Sunday, 18 July 2010

Why Saudi Arabia is progressive

Saudi Arabia is progressive?

On March 11, 2002 flames engulfed a girls’ public intermediate school in the holy city of Mecca (Saudi Arabia). Although this alone was tragic, what happened next was appalling. Members of the mutaween, a law enforcement agency of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, severely hindered the rescue efforts. These religious policemen blocked male rescue workers from entering the school in order to prevent them from ‘sinning’ or coming in close contact with uncovered females. Unfortunately, the young girls were not wearing the abayas (black robes) required by the Saudi government. Some of the students trying to escape the burning building were stopped from exiting by the mutaween, and one witness reported seeing the religious police “beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya”. The initial stampede from the fire and subsequent activity resulted in 15 deaths.

This characterization is emblematic of the criticism of Saudi Arabia, and in particular its abhorrent human rights record over the years. After all, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchial dictatorship that operates as a pseudo-theocracy, and denies freedom to religious minorities and equal status to women. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to issue reports, claiming that "Saudi Arabia spares no expense in trying to hide these gross human rights violations." In fact, just in April, a Lebanese television presenter was set to be executed for 'sorcery' (although his punishment was deferred for now). So how is Saudi Arabia progressive?

If the benchmark is Canada or New Zealand, then the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would have to be cast out as extremely regressive. Yet, to evaluate Saudi Arabia on an absolute standard may be conventional, but it is certainly misleading. It is more relevant to compare the Saudi Arabia of today to the Saudi Arabia of yesteryear. In fact, since King Abdullah formally came to power in 2005, the situation has markedly been improving. Simply look at Human Rights Watch's own words. This is an excerpt from their report in December 2001:

Decades of disrespect for human rights have distorted political and civic life in Saudi Arabia and dangerously narrowed possibilities for peaceful political reform...The ruling family is perpetuating a system that breeds intolerance and political violence. Saudi Arabia's government is intolerant of public dissent, whether it comes from Saudi liberals or conservatives. Any criticism of the ruling family and its closely-knit circle of supporters, including the official ulema (religious scholars) is off limits.
Here are some telling findings from HRW's recent article (July 1) in the Huffington Post:

Saudis are somewhat freer today, and many credit the king. Saudi writers have won regional awards this year, and the diversity of Saudi society is on display, thanks to the growth of electronic media....Saudis see some progress in three areas -- women's rights, freedom of expression, and judicial reform...Rigid gender segregation between men and women is loosening in public places, though it's still the norm in the workplace and schools...King Abdullah has made a good start, but he should keep the momentum going."
The article also mentions a number of areas which still require significant improvement, mainly judicial transparency, women's rights, freedom of religious minorities and so on. Yet, it is a stirring story, to see how Saudi Arabia is changing today. When I went to Saudi Arabia to work on a project while at McKinsey, it was not without hesitation. However, the progressive vision of King Abdullah to open the society and liberalize its education system specifically is inspiring. This is not to be naive. It is not an electoral democracy. Yet, that cannot be the only metric to use. And more fundamentally, reform, change, and development is a long trajectory that will not happen overnight. To expect it to do so, is precisely the foolish philosophy that inspired the invaders of Iraq.

There are several clear examples of change underway. In multiple ways the King is encouraging an entirely new ecosystem for education, from creating a new first-rate education program for gifted and talented students to modernizing and internationalizing the university network (see KAUST, which will also have both men and women in the same classroom). On human rights, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of creating a new human rights organization for the Gulf, as well as introducing 'human rights' to its educational curriculum. The Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia is also actively soliciting cases. And on women's rights King Abdullah is pressing the country to tackle taboos and cross new frontiers. He has appointed a woman for the first-time to a cabinet-level position (for women's education) for example. Saudi Arabia is also ahead of other Gulf countries in tackling domestic abuse. A recent report by a think-tank in Riyadh showed that 40% of articles during the first two months of the year in print media addressed women's issues.

The King and his allies are pushing forward an agenda for change in Saudi Arabia. Each day, there are different restrictions being lifted, and old traditions being confronted. A senior cleric was removed from his post when he labelled the plan to integrate university students as un-Islamic. Furthermore, he is opening lines of critical dialogue even on religion. None of this however, means that Saudi Arabia is a free society. Repression still exists. Women are still second-classs citizens. Rather than embracing the diversity of the country, the government continues to repress minority groups, particularly Shia Muslims. And, for all the social change being encouraged, political power is still consolidated within the grip of a King.

Yet, since when was the situation in the Middle East black and white? This is the reality. There is no emerald city. Change will come incrementally and deliberately. It will take time, and there will be setbacks. Fortunately for Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah is pushing things in the right direction.


  1. Taufiq, thanks for sharing. Overall I think this is a good article with whose main thrust I agree: The King and his allies are pushing forward an agenda of change in KSA.

    I would only add a couple of thoughts.

    You mentioned that Saudi Arabia is an "absolute monarchial dictatorship that operates as a pseudo-theocracy." While nominally true, I'd say the country is more accurately described as an Islamic monarchy where different factions of the Royal family exercise power within their respective spheres of influence. This would explain why unlike a proper dictatorship change (for better or worse) cannot be forced through by any single entity or person, even the King.

    Also, it's important to distinguish between the royal family--it's different factions notwithstanding--and the religious establishment. In the past, the royal family derived its legitimacy in the eyes of the populace from the religious establishment, so the latter exercised almost unchecked influence on public life. That arrangement has inhibited a lot of natural and positive change that would have occurred naturally during past decades. Today, mostly as a result of globalization and a progressive King, you can sense the strong impetus to change. The religious establishment is is essentially being forced to alter their line or become obsolete/irrelevant/unpopular. As this happens you can expect the country as a whole to progress, albeit slowly.

    My last point is more of a question. Why start with four paragraphs worth of scathing (though legitimate) criticism when the purported point of your article is to provide a counterpoint to the prevalent opinion? If you must, you could have put them at the bottom!

    Again, overall good article. I wish I read more articles about Saudi Arabia in the media that were as informed and insightful.

  2. Thank you for the comments -- I think they are on the money, and provide some more detailed context. In terms of fronting the bad...It was a toss-up on style. It was perhaps to get people comfortable with what they knew before giving them what they didn't.

  3. Great article, thanks for posting it!

    I think you are particularly right when you say "And more fundamentally, reform, change, and development is a long trajectory that will not happen overnight. To expect it to do so, is precisely the foolish philosophy that inspired the invaders of Iraq”.

    About the comment you received: I think you were right to start with the criticism. Even though things might be changing now in KSA the country has had a very poor track record in terms of human rights both at home and abroad promoting religious fundamentalism. I think it is important to be truthfull about that for the sake of the truth itself and also to aknowledge the efforts of those in favor of change in KSA: these people take a certain risk and deserve our respect.

    Thanks again for the good work!

  4. Change in KSA? Clerics have now said that the Saudi women can enjoy French holidays without the viel!!

  5. Very informative article! For the Western world Saudi Arabia, with its conservative traditions, remains one of the most inexplicable countries. Saudi Arabia is also attractive for students from abroad. Education in Saudi Arabia has always been a one of the main issues for Saudi authorities, despite the fat that the country has great education system.