameliorative influence on more radical elements in society. They fully understand that the state indulges reform talk with a view toward deflecting frustration into discussion rather than action. But the liberals’ willingness to accept this condition is wearing thin. Should they turn against the intransigent regime, the House of Saud will stand alone.

In contrast, MIRA’s strategy, available to the group because it operates outside the kingdom, is openly rejectionist and confrontational. Saad al-Faqih recently commented “that the downfall of the regime is an inevitable result of what has started.” In calling for “mass mobilization and organization,” MIRA claims that “abandoning passivity is a condition for change” and that those who receive “this call to truth…[are] bound by [their] Islamic duty to give it [their] full and unwavering support.” The group’s website states that “the people must not wait for its freedom to be granted as a favor from the House of Saud, or come as a gift from the Americans who will pressure the House of Saud into liberalizing, as some dreaming liberals wish. They should not even wait for the reform movement to achieve liberation for them.” MIRA’s vision for what the reformed state should look like is less clear, except that it will not involve the royal family. In the 1990s, MIRA called for an Islamic government in the peninsula under the rule of the ‘ulama. While al-Faqih has not specifically articulated this vision in 2003, continuities with his past agenda seem to remain, in spite of vague suggestions about democracy.

Most of MIRA’s materials are filled with criticism of the corruption and abuses of the royal family and its relationship with the US. Most important to the group’s agenda recently has been the militarization of US foreign policy, and especially the contradiction between constant war and the Bush administration’s claim that it seeks to spread peace and democracy in the Middle East. Anti-US sentiment in the kingdom is running high, and while the liberals have sought to distance themselves from “foreign influences,” their willingness to work with the ruling family and their secular tendencies situate them by default with the Americans. Of particular sensitivity for Islamists is the American insistence on education reform. Many are concerned that the entire institution of religious education is under fire—not just particular expressions of intolerance in textbooks.

Groups associated with the US government, like the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), fuel skepticism about American intentions among both Islamists and liberals. On November 18, USCIRF, which provides policy suggestions to the executive branch, will hold a hearing entitled “Is Saudi Arabia a Strategic Threat? The Global Propagation of Intolerance.” The Commission, which has previously labeled the kingdom a “country of particular concern” for its “egregious, systematic and ongoing abuses of religious freedom,” is now seeking “facts” that will establish whether Saudi Arabia is promoting ideologies “incompatible with the war on terrorism.” Such rhetoric has tangible, if unintended, effects on Saudi Arabian citizens who are concerned to end the oppression of religious minorities inside the kingdom, which is commonplace and often deadly. Leaders of at least one oppressed religious minority informed Middle East Report that they refused to meet with a similar task force on religious freedom operating within the State Department because they were uncertain of its true bailiwick.

Neither Reform Nor Security

US analytical ineptitude vis-à-vis the royal family further erodes American credibility. In recent comments to Reuters, “a State Department source” commented that the problem was “a seventh-century Dark Age culture” resistant to modernization. The official remarked that “it has really been the royal family, the House of Saud, that has brought the culture along into more modern times.” Claims that the royal family represents a progressive force in Saudi Arabian society, echoed by George W. Bush in his speech on the Middle East and democracy on November 6, clearly misstate realities about the regime and embolden the opposition.

The success of MIRA’s call to action in October provides an indication that the group possesses some popular appeal. The anti-American and anti-regime message of MIRA’s radio broadcasts may be more popular than its inchoate political vision, however. It is probably more accurate to see MIRA as part of a reemerging Islamic opposition, rather than the main voice of Islamic reform. There are other underground voices demanding change that reject both the regime and those with more secular ideas. While members of the royal family dismiss the opposition as irrelevant, they clearly are not. As one voice in an emerging chorus calling for Islamic reform, MIRA and groups like it also appeal to those who eschew violent tactics such as those relied upon by extremists like al-Qaeda, yet do not wish to sell out their Islamic principles. Like the liberals, however, MIRA and other Islamists recognize that more anti-regime violence is likely, and have hinted that it may be justifiable as a result of government inflexibility.

The liberals, though they are an elite coterie that draws on social and economic power to solicit attention from the state, have a popular appeal as well—though how much is unclear. Their efforts to work with a regime that is neither able to bring about reform nor security, the latter being a particularly urgent issue following the two serious violent attacks in Riyadh, has fed their own impatience. It remains to be seen if the liberals, who refuse to concede that violence is inevitable, can mobilize the same kind of grassroots public action that MIRA apparently rallied on October 14. Either way, until the regime rejects its hard-line approach and engages honestly in reform, one thing is certain: state and extremist violence will continue to intensify.

CORRECTION: The e-mail version of this article said that municipal elections in Saudi Arabia would be “unprecedented, if limited.” There were municipal elections held around the country from 1954 to 1964.

How to cite this article:

Toby Jones "Violence and the Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia," Middle East Report Online, November 13, 2003.

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