What is happening in Saudi Arabia?
Liisa Liimatainen 2 September 2013

Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula in 622, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created 1,310 years later. The “concept” of Saudi Arabia has its origins in the last years of the 18th century, arising from the alliance between a tribal leader called Mohammad Ibn Saud and the preacher Mohammad Ibn Abd Al Wahhab. Their objective, and later that of their descendents, was to conquer the Arabian Peninsula and create an Islamic state that would follow the only correct interpretation of Islam; Wahabism., Over the centuries, in their opinion, the Arabian Peninsula’s inhabitants had distanced themselves from “real” Islam. However, the foundation of a stable Saudi state only succeeded in the 20th century after a third attempt. Still today it is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that considers itself the only country that promotes the only true Islam. Saudi Arabia is still ruled by the Al-Saud dynasty, and, together with the clergy that supports it, continues to impose on its citizens an extremely dogmatic interpretation of Islam.

Although there are clear signs of change, both in the interpretation of Islam and in general, the government of Saudi Arabia alienates those who try and sponsor reformist interpretations and doctrines. Often these reformers are imprisoned, be they intellectuals, bloggers or authors, including some who simply wrote letters to the King asking for reforms to be implemented. This is the manner in which the government intervenes in the country’s life, in an obvious attempt to prevent evolution towards the rule of law and a society in which human rights exist. And yet, in Saudi Arabia too one cannot help observing a number of increasingly evident signs that a significant number of citizens no longer appear to be prepared to obey.

In my book The other side of Saudi Arabia: brave women and cyber-youth, published in Finnish, I tried to immerse myself in the life and changes taking place in this great country, becoming the voice for dozens of Saudi Arabian citizens I have personally met and who work in various sectors of society. The book is divided into four sections addressing the following subjects; women, the young, the Eastern Province – where the country’s Shiite minority lives and where oil, Saudi Arabia’s main source of wealth, is found – and political issues. Each section is introduced by an interview with a ‘key’ personality. These are personalities who, in one way or another, are representative of the book’s various sections. After presenting each of these personalities, I illustrate the main problems in the areas of society they belong to. To complete an analysis of the situation experienced by each different social sector, there are also interviews with other people. It is through these stories told personally by those who experienced them, that I hope that readers will gradually be able to approach Saudi Arabia’s real problems and start to form an opinion.

Part of my book is dedicated to women, because in my opinion, at the moment they represent Saudi Arabia’s largest and most important force for change. The first and longest section of the book speaks of their problems, their activities and their thoughts. The women I met are mostly civil society’s activists, but some of them have the role of real “bulldozers” opening new roads within the system.

Most of my interlocutors have university degrees since interviewing ordinary women is far more problematic in Saudi Arabia. While the linguistic barrier can be overcome with the help of an interpreter, in some cases the cultural barriers are far more difficult to surmount. Many women belonging to the lower classes rarely leave their homes. The Mahram, the male relative acting as a ‘guardian’, often does not want his wife, mother, daughter or sister to be interviewed. I did, however, manage to talk to some ordinary women, especially in the more developed areas such as the Eastern Province and in the city of Jeddah, where many women are employed. In Riyadh instead, the only exceptions were salesgirls I met in a beauty shop in a shopping mall and who chose to speak to me.

For many years Saudi women have demanded equal opportunities and equality. Their first campaign to demand to right to drive dates back to the early nineties. Nowadays, they demand the right to work and leave their homes without being supervised by a male relative. The power of the Mahram (father, brother, husband or son) sanctions the Saudi woman’s lack of independence. A change in the legal status of women is without doubt the most important reform regarding the status of women n Saudi Arabia.

A number of women among the more elderly portrayed in the larger initial section of the book took part in the nineties campaign for the right to drive. Some of them lost their jobs, but in spite of that they did not give up. There are now many young women who have joined these veterans in trying to change conditions for Saudi women. Just like many others belonging to their generation, these young women communicate a great deal through social media. Nowadays 50 per cent of Saudi users have Twitter accounts and in this Saudi Arabia has overtaken all other countries to the extent that there are those who speak of a Twitter-based revolution.

