From the Editors
The “Saudi Arabia Between Conservatism, Accommodation, and Reform” report—edited by Roel Meijer & Paul Aarts—falls within the “Riyadh programme,” which is part of the larger Islamic Research Project (IRP) initiated by the Dutch Foreign Office. The report covers three topics: intellectual debates, civil society, and the position of women. During the course of the project, the junior researchers, Joas Wagemakers, Mariwan Kanie, and Annemarie van Geel spent at least three periods in Saudi Arabia doing fieldwork. Roel Meijer, Paul Aarts, and Karin van Nieuwkerk supervised the research.
The first major section, by Joas Wagemakers, “Arguing for Change under Benevolent Oppression: Intellectual Trends and Debates in Saudi Arabia,” deals with intellectual trends and debates in Saudi Arabia. It focuses on three themes: disputes about gender segregation, Shi‘a discussions on Saudi citizenship, and nationwide Saudi debates on social and political reform. Because of the dominance of Wahhabism in Saudi society, participants in these debates are divided into three groups: conservative Wahhabis, pragmatic Wahhabi reformers, and anti-Wahhabi reformers. The section concludes that in all three areas lively debates are taking place between (and among) these three groups, and that reformist ideas are gaining more adherents. At the same time, however, this has not led to substantial social or political reform but has mostly resulted in token measures to make the current system more bearable without actually changing it.
The second section, by Mariwan Kanie, “Civil Society in Saudi Arabia: Different Forms, One Language” deals with civil society in Saudi Arabia, its various forms, roles, and challenges. Special attention has been given to its contributions and limitations, the key strengths, challenges, and future prospects. The scholarly search on this topic is extremely rare, and there is a lack of basic information. This contribution tries to present a complex image of Saudi civil society under the authoritarian rule of the Saudi state. It distinguishes three forms of Saudi civil society: non-political, semi-political, and political. Each form contains different kinds of organizations, implementing a different range of activities, while having different relations with the state. One common element among all three is the language that they use—namely the language of human rights and respecting diversity. The development of this language has been seen in the framework of this research as a means to challenge the hegemony of conservative religious forces in the country.
The third section, by Annemarie van Geel, “Whither the Saudi Woman? Gender Mixing, Empowerment and Modernity” shows how the development of women-only public spaces is tied to the historical development of the third Saudi state, as well as state discourses about “progress” and “reform.” Furthermore, it demonstrates that the concepts of segregation and ikhtilat [gender mixing] are ambiguous concepts that are contested by various players, including Saudi women themselves. The study also explores women’s attitudes and strategies regarding their public participation, whether this is through women-only public spaces or ikhtilat. Moreover, it examines how Saudi women’s ideas about “empowerment” and “the rise of women” are related to the concepts of women-only public spaces and ikhtilat, and how these notions are part of the construction of a local, enchanted Saudi modernity.
The full report (84 pp.) can be downloaded here.
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