By Cathy Nugent
In February Saudi Arabia held the first round of municipal council elections — the country’s first direct elections since 1964. As democratic elections go they are very poor:
- only half the council seats are to be elected, the rest are appointed;
- the decision-making power of these councils is limited;
- no party affiliations are allowed (because all political parties are banned in the country);
- women were not allowed to vote, despite election rules which say that all Saudi citizens over the age of 21 are eligible to vote.
A US spokesperson’s comment on the election was, “Saudi Arabia is not immune to the reforms sweeping the region.” In other words, “These are not great reforms, but what do you expect in Saudi Arabia?”
Indeed. This is a very special capitalist dictatorship — headed up as it is by an all-controlling “royal family”, backed by a fanatical clergy — a regime with a history of astounding corruption and terrifying brutality.
In Saudi Arabia the routine torture and imprisonment of oppositionists went on long before the rise of the new Islamist jihadi groups. It goes on still, despite, the “democratic” reforms and despite a new Criminal Justice code. Last year, according to Amnesty International, the number of convicted “criminals” who were executed rose (to 31). Half were (low paid) foreign workers. All “criminals” in Saudi Arabia (including adulterers and the like) get grossly unfair trials.
Saudi Arabia is an immensely rich society — it is the world’s biggest oil producer, accounting for 25% of the world’s oil. In capitalist terms, it is in some ways, highly advanced — a large number of Saudis have access to satellite communications for instance. But in terms of social structures it is very backward. Family (more than tribal) connections are important. Maintaining family honour is a basic structuring principle.
Women suffer most under this system. They are not allowed to be unaccompanied in public places, to work except in very limited areas, to drive. They are discriminated against over divorce and child custody issues. Domestic violence is both taboo and endemic.
Saudi Arabia is no longer regarded by the US as the stable ally it once was. The role of Saudi citizens in the 9-11 atrocity guaranteed that. And in August 2003 the Saudis got the US to withdraw its military bases. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia remains a good friend to the US and wants to be seen as that. The Saudi government took out full page adverts in the UK press to hail the holding of a recent anti-terrorism conference in Riyadh.
What is behind the Saudi political reforms?
The Saudi’s share the USA’s concern to “stabilise” the Middle East and thus create better functioning capitalist markets. The Saudis put forward their own initiative to reform the Middle East in January 2003, and it has recently been revived. The Saudis propose a programme of self-reform for the Arab states. They also emphasise the promotion of the private sector and raise the idea of a Middle East common market.
Saving their own skins will also be foremost in the minds of the Saudi regime as they introduce their limited electoral process. They have been under a lot of internal pressure for a very long time.
Even the most thorough-going dictatorships generally have some “consultative” political structure, more or less cosmetic, more or less extensive. For a very long time the Saudis managed without. The Saudi monarchy’s control of the country’s oil wealth enabled it to guarantee employment to all Saudi men, mainly in the government bureaucracy. Lower oil prices, economic stagnation and with demographic changes wrecked that scheme.
In 1981 average per capita income in both the US and Saudia Arabia was $18,000. By 2001 it had risen in the US to $36,000, but in Saudi Arabia it had plummeted to $7,500. Unemployment for Saudi men now runs at 20% overall and the figure is much higher (perhaps 60-70%) for men under 25. Despite the integration of Saudi Arabian citizens into more private sector jobs, jobs which were once done by foreign workers, the future looks bleak. (Most manual jobs are still done by immigrant workers from the Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh and, without any legal protection or union organisation, they are subject to super-exploitation).
In 1992, facing internal opposition over his support for the US in the Gulf War and pressure to reform from George Bush Senior, King Fahd introduced the first limited political reform. He set up the (appointed) Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council. The Majlis al-Shura has 90 members and some ability to initiate legislation.
After September 11th the US put a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia to make further reforms — to “democratise” as well as crack down on Saudi sources of funding for al Qaida and other terror groups.
These political reforms look too puny to win support and accommodate dramatic social change. Only 400,000 men out of a potential 3 million who would be eligible registered to vote in the municipal elections.(The reported number of eligible voters is small in a country of around 20 million citizens [no one knows the exact figures], even when the women and children are discounted.) On the other hand, during 2003 and in the run up to the reform announcements, there were petitions and demonstrations for reform (and police repression as a result).
There are four or possibly five sources of Saudi dissidence and instability: the Islamist opposition; critical clerics; Shi’a minority opposition; a diffuse “secularist” (which also tends to be Royalist) opposition; and perhaps, friction from within the ruling family. Arab nationalism, popular in the 60s and 70s, no longer exists as a force. The Saudi Communist Party was disbanded in the 1990s after two decades of repression
The strongest opposition is Islamist, drawing on the ranks of unemployed, younger, middle-class men. Some Saudi Islamists, men such as bin Laden, have graduated in recent years from being “peaceful” oppositionists to become “jihadists”. There is clearly a network of activists associated with al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia but guesses in the media about its size vary tremendously.
