Five long years of Saudi Arabia's king
by Irfan Al-Alawi
According to the Islamic lunar calendar, King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz has reigned over Saudi Arabia for five years. In late summer 2005, the people of the country pronounced their bayat, or personal pledge of loyalty, to him as "custodian" of Islam's two holy mosques, the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.
Saudi media will predictably compete to lavish praise on to the king for his achievements. Arab News has proclaimed a "new era of stability and prosperity" in the kingdom, comprising "enormous achievements in all fields, including education, health, social affairs, transport, communications, industry, electricity, water and agriculture".
It is difficult to argue with claims of Saudi Arabia's apparent stability – it is a closed society in which social conflicts are seldom allowed to be discussed in public or the media. Stability is typically reinforced through regular public executions by beheading.
Saudi Arabia has long been prosperous, if by that you mean rich. Since the exploitation of its energy resources began in a systematic way 70 years ago, the country – or, in reality, its rulers – have attained wealth never before imagined by any Arab state. But the luxuries enjoyed by the House of Saud are seldom shared with ordinary people.
Saudi Arabia remains a country where women cannot drive (except, it is said, on the campus of the new King Abdullah University for Science and Technology) and are forbidden to leave their homes unless totally covered by the black abaya or cloak.
Through its morals militia, the mutaween, Saudi Arabia compels most women to cover their faces – an un-Islamic custom. Unmarried men and women are so rigorously segregated that two senior clerics recently recommended that women could avoid such regulations by providing their breast milk to men, who upon consuming it would become relatives of the women, and thus allowed to socialise with them. A more retrograde opinion is hard to imagine.
The same mutaween who harass women over dress patrol the holy sites of which King Abdullah is the "custodian", to prevent Muslim believers from engaging in practices that the Wahhabi sect – the state religion – disapproves of. Like the breast-milk proposal, these prohibitions appear to moderate and traditional Muslims (as well as non-Muslims) as extremely bizarre. The religious police will interfere with anybody who recites praise of the prophet in the direction of his tomb, who celebrates the prophet's birthday in public, or who practices Sufi spiritualism outside the confines of their home. Wahhabism condemns these Islamic customs, as well as the preservation of historic architectural monuments, as polytheism – as if praising Muhammad puts the prophet on an equal level with God.
Saudi Arabia is still the only Muslim country that completely forbids the practice of other religions, notwithstanding the presence on its territory of millions of immigrant workers from Asia and Africa, many of them Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian. Foreign employees make up a quarter of the population of 25 million – many of them drivers and servants whose work is made necessary by limits on women. Arab News praises the king's outreach to other global religious communities through events like the Madrid interfaith conference in 2008, where Muslims sat down with Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and adherents of the Chinese religions, as well as Jews and Christians. But, no rights for these religious communities have been granted on Saudi soil.
According to Arab newspapers, the achievements of King Abdullah's reign are many. But a closer look discloses that while he may sincerely desire to normalise his country (democratisation is, for now, far over the horizon), he remains limited by the power of the retrograde faction within the royal family and by the Wahhabi clerics.
Arab News also lauded King Abdullah for beginning work on the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University for women. Yet initiatives to try and stop the mutaween from beating women in public if they let the abaya slip or if they travel with men who are not their relatives or drivers are non-existent. On more than one occasion recently, women have taken their own initiative to beat up the morality monitors in acts of enraged resistance.
The fifth anniversary of King Abdullah's reign was praised by the president of the court of grievances, Ibrahim al-Huqail – unsurprisingly, as the king has budgeted 7bn riyals (£1.3bn) for the development of the Saudi court system. Yet Saudi citizens are victims of arbitrary "judicial decisions" based on the whims of Wahhabi judges, including extreme punishments such as repeated flogging with a metal rod as well as beheading. Efforts to make the mutaween accountable before civil judges earlier in Abdullah's reign were defeated.
Saudi Arabia has special responsibilities to the world – first, to represent Islam positively, as the country housing the two holy sites; second, to participate responsibly in energy economics; and third, to assist in combating terrorism. It has outstanding potential to become an educated, forward-looking nation. But King Abdullah and his elite have much to do for any real achievements.