Saudi Arabia Balances Liberals and Conservatives

4 MINS READApr 21, 2014 | 18:28 GMT
Saudi Arabia Balances Liberals and Conservatives
Saudi girls wave the national flag during National Day celebrations in 2012.

Saudi Arabia has reached a critical moment in its evolution as a nation-state. The House of Saud is struggling with the difficult task of appeasing conservatives while pressing ahead with reforms that cater to the demands of a large youth population whose worldview has been shaped by advances in information technology (especially social media) in an age of democratization. All the while, Riyadh is facing a growing number of unprecedented external challenges. Now more than ever it needs harmony on the domestic front.

On April 16, a group of religious and tribal conservatives staged a rare demonstration in front of the Royal Court in Riyadh, protesting what they perceive as "Westernization" of the country. In particular, they cited the Saudi Consultative Council's call to allow sports classes in girls' schools. Sheikh Salih al-Luhaydan, a senior religious scholar from the country's top ulema body, also spoke out, denouncing the inclusion of physical education for girls as "a great sin." The Consultative Council responded in an April 18 issue of Saudi daily al-Hayat, calling al-Luhaydan's criticisms his own personal opinion. The council said that it would submit its recommendation to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and that the Shura's decision concerning girls' sports was supported by a legal fatwa issued by the kingdom's former mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Baz.

As a religiously conservative state, Saudi Arabia has a lengthy history of dealing with extremism and radicalism going back to the late 1920s. Over the decades and on numerous occasions, Riyadh has kept renegade Salafist forces from subverting the kingdom's stability. Despite being the birthplace of the ultra-conservative ideology of Salafism, it has been able to defeat al Qaeda within its borders — a rare case for a Muslim country. 

The events of 9/11, however, have forced the Saudis to embark upon an unprecedented and massive project to reform the kingdom's social and religious culture. It has been a difficult effort for Riyadh considering that it involves overhauling religious discourse while sustaining the support of the Salafist religious establishment. After all, Islam is a key pillar of the Saudi polity.

Until the Arab Spring, this process was largely trouble free. A majority of the ulema accepted the need to prevent jihadists from hijacking Salafism and supported King Abdullah's initiative. They also had guarantees that the monarchy, while making some changes, would not tamper with the conservative social norms.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

The limited liberalization of state and society, especially as it applies to the role of women, won the House of Saud support among the general population. But many felt that more needed to be done and began to slowly press for greater freedoms. As far as the House of Saud is concerned, it is willing to implement more reforms, including allowing women to have driver's licenses, as long as reforms do not venture into the political realm. There are even some within the political establishment, such as the head of the religious police, who support the idea of women driving and say the ban has no basis in Sharia. But for a significant number of conservatives this is unacceptable, and the Saudis do not want to fix one problem while creating a bigger one. Thus the regime did not push too hard on changes and the reform effort remains in check.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, during which several autocrats fell from power and questions were raised about how long the monarchies will endure, the Saudis have felt a greater need to cater to public demands through social reforms. From the Saudi point of view, the problem with the Arab Spring is not just that the region's masses seek democracy but also that it has led to the rise of republican political Islam as manifested by the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, the Saudi model of an "Islamic" polity — a monarchy supported by a Salafist religious scholar class — faces competition. This is why the Saudis have opposed the Brotherhood in Egypt and in the wider region.

But the domestic situation is complex. The Saudi regime needs the support of the religious establishment and thus needs to ensure that its social reform agenda does not upset the Salafist scholars. Yet it also needs to maintain social harmony, which it is doing through massive public spending and by pressing ahead with reforms that it hopes will strengthen public support for the monarchy. It also needs to press ahead with reforms to curb extremism — a prerequisite in its fight against jihadism.

All this comes at a time when the monarchy is going through a historic transition, with the sons of the founder all but gone and the third generation rising. Meanwhile, on the foreign front, the kingdom's nemesis, Iran, is normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia's biggest ally, the United States.

How the kingdom will deal with an internationally rehabilitated Iran and a smooth transfer of power to the grandsons of Abdulaziz depends on the ability of the royal family to navigate the ongoing dispute between liberals and conservatives. The House of Saud should be able to maintain a balance for the foreseeable future but will greatly depend on the ability of King Abdullah's successors to balance the competing imperatives.

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