Saudi Arabia's Accelerating Social Unrest
by Irfan Al-Alawi
Social unrest has begun bursting out in Saudi Arabia since September 23. For the last five years, that date has been celebrated as Saudi National Day. Although discontent among women, non-adherents of the official Wahhabi sect, the Shia minority, and foreign workers is often predicted -- and even described -- in the kingdom, seldom does it result in significant incidents. This year, that week, including and following the holiday produced a new, and strikingly broad, wave of dissent.
This year, Saudi National Day witnessed riotous youth on the main roads in the Hejaz region --- traditionally resistant to Wahhabi intimidation. According to the Saudi Gazette, 100 young men were arrested after mass violence broke out during the holiday, including smashing windshields, stopping cars, throwing bottles, and starting fires on the highways around the cities of Taif and Medina.
The following week featured more public turmoil, much of it involving women's rights. Although Saudi schools are frequently criticized for their retrograde teachings about non-Wahhabis, non-Muslims, and non-males, on September 26, Walaa Hawari of the semi-official Arab News reported that a new school textbook on fiqh, the application of shariah or Islamic law, had been introduced, entitled Fiqh and Behavior. Its author, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Ahmed, earlier this year created an uproar when he suggested that the Great Mosque of Mecca, where millions of Muslims go as pilgrims, be torn down and rebuilt as a circle, with separate areas for men and women. His motive seemed to be to prevent the mingling of the sexes in tawaf, the practice of walking around the Ka'ba, the stone cube at the center of the complex, and Islam's most sacred site.
Sheikh Al-Ahmed's opinion contradicted fourteen centuries of Islamic history, in which men and women have never been segregated during religious journeys to Mecca – either the annual hajj, which has its own month in the Islamic calendar, or umrah, a shorter set of rituals that may be performed at any time during the year. Protests against his demand for gender separation were heard throughout the Muslim countries.
Sheikh Al-Ahmed said he had been assigned to produce the new school textbook on shariah-based conduct by the ultra-Wahhabi Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, where he is a former lecturer, and which Saudis call "the terrorist factory" for its indoctrination in extremism. He is also notorious for proposing that women be barred from working as supermarket checkout clerks. From such an individual, it was certain that the Saudi school text on Islamic law and personal behaviour would have a markedly retrogressive character – the opposite of what younger Saudi citizens want. Before the announcement of its adoption in the standard curriculum, rumours circulated that the text would be withdrawn. So far, however, it will remain in the schools.
As the world knows, Saudi women are not alone as victims of the Saudi denial of women's rights. Moroccan women, as well as families with young daughters, have recently been denied visas to perform umrah, on the argument that they are young tourists with questionable morals, rather than virtuous Muslim travellers; but the fulfilment of spiritual needs is hardly the only right denied women living in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi daily newspaper Okaz has been carrying a spirited debate about the inability of women to get work without the permission of a mehram or male guardian – either a father, husband or brother.
Nearly quarter of the Saudi population of 28 million is composed of foreign workers. Some are, naturally, highly-paid "first-world" technicians, who serve in the energy and related high-tech sectors, and live in special, Western-style compounds. But many more are household workers, drivers, and other ordinary folk recruited from Asia and Africa. Near the end of September, as reported in the Saudi Gazette, the condition of housemaids from India was dramatized when Fokasa, the Federation of Kerala Associations in Saudi Arabia – representing 28 organizations of migrants from Kerala state on the Indian southwest coast – petitioned India's minister for overseas Indian affairs, during a visit to Riyadh, to forbid further Saudi contracting of Indian women as domestic servants.
Fokasa leader R. Muraleedharan said that female domestic employees, like drivers and other personal servants, are not covered by Saudi labour laws and are subject to outrageous exploitation and abuse. The Fokasa petition described physical, mental and sexual harassment, as well as excessive working hours; forced labour for friends and relatives of their contractors; and treatment as "slaves," who could be sold by their contractors to other people. The Kerala group also said that when Saudi employers wish to avoid payment of overdue wages, they "dump" workers at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh or hand them over to deportation centers, which are known for harsh, overcrowded conditions.
"Saudi labour law" is something of an oxymoron, as even native Saudi workers have few of the employment rights typically guaranteed in developed countries. Unfortunately for the oil sheikhs, many of the large contingent of foreign workers come from countries where standards are, if only on paper, more up-to-date. In late September, Chinese contract laborers employed in the construction of a Metro system in Mecca went on strike for a week. Translators were required to inform Saudi police that the workers had not been paid for months. According to Saudi media, Mecca police intervened to obtain a promise of payment for the strikers, who then went back to work.
Protests over women's rights, labor grievances, and general liberties constitute a growing challenge to the Saudi rulers. In the realm of free communications, blogging and internet news sites have spread exponentially; a heated discussion broke out when the Saudi Ministry of Information domestic media supervisor, Abdulrahman Al-Hazaa, announced on Al-Arabiyya television that a new electronic media law would require government registration of bloggers. Facebook and Twitter users were particularly outraged by the suggestion they might come under government control. Al-Hazaa quickly "clarified" that on-line news sites would require licensing, but that bloggers would merely be "encouraged" to register.
In the controversy, Al-Hazaa delivered a revealing remark about Saudi bloggers: "There are so many," he said, "we cannot control them". The comment could also apply to other advocates of human rights in the kingdom – Saudi women opposed to Wahhabi "morals" strictures, foreign workers of both sexes, and, above all, the young.
Social forces are developing, pressing with growing insistence against the bonds of the repressive Saudi state.