Monday, 9 February 2015

Saudi Arabia and Condolences: Some Context

Saudi Arabia and Condolences: Some Context

What is the relationship between the House of Saud and the religious establishment? It is important to understand this in order to see why any kind of reform is slow in the country, but also why reforms are taking place, not because of Western pressure, but partly as a result of changes in foreign policy, partly as a result of the threat of the Islamic state.

Renée van Diemen notes that:

“The relationship between the Al Saud monarchy and the religious establishment (ulema, or body of religious scholars), however, is complex and prompts the question of whether the state controls religion, or religion controls the state.”

That is very important when considering the political responses to the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. On the one hand, there are world leaders, and even our own Chief Minister, Ian Gorst, offering their condolences, while on the other, critics point out the appalling human rights record, and servitude of women, in the Saudi state. What is not noticed, however, is how change, slow, incremental, but change none the less, is happening in the country.

The differing approaches of the rulers and the religious forces within the country can be seen in how the policy changed with respect to the outside world. Foreign policy had been shaped by the domestic religious environment so that, for instance, Soviet Russia was opposed because it was atheistic. But as Diemen explains:

“The 1991 Persian Gulf War forced the Saudi government to redevelop its foreign policy to further its “security goals unconnected to religious objectives” (Haynes, 2007: 53). Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait and his deployment of troops to the Saudi border caused the Saudi regime to doubt its ability to prevent an Iraqi invasion. As a result, the government agreed to join the anti-Iraq alliance led by the United States and granted permission for the deployment of US military personnel on the kingdom’s soil (CIA, 2012).”

“This alliance shocked religious conservatives who wanted to separate the kingdom from non-believers, according to the hadith (statement by the Prophet Muhammed): “Let there not be two religions in Arabia” (Lacey, 2009: 130). The ruling family, however, managed to obtain a fatwa that accepted the presence of the largely non-Muslim US military.”

“The war “demonstrated to the Saudis that it was implausible to try to base the country’s foreign policy alone in their vision of Islam. Instead, the king and his advisers became convinced that the kingdom’s security interests necessitated a balancing of both secular concerns and religions considerations” (Haynes, 2007: 351)”

But as Islam has become increasingly radicalised, the Saudi rulers have been increasingly concerned about internal domestic threats to foreign policy, which involves treating with the USA and other foreign countries where Islam is not dominant.

In December 2014, Reuters noted that:

“Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud royal family are trying to adjust their relationship with the country's strict Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam as they increasingly view the teachings of some of its ultra-conservative clergy as a domestic security threat.”

“Saudi rulers are also starting to reform areas once the exclusive domain of the clergy, such as education and law, and have promoted elements of national identity that have no religious component.”

The reason for this is not to reject the basic precepts of Whahhabism, but seems a move to increase the a more nationalist rather than strictly religious Islam, in reaction to the increasing power of the Islamic State, and its threat to the Saudi ruling family.

As Reuteurs notes:

“The government now vets clerics in Saudi Arabia's 70,000 mosques, sacking many who disseminate extremism. Since 2005, since King Abdullah took power, he brought new ideas for the future," said Mohammed al-Zulfa, a liberal former member of the appointed Shoura Council, which advises the government.”

Other internal changes in outlook have been important:

“More modern-thinking clerics are being promoted and the top clerical council has been opened up to include scholars from the other main branches of Sunni jurisprudence beyond the Hanbali school followed by Wahhabis.”

And the tend towards nationalism seems to be the way in which the House of Saud is rebranding its own identity and legitimacy:

“The government has promoted an alternative narrative of Saudi identity that keeps Wahhabism as a central focus, but still allows secular themes such as nationalism and cultural heritage that predates Islam to shine. It has increased national day celebrations that were previously attacked by clerics as undermining religious feeling, and is promoting heritage sites, like the Nabatean rock temples, once seen as embarrassing in the land of Islam.”

And although male-only municipal elections were held on 29 September 2011, King Abdullah had announced that women will be able to vote and be elected in the 2015 municipal elections, and also to be nominated to the Shura Council.

So, contrary to the knee-jerk reaction against sending condolences on the death of King Abdullah, he has been moving towards change, albeit hindered by the conservatives, and also needing a delicate balancing act to avoid destabilising the position of the Royal family.

To be clear - the changes which have been happening have not brought Saudi Arabia to become anything like a liberal democracy, where the place of women is legally equal to that of men, and homosexuality is accepted. But wholesale change does not happen overnight, and if anything thinks it does, they should only look towards the Arab Spring, where apparent freedoms showed themselves to be illusory as new regimes took over. That was like a fast growing seed sown on stony soil; it came up quickly, but also perished as it had no firm roots.

Change in Saudi Arabia is slower, perhaps slower than we would like, but it stands a better chance of permanence. Treating those very rulers who are introducing that change as pariahs will not help, and shows ignorance of the historical context.

But what happens next after the death of the last king is a matter of concern. When van Diemen was writing, in 2011, he noted that:

“Prince Nayef (currently the Crown Prince), for example, has frequently been at odds with King Abdullah’s (current King since 2005) conduction of foreign affairs. As such, his accession to the throne could potentially undermine the kingdom’s relationship with the US and strengthen the role of religion in foreign politics (Laipson, 2011).”

However, the Crown Prince died in 2012, which means that the new King is now King Salman. As the New York Times notes:

“Analysts said they did not expect Salman to pursue policies significantly different from those of his predecessor, King Abdullah. His only immediate initiative was clarifying who would succeed him. The issue was a pressing one because the new monarch is thought to be 79 years old, and he is said to be showing his age.”

Rolitics and Religion in Saudi Arabia, EUC664 Renée van Diemen,

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