It is becoming increasingly more common to blame Saudi Arabia’s social, economic, and political ills solely on Wahabiyya and its official enforcers, the Commission for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as al hai’a, al mutawa’a, or simply the morality police. In Washington D.C., London, Beirut, Damascus, or Riyadh, we learn that Saudi Arabia is stuck in the Dark Ages because of the conservatism and “backwardness” of Wahabiyya. That is, until king Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005. Since, we have heard more and more about this man’s struggle against the religious and conservative camps to eradicate the so-called stagnancy that has plagued his country and bring it into the modern world. In analyzing the Saudi state of affairs, rarely is the finger ever pointed where it should be: at the government and its corrupt ruling royal members. Instead, fundamentalism, writ large, has become the scapegoat for the government’s incompetence and failure to develop the country despite its monopoly on the enormous oil revenues.
Surely, the events of September 11, 2001 and the international “War on Terror” have something to do with it. Along with the 2003 terrorist attacks inside the Kingdom, they have allowed the Saudi government (as with many governments) to publicly restrict the powers of the mutawa’a and Islamist groups. This has made it more permissible to openly blame and at times take action against them for opposing any government decisions. But in the case of Saudi Arabia, this also has to do with a longer history of writing that exonerates the ruling family from responsibility for most problems in the Kingdom. In this vein, many continue to praise king Abdullah, and sometimes the whole ruling family, as reformers who, for instance, have “accelerated the liberalism that they had quietly nursed behind closed doors” and are “ponderously introducing modernity.” And others like the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, who in all seriousness called king Abdullah a “social revolutionary,” advise readers to be patient as the family takes “baby steps” towards modernization.
In these portrayals, the Al Saud ruling members appear as benevolent reformers fighting against a sea of Wahhabi resistance. Such writers choose to see the ultra-conservative oil kingdom as finally catching up with the rest of the modern world- by which they mean the Western world- thanks to the royal family. No mention is made of the Al Saud’s continuous backing of the mutawa’a, whom they use to religiously legitimate the government’s unpopular decisions, among other things. Or the ruling family’s own involvement in hindering social and economic reform. These arguments parallel and reify Saudi state propaganda, which depicts the Al Sauds as enlightened reformers at heart. Pained by the slow development in their country, they nonetheless choose to tread slowly lest they upset their ultra-conservative population. The Al Sauds want to open up their country to the world, improve human security for their citizens, and fight for gender equality. But they cannot because religious conservatives oppose their modernizing efforts. The Al Sauds are thus the compassionate caretakers of the nation who will push for slow, moderate changes. And the Wahhabis and their conservative constituencies are to blame for the slowness of change and the general backwardness of the country.
Let us be clear about what this real, top-down change that everyone is talking about really means, notwithstanding the fact that the ruling family has always enforced the most controversial and at times blasphemous policies for the sake of ensuring its stable longevity. King Abdullah has commissioned the building of several economic cities (EC) across the country, none of which have raised public condemnation or resistance yet. At a cost of over $80 billion each, the ECs are meant to improve the standard of living of Saudi citizens, create jobs for them, and diversify the oil-based economy. Yet several experts involved in these projects have expressed skepticism about the success and feasibility of these grand projects, which are marred with corruption and bad planning. Before the ECs were announced, several sons of King Abdullah forcibly bought the land on which the ECs would be built from their legitimate owners and re-sold them to the government at exorbitant prices. And contrary to stated objectives, the ECs will do little in terms of solving the country’s existing problems: the underdevelopment of human capital; increasing rates of income inequality, unemployment, crime, and poverty; and limited employment opportunities for women, the larger half of the population. Most Saudis will most likely not agree to move to such places as Rabigh (East) or Jazan (South), future home of two ECs, let alone be able to afford the luxury housing units or have the required job skills for future industries there. Far from being “islands from which change would seep out, drop by drop, without antagonizing powerful conservative forces within the country,” the ECs will most likely be yet another grand waste of economic resources that will not change the quality of life of Saudis, particularly those who need it most: the unemployed, the poor and low-income residents.
As to the development of human capital, the Saudi government argues that it has ordered the building of universities throughout the Kingdom for that purpose. As with many construction projects in the country, these have not escaped corruption and mismanagement. Take the example of the Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for women in Riyadh, currently under construction and due for completion in 2012. At a staggering $US 11.5 billion cost, the university grounds were flooded during a 3-hour rainstorm in Riyadh in April 2010, raising attention to the malfunctioning sewage system and the non-existent water drainage system, both of which were, on paper, checked as completed. On the academic end of things, majors at this enormous university (3 million square meters) will still be limited to the employment fields that women are legally permitted to work in. And upon talking to university administrators, it is unclear where and how the administration will hire the hundreds of needed professors for this institution alone. Even in the field of education, change seems to be more quantitative than qualitative, and again, the mutaw’a have not expressed any opposition to these universities.