The position of women is constantly changing and in many universities the number of female students amounts to 60 per cent. There are still few women who have jobs, but those who do, play a very active role and are ready to fight for their careers, an aspect greatly appreciated by private sector employers. Women are conquering many new sectors in the labour market in which they are now allowed to work; however, unemployment, poverty and a lack of housing affect the lives of many. Although among the lower classes poverty is widespread and the lack of rights seems to be starting to give rise to reactions, there are still millions of women in Saudi Arabia who accept to live in conditions of total acquiescence.

The book also gives voice to the young, who represent two thirds of the country’s inhabitants and many of them are tormented by social issues similar to those experienced by women. In fact, some educated young people, including those who do not have serious financial problems, are taking action to oppose what they perceive as a high level of unfairness in their society. The work to obtain rights for citizens, the right to take part in political life and freedom of expression, are issues that young Saudis debate intensely above all in the social media.

These young people who are aware of social injustice are a ‘time bomb’ that, in 2011, engulfed many Middle Eastern societies and over the long term poses a real threat to Saudi Arabia’s current political and social status. The country’s government has invested large amounts of money in education and sent tens of thousands of young people to study abroad, but the extremely traditionalist national education system results in the young often being unable to find work.

In addition to the many problems linked to the condition of women, in Saudi Arabia the men too are an enormous problem, since it is in fact often the men, both employed and unemployed, who prevent change.

Although the public sector is now overloaded, many Saudi men would like a comfortable job in public administration, with very short working hours. Many men do not accept jobs in the service sector, which provides many more job opportunities. The service sector employs nine million foreigners, but the government has begun to notice that a situation, in which many Saudis live exclusively on oil revenue, is unsustainable. The government would therefore like to reduce the foreign workforce, although the private sector still prefers to hire foreigners who are cheaper and easier to dismiss.

In spite of all this the young are a highly transforming force in society. They are not only more often attentive to their country’s catastrophic condition in many sectors, but the intensity with which they keep updated, thanks to the internet and social media, allows them to compare their own conditions to those in nearby countries affected by social-political development that is often faster. Many of them are starting to perceive the rules regulating meetings between the two genders and life in general as excessively rigid, although the majority does not go as far as to question Islam. The young oriented towards change do not believe the problem is linked to Islam, but to those interpretations based on what is still an intensely tribal and patriarchal culture.

The third section of the book addresses the Eastern Province, the area on the Persian Gulf. While on one hand the oil industry in this province is the source of wealth for the whole of Saudi Arabia, on the other it is the region inhabited by most Shiite Muslims, a minority in the country. In this part of the book those representing this minority speak of the discrimination they suffer and how this has formed the political conscience of the young in this region. The “Cold War” between Saudi Arabia and Iran, more serious especially in recent years, is at the basis of the Sunni majority’s increasing mistrust of the Shiite minority, at times suspected of, and often accused of acting for Iran. Furthermore, the radical Salafite clergy – also part of the Sunni majority – has always fuelled a climate of hatred of the Shiites that is reflected in the royal dynasty’s judgements and policies.

The profound political and social conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites also seen for some time now also in the Kingdom of Bahrain – the archipelago opposite the coasts of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province – has contributed to the radicalization of part of the Shiite population of the Eastern Province. Bahrain’s Shiite majority has been demanding democracy for a long time, but the revolutions that have been seen in other Arab countries have intensified a conflict that has lasted since Bahrain became independent in 1971. Over the years, Bahrain’s lengthy internal conflict has also involved the interference of troops from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, which is why Saudi Arabian Shiites also mobilised. Uprisings in Arab countries have fuelled hope among members of society wanting reform in Saudi Arabia. In the Eastern Province protests have caused numerous clashes between young protesters and the police. In two years 17 people have died in these clashes (data March 2013).

