Thursday, August 5, 2004

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So what's going on in Saudi Arabia?

Well, the good news is that the Saudis have decided to hold national elections in a few months, according to Reuters:

Saudi Arabia plans to hold its first nationwide elections starting in November, seen as the first concrete political reforms in the country's absolute monarchy, a government source said on Wednesday.
The source from the Municipal Affairs Ministry told Reuters the first stage of the local elections would be held in the capital Riyadh after the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ends in mid-November.

The elections will elect half of the members of the nearly 180 municipal councils nationwide, while the rest are expected to be appointed by the government.

The conservative Gulf kingdom announced last October it would hold municipal elections -- the first in four decades -- after pressure from the United States and domestic reformers to grant some political participation and freedom of expression.

At the same time, the Economist reports that the House of Saud remains sensitive to media criticism:

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, suggested that several Arab and Muslim countries were prepared to send an armed force to help police Iraq. By lending Islamic legitimacy to Iraq’s transitional government, such a move could do much to quell the lingering hostility to it, both within Iraq and the surrounding region....

Yet scarcely was Mr Powell’s plane out of Saudi skies before the caveats blew in. The Islamic force was meant to replace the current coalition, not complement it, elaborated Prince Saud, and even then only at the express request of an Iraqi government that had “the full and clear support of the Iraqi people”....

To find reasons for the hasty retreat, look no further than the opinion pages in the Arab press. The troops offer was not really Saudi, said the popular London-based daily, Al-Quds al-Arabi, “but rather American orders clothed in Saudi garb so as to be more acceptable to other Muslim and Arab countries who are keen to please the American administration and fend off its official pressure to introduce reforms”. Talal Salman, editor of the Beirut daily, Al-Safir, commented acidly: “Washington has discovered that there are ‘unemployed’ Arab armies that have no duties, save to subdue Arab masses, and that those Arab armies could be employed in saving the United States from the Iraqi quagmire.”

The most interesting take on the current Saudi situation comes from David Gardner's Financial Times survey. The section on education is particularly revealing:

[P]robably it is in the field of education that this schizophrenia is most vividly and wrenchingly lived out. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has an educated middle class, an estimated one million of whom have studied abroad - often to a very high level - and the kingdom has educated its girls for roughly the last generation and a half. Saudis, moreover, often have an intellectual depth to them that is less easily found in many Arab countries, where political and commercial pressures have debased and ground down the currency of ideas to convenient and remunerative cliche and myth.

But then turn to school textbooks, drawn up under the authority of the Wahhabi establishment, which drill into impressionable young Saudi minds the religious duty to hate all Christians and Jews as infidels, and to combat all Shi’ites as heretics. A theology text for 14-year-olds, for instance, states that “it is the duty of a Muslim to be loyal to the believers and be the enemy of the infidels. One of the duties of proclaiming the oneness of God is to have nothing to do with his idolatrous and polytheist enemies.”

This sort of teaching follows the theses of the theologian Ibn Taymiyya, a forerunner of Wahhabi thinking who died in 1328, and who asserted the discretionary power of Muslim scholars and clerics to “correct” their rulers. “It is really not very difficult to understand how we got to where we are,” says one reformist intellectual, asking rhetorically if there is any difference between the sectarian bigotry of an Osama bin Laden and the intolerant outpourings of the Wahhabi establishment.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM


Interesting line, from the first article:

"Local elections were held in parts of western Hejaz province until the early 1960s."

I didn't know that. Wonder what the story is?

posted by: praktike on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

btw, the FT article was great, but not so much the Economist.

They quoted a Syrian paper, al-Quds, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a couple Sudanese ministers?

and then there's that cartoon ...

posted by: praktike on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

Saudi officials also captured one of the most wanted al-Qaida ideologues today.

Here is a short write-up about it.

posted by: Terrorism Unveiled on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

>"Local elections were held in parts of western Hejaz province until the early 1960s."

>I didn't know that. Wonder what the story is?

Neither did I, but it makes some sense. The Hejaz was the part of then Arabia controll by the Hashimites and it would not surprise me if the elections were a remnent of their rule.

When reading TE Lawrence's "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" he did note that two of the Hashimite princes were members of the Turkish parliament, with one, IIRC, acting as Deputy Speaker.

posted by: Anthony on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

The source said an electoral roll had been drawn up, without saying whether women -- who are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia -- would be allowed to vote or what criteria such as minimum age would be used to determine who can vote.

Details, details...

posted by: KipEsquire on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

No, women will not be permitted to run for office or to vote this time around.

Having lived in the country over a span of 20 years (81-83, 01-03), I think you have to take progress where you find it, though perhaps you can up the pace a bit.

The Saudis are going to hold their first national election in three years' time. That ought to give the populace some experience in representative government before they can actually pose a danger to the state. (As did Kuwait's and Bahrain's first experiments.)

posted by: John on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

Having just read The Economist article, I'm sorry to have to post twice in succession.

The article is almost completely right. A few things are left out and a couple of conclusions perhaps unwarranted.

First, the Saudis have actually changed their text books. The US Embassy has been hard on their case to get the changes made. The Ministry of Education (responsible for K-12) actually has a reformist Minister. He has called on international--including non-Muslim--text book writers and curriculum development specialists to help in that effort.

Second, the article really doesn't get into the rifts and rivalries within the ruling family. Some of them--including the Crown Prince--are among the foremose reformers. Others, like Sultan--who needs to keep brushing up his Islamic credentials after a somewhat unsavory past--and his brother Naif--who's just a complete recidivist--aren't so eager to change the status quo. If it changes, they lose out.

Reform is coming to the country, whether it's through their opening of their first indigenous human rights organization--with international affiliation--or the elections (designed under UN guidance).

But change is going to take time.

I apologize if I break any rules by promoting my own blog here, but I comment and provide context daily on the goings-on in the Magic Kingdom. You're welcome to stop by Crossroads Arabia

posted by: John on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

elections or not, if their pipelines start to blow ala iraq, we're up the proverbial creek:
Oil Kamikaze

posted by: kgrant on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

Anthony- Ibn Saud conquered Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah by 1925, and became King of the Hijaz and Najd on January 8, 1926. He renamed it KSA in 1932.

That's why the 1960s date is interesting.

posted by: praktike on 08.05.04 at 05:20 PM [permalink]

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