Background: Saudi Arabia in flux

On the occasion of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s 71st National Day celebrations, there has been intense assessment and analysis of the events of the last two years, particularly since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington where 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis.

American pressure on the kingdom has its ups and downs, and ranges between the interrogation of thousands of Saudi citizens, accusations of supporting terrorism financially, and finally, calling for government reforms. But no matter what the outlook of the United States, it is easy to see that the kingdom is facing several troublesome issues. It was against this backdrop that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah issued the Saudi proposal in spring of 2002.

The first problem, although not the most important, is one of security. After the attacks in Riyadh on May 13, police and radicals have clashed in the kingdom almost daily, even though the regional and family backing (and therefore training and weaponry) of these radicals is minimal.

The tendency is to connect these radicals with al Qaida, as the Moroccans have done since the bombings in Casablanca, and the Indonesians since the start of the bombings in Bali. However, investigations to that effect have not made progress and it is expected that some of these radical "leaders" have experience in Afghanistan, while the rest are working independently. The radicals’ main accusation against the Saudi authorities was previously the presence of American troops in the kingdom. Now, however, American troops are no longer there. In the latest recording from Osama bin Ladin, which was aired (previously recorded) during the second anniversary of the September attacks, bin Ladin came back to accuse Arab and Muslim leaders of being infidels even if they "pray and fast" because they are submissive to the "Americans and Crusaders." In a departure from the past, bin Ladin did not mention the presence of the US military in Saudi Arabia.

The second problem also relates to these radicals. While the security forces are able to hold their own against the militants, who import their arms from Yemen and Iraq, there appears to be a widespread identification with those radicals among young people in general. That atmosphere cannot be resolved through a security solution. In fact, new methods must be developed to deal with the problems of the young generation that has been educated in religious universities and colleges because they cannot find jobs, and now perform minor and temporary jobs, such as acting as imams or orating in the mosques. Hundreds of these young people have been released in recent months from their employment on charges that they hold radical opinions, and despite their not having committed any security violations.

Americans frequently discuss the importance of reforming the Saudi curriculum in religious colleges, as well as revamping religious textbooks used in regular schools. But the young generation has now been raised to believe in the importance of implementing Islamic law, or Sharia. These young people remain dissatisfied with what they see around them, despite the Saudi authorities’ claim that they do indeed implement the laws of Islam. Hence, in addition to seriously considering the difficulties of the generation, it is important to develop school and college programs–not to minimize Islam, but to expose our society to readings and opinions in Islamic thought that differ from the conservative or legalistic school of thought.

This brings us to the most critical area of all: the relationship between the government and the Wahabi ideology that all Saudis have been steeped in. The Wahabi path that contributed to creating the Saudi kingdom in its Khaldouni connotations of missionary orientation and religious partisanship is actually a conservative Hanbali approach (one of the more radical branches of Islam). While the radical young generation has been raised on these principles, its politicization does not originate from the Wahabi ideology, but from the Muslim Brotherhood movement that arrived from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine during the sixties and eighties and gained control over the religious schools and universities.

In the Afghanistan experience, several thousand of these young people were active for 15 years acquiring battle experience in tandem with politicization, all the while implementing those principles on the ground. They were not only Saudis, but Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, Algerians, and so on. Bin Ladin selected from among these "Arab Afghans" to join him in al Qaida, or follow on his heels.

Researchers often mention the duality that exists between the "prince" and the "sheikh" in Saudi Arabia. In truth, however, the prince has always dominated, and the sheikh is much less important. Now, Saudi society must remove the Wahabi dominance in the education system, not only because the sheikhs who administer it are rigid legalists, but because they are incapable of implementing modernization and reform.

What I suggest here is not a separation between state and religion, since Saudi legislation is deprived from the Islamic religion itself. Instead, I am pointing out that all Saudi citizens are Muslims, so why must they, their families and their children be subject to constant control in education and their public and private lives from religious men who are not more knowledgeable in religion or general rights than the rest of the public? I don’t think that the legitimacy of the ruling government would be jeopardized if the Wahabi ideology were to be toppled, and the kingdom became receptive to other Islamic ideologies.

The final problem facing the kingdom is perhaps the most crucial and dangerous in the eyes of the ruling government. It is made up of several sub-issues: the need for political openness, a re-evaluation of discrimination against women, and the participation of the citizenry in government bodies, thereby liberating civic society from the strictures of the authorities and the religious bodies.

There are deep changes occurring in Saudi society as a result of sweeping modernization, and the current regime and its mechanisms are finding themselves incapable of responding to the development challenges at hand. In this, it might be important to think of several issues such as a constitution, elections and division of power, in order to move towards the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Otherwise, the current regime’s legitimacy will decline as it proves incapable of responding to the aspirations of its citizens, and congruently is required to intensify its security measures. This is the kingdom’s 71st National Day, and it is time for development and change, with or without American pressure.