The oil company Aramco participates in the Eastern Province’s oil wealth, but the social model it created echoed well beyond the borders of the oil industry. Aramco taught the people of the Eastern Province to respect working hours and to operate efficiently. In many ways, just like the Hegaz on the Red Sea, the Eastern Province is Saudi Arabia’s most developed region. These two coastal populations are used to living in open cultures that acknowledge differences. The coastal provinces’ intolerance of the capital’s immobility has continued to increase for some time.

The last section of the book is dedicated to politics. The work of human and civil rights activists is increasing and becoming more and more significant. Among them there are both liberals and Islamists, but so far there are no signs of shared objectives between the two tendencies, although both have begun to understand that soon they will have to cooperate, especially now that Saudi society appears to have awakened. A high-ranking public administration official described the change that has taken place in the last two years, between the spring of 2011 and the spring of 2013, as follows, “the people used to be afraid of the government, now the government is afraid of the people. According to many who reflect on the country’s future, Saudi Arabia will have to embark upon serious reforms in the next five to ten years or there will be the risk of a revolution.”

The coming years will be very interesting in Saudi Arabia and events taking place there will affect us all. It is the most influential country in the world as far as oil policies are concerned and a strong ally of the West. Saudi Arabia’s western allies have for decades thought that stability in Saudi Arabia is one of the global economy’s fundamental requisites. Uprisings in Arab countries have already shown how fragile a social stability is that does not respect the needs of the people. This is a lesson that Saudi Arabia’s government has not yet learned. This may well be a tragic mistake.

The best known human rights activist in the country, Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani, sentenced to ten years in prison in March 2013, told me in 2011 that Saudi Arabia’s government should hurry up and implement reforms while it still enjoys the support of the majority of the people. Later it will be too late, because civil activism has increased enormously and clearly worries the government. That is precisely why the original title of my project on Saudi Arabia was A tempest in the desert and could still prove to be very current.

It is the more educated part of Saudi society that speaks in this book. In the kingdom of the vast oil monarchy there are still millions of Saudis who believe that their country follows the rules of true Islam in the best possible way. Most of Saudi Arabia’s citizens do not question the Royal House of the Al-Saud’s modus governandi, and many consider it right that the government should buy the approval of its people using oil revenue, rather than really starting to reform the country’s education system, its culture, its economy and its political organisation. Society based on civil rights is still totally unknown to a large number of Saudis, and that is why most of the people make do with the increasingly small concessions that come from above. But it is increasingly evident that, sooner or later, the incessant rise in poverty affecting large parts of the population will seem worrying also to the currently silent majority.

For decades Saudi Arabia has used its petrodollars to exercise in various ways its influence over Muslim communities and the interpretation of Islam in other countries. In recent years, however, millions of Muslims have started to have more confidence in their own ability to interpret Islam in a way that answers the needs of those living in today’s world and so that, like other religions, Islam can exist within history and change. For this very reason, if the social powers agitating today’s Saudi Arabia should really begin to change their country, there is no doubt there will be great repercussions also on the lives of the other billon and a half Muslims in the world.

It is important for those interested in what happens in the world to have a clearer idea of Saudi Arabia today. The same applies to the entrepreneurial world, for which today’s Saudi Arabia represents a location for large and profitable investments. Cooperation between the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), until now mainly economic and industrial, seems to be starting to spread to politics. It is within this context that we Europeans should remember that the Arabian Peninsula is also inhabited by citizens endowed with awareness and not merely loyal subjects of the Al-Saud and the conservative clergy.

The uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt are examples of surprises we receive when we form our ideas and opinions without paying attention to the tendencies emerging in these societies, but only based on “mainstream” information and official versions (often linked to those in power) about what is happening in each country. My long career as a journalist has taught me that societies in distant countries have been almost completely forgotten, not only by journalists, but also by international political analysts. The Arab revolutions have been a warning that societies can reawaken even after lengthy periods of “holding their breath”. We cannot live under the illusion that there will be a stable Middle East if it is based on suffocating social and political life.

My book pays homage to the citizens of Saudi Arabia, to those who find the courage to think, get organized and take action in their country in spite of the risk they may end up in prison or even be sentenced to death, and, with a few exceptions running a greater risk than in any other country in the world.

Translated by Francesca Simmons