Most Islamists combine an obscurantist Islamic message with demands for human rights and justice. They call for “democratic” reform because it is expedient, or because they believe the nature of a renewed Islamic government in Saudi Arabia needs to be discussed.
Their target is the claim of the Saudi regime to be devout, guardians of the country’s holy shrines, the upholders of theocracy. The Islamists complain the regime has let the infidel US into the country (since the first Gulf War). The personal mores of the monarchy are disgraceful (true). Dissidence is dealt with brutally (also true). The Islamists however, accept the monarchy’s Wahhabi version of Islamic doctrine, and some do not oppose the monarchy as such.
Since the 90s an exile Saudi Islamist opposition has been based in London. There are two groups: the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (whose leader is linked to Hizb al-Tahrir) and a splinter group, which now appears to be the more vigorous, the Movement for Islamic Reform (MIRA). MIRA runs a radio station out of London. In the UK MIRA emphasises the human rights message, rather than the goal of returning the Kingdom to authentic Islam. They have been linked to protests inside the country.
There are around two million Shi’a Saudis, largely living in the eastern provinces. They have long been discriminated against. In the 60s discrimination intensified as the monarchy used their own (Sunni-extremist) religious ideology to counter the growth of Arab nationalism. Together with the Ismaili minority, the Saudi Shia make up around 10-15% of the population. According to the conspiracy theories of the most fanatical clerics, Shi’ism is an offshoot of Judaism.
In the mid-70s a Shi’a reform movement grew up protesting at the lack of schools, hospitals and roads in the Shi’a areas, as well as curtailments on religious freedom. Riots in the late 70s led to a crack-down. In 1993 the central regime made an agreement with Shi’a leaders for better treatment. But opposition has not gone away.
One of the Shia’s main leaders is Sheikh Hasan al-Saffar, who is an acolyte of the “moderate” Iranian Islamist, Abdol Karim Soroush. According to Soroush (and al-Saffar) some form of democracy and the participation of women in political representation can be combined with Islam. But sexual freedom and homosexuality are sins.
In 2003 a Shi’a and Sunni alliance produced document called “In Defence of the Nation.” Largely secular in tone (although it seems to have been largely the work of the Shi’a Islamists), for the first time an opposition document mentioned problems of poverty and unemployment, in very moderate terms.
For the most part Saudi (Sunni) clerics are “loyal” to the monarchy. But a few have been long time oppositionists.
The most well-known of these is Safar al-Hawali who first came to prominence during the 1990-91 Gulf War. His main target is “the West”, and the United States in particular. Unlike other Saudi Islamist dissidents he has a “global” message: he highlights the evil threat of Christian fundamentalism as well as the evil of secular Arab regimes. The global message is combined with fervent Saudi nationalism.
Hawali was imprisoned in 1994-9. On his release he pledged not to speak out against the monarchy. But, along with a number of other Saudi “scholars” he has called for Saudis to join the Iraqi “resistance”. At the same time he is being paid by the Saudi government to negotiate with individuals from the armed wing of Saudi Islamism!
Another well-known clerical oppositionist is Salman al-‘Auda. He wants freedom of expression for Islamic criticism of the government, but not for all points of view.
These clerics are extremely popular — thousands of their taped sermons have been sold.
The (very) broadly secular “liberal” opposition is very weak in the country, main visible in mild dissent and “discussion” in the government-controlled media. A new group in London, the Saudi Human Rights Centre, seems to come from this milieu.
In 1991 45 women organised a drive-in in Riyadh. There was a huge backlash: the women received death threats. More recently five women put themselves forward for election to municipal councils. Perhaps even the miserable reforms will encourage more women to fight for change.
There may be rifts in the royal family but the immediate succession to the throne has been established for some time. The current king, Fahd, dropped out of his public duties in 1995 after a stroke, although his frequent drunkenness meant he was never the most attentive head of state. The country has been effectively ruled by his half-brother and heir Abdullah (who is more abstemious and less open to attack from the Islamists). Abdullah may be under attack from inside the royal family. Prince Nayif as the Minister of the Interior is said to be critical of the political reform. But this may be a desire to protect his own position as Head of Intelligence, and the powers he has accumulated in that position. He will not want to see reform of the repressive state apparatus.
And the family does have a gigantic repressive state apparatus at its disposal — 40% of the state budget goes on defence spending. But the social changes in Saudi Arabia of the last years are irreversible. Will the Saudi working class begin to organise? No workers in Saudi Arabia have the right to strike or organise trade unions, and collective bargaining is prohibited. Strikes are punishable offences, with prison terms of one to three years, or fines or both. Political strikes would receive more severe punishments.
The international labour movement should be making a huge uproar about this oppression. We should also urge the anti-sweatshop movement to make solidarity with the migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.