The government is also investing billions of dollars to build an infrastructure for the tourism industry in an attempt to diversify the economy. This includes renovating historical and archeological sites (largely meant to legitimate Al Saud’s rule and their control of the land and its resources) and building museums, hotels, and other tourist attractions. Yet, on the one hand, foreigners are not legally allowed to visit the Kingdom for tourist purposes, and it is not clear if, how, and when this might change. And on the other, the cost of local travel and accommodation is so high that it makes more sense for families to travel abroad, see new places, and still have some money left in their pockets. Even officials at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) express skepticism about the success of these endeavors. After all, until recently, internal tourism and visiting historical/archeological sites were considered sacrilegious, and the SCTA has so far failed to change these perceptions. Here too, the Al Sauds have largely secured the support of the mutawa’a in advancing this project, although they continue to use Wahhabi justifications to destroy Islamic and historical sites in Mecca and Medina for profit-motivated purposes (see previous post, Choking Mecca in the Name of Development part I).
Developments in the field of women’s rights are even less encouraging. While the last two years have been full of talk about improving the lives of women in Saudi Arabia, few tangible changes have been made. King Abdullah, for example, fired Sheikh Saad Al-Shethri, member of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, for condemning gender mixing at his co-ed King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in October 2009. In the same year, he appointed the first female deputy education minister in charge of women`s affairs. Later on, he safeguarded the job of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, head of the hai`a in Makkah, after he sanctioned gender mixing, arguing that nothing in the Qur’an forbids it. Since, there have been two supposedly groundbreaking developments: 1) King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan allowed the press for the first time to release photographs and videos of them posing for the cameras with Saudi women at conferences and hospitals; and 2) In November 2010, the ultra-conservative Interior Minister Prince Naif supported HyperPanda Supermarkets’ pilot project to hire women as cashiers in their Jeddah branches, silencing the top clerics’ opposition.
While these moves are in the right direction, they are largely symbolic and have not improved the lives of women. Actually re-writing laws and ensuring their application would. At the end of the day, Saudi women still cannot choose their educations and careers, let alone vote, travel, drive, dress, or even exercise freely. They are forbidden access to all government ministries and facilities, and have to depend on their male guardians for the simplest of bureaucratic procedures, including, starting in December 2010, for purchasing a car. However, when it comes to gender equality or mixing, it is not simply the mutawa’a who are the main opponents. Many Saudis are. Even self-ascribed seculars, liberals, and leftists, many of whom may publicly endorse gender equality, especially outside the Kingdom, resist changes to the gender norms they see as traditional/cultural, especially when it comes to their own families.
Saudi Arabia today faces more challenges from popular Islamist groups, most of whom see the ruling family as corrupt and unIslamic, than from the government-supported mutawa’a. I am in no way defending the mutaw’a and their terrorizing modes of social policing. Nor am I claiming that they do not object to some government decisions. But object is all they can do. It is too simplistic and problematic to blame them for the state of underdevelopment in Saudi Arabia, and to credit Al Saud’s “liberalism,” or worse, their benevolence, for what little modernization does take place there. The ruling family has always been the main obstacle for change, because to its ruling members (and their American supporters), anything other than the status quo threatens their monopoly on power and oil resources. If the government can get away with hiring Christian laborers to build the Mashair al Muqaddassa Light Rail in Mecca, when it is absolutely forbidden for non-Muslims to enter the holy city, they can push for serious reforms if they wanted to. Ruling members of the royal family, at the end of the day, are responsible for the failure of many of the Kingdom’s modernization projects and the non-existence of a real agenda for social, bureaucratic or political reform.
 Zainab Cheema. Sunday, January 9, 2011. “Saudi social fragility exposed in quest to "modernize.” http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/81857
 Maureen Dowd. March 2, 2010. “Loosey Goosey Saudi,” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/03/opinion/03dowd.html
 See transcripts of Barbara Walters’ interview with King Abdullah on October 14, 2005: http://abcnews.go.com/2020/International/story?id=1214706&page=1
 Nocolai Ouroussoff. December 12, 2010. “Saudi Urban Projects Are a Window to Modernity,” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/13/arts/design/13desert.html
 See Madawi Al Rashid. May 24, 2010. “Al Hadath fi Al Sa’udiyya Mar’a,” Al Quds al Arabi
 October 5, 2009. http://archive.arabnews.com/?page=1§ion=0&article=127055&d=5&m=10&y=2009. For a youtube video of Sheikh Hethri’s statement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMVWJsgA00s
 April 26, 2010. http://www.masrawy.com/ketabat/ArticlesDetails.aspx?AID=31015&ref=hp or
 Ian Black. May 6, 2010. “Saudi king`s photo brings women`s rights into focus,” The Guardian.
 In October, 2010, HyperPanda implemented a first-of-a-kind pilot project to hire women as checkout cashiers in its Jeddah branches. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to work jobs that require public interaction with men. The country’s government-sanctioned Council of Senior Islamic Scholars immediately endorsed a fatwa banning women from working as cashiers or vendors, and urged everyone to boycott the supermarket. The government rejected this call and supported these newly founded female job opportunities.