Reflections Magazine June-July 2011
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Saudi Arabia: The exception?


Determining if the state is reformed



With the assassination of Obama bin Laden and the active political movements in North Africa, there are murmurs of reform in one of the most traditional of Arab states: Saudi Arabia. Afterall, bin Laden was one of their own. If his invulnerability has been shattered, perhaps the wall of archaic Muslim practices can be shattered, as well.

Since 1979 when the holy sites of Mecca were captured by radical Islamic forces, the Saudi royal family has been making extortion payments to keep the Wahabbist opposition at bay—even though some members of the Royal family share its ideological position. But with conditions roiling throughout the Arab world nothing can be taken for granted.

There are Saudi spokesmen who claim that despite the payments and suppression of discontent, revolution—or at least major reform—is coming. In a recent article provided by Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Mansour al-Hadj, a Saudi-born liberal intellectual, contends that disenfranchisement of weak sectors of the Saudi society will lead to an inevitable backlash.

Mr. al-Hadj argues that a combination of Shiites, women, children of immigrants and political dissidents who are growing in number, are volatile elements in Saudi society. There are even women in the country who have expressed opposition to the imposed wearing of burqas. The Saudi government suppresses dissent with brutal crackdowns and police raids on rallies and intellectual exchanges. But despite their best efforts, reformist sentiments have not been crushed.

With the oil revenue looming in the background of all decisions, the government also attempts to buy off dissent with royal decrees that disperse massive funds to friends and some foes alike. However, this has not affected the basic issues, nor has it mitigated the difficulty of those oppressed and persecuted. Women’s rights, for example, stand as an issue unrelieved by government largess.

In Saudi Arabia, the sense of injustice is palpable. For those who are not attached to the royal family in one way or another, discontent runs high. It is possible that Saudi Arabia, often referred to as “the exception in the Arab world” is no exception at all. As events unfold throughout the region, fear as an inhibition is decreasing and some groups realize they have the capacity to foment real change.

When this might occur is impossible to predict since the Saudi government has been effective in neutralizing any reform movement. But this may be a different period—a period in which the Arab Spring inspires new, more vocal activity than any seen in the past. Liberal reformers look to the future with anticipation. But they are not alone.

The Iranian regime looks longingly at the oil fields in Shiite areas. Its imperial dream is a Saudi government that falls, replaced by a Shia linked arrangement with Iran. The Shia may be a minority in this Sunni dominated nation, but with Iranian military forces behind this minority and the possibility of nuclear weapons as a backdrop, the Iranian dream could become a reality. This would be a nightmare for the State Department, which explains, in part, why the United States has been conspicuously laconic about any reform movement in Saudi Arabia.

History, however, moves along its own path oblivious to our desire. Hence, whatever America does it should take into account the distinct possibility of a reformist impulse within Saudi Arabia that changes the current regime.

-Herbert London is President Emeritus of the Hudson Institute and author of the book, “Decline and Revival in Higher Education.”




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