by Stephen Schwartz and Irfan Al-Alawi
The kingdom rides the rest of the world like a horse
The state visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to Britain came at a time of growing internal and external crisis for the desert kingdom, and was surely intended to bolster international confidence in the Riyadh regime. All the indications are that King Abdullah really does want to extricate his country from its benighted state. Yet political modernisation has been so slow as to be almost invisible. King Abdullah may be an absolute monarch, but there are limits to what he can do — and he is badly isolated within the kingdom.
The work facing the reformers was neatly summed up in a cartoon in the Saudi daily Al Watan(the Nation) on 7 October. It showed a garage — 'Reforms and Repairs' — in which a broken-down, leaking car was labelled 'judiciary system', and an upside-down vehicle was marked 'schools'. A week before, the same paper carried the dismaying news that an extremist Saudi website had posted 18 flight-simulation videos for training on Boeing 747s. The message is obvious: the spirit of 9/11 lives on in the kingdom.
Against such a background, vague claims by King Abdullah that Saudi authorities have arrested terrorist financiers count for little. As for the king's allegation that UK authorities ignored Saudi warnings about the 7 July 2005 London Tube bombings, however, one wishes it were just bluff, but it is possible to believe the king. The Blair government was clearly hesitant to act preventatively against the rise of extremism among the Muslim communities.
For several years now the Saudis have quite rightly protested to the UK over the granting of sanctuary to Saad al-Faqih, who heads the so-called Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA). Al-Faqih is considered by Saudi reformers to be an advocate of a regime that would be more radical in its Wahhabism than the present one. Al-Faqih still lives in London and operates his satellite broadcasts — even though MIRA's website was briefly shut down after 7/7. It resumed operation but without its discussion board, which acted as an al-Qa'eda communications asset for years.
The government's weasel approach was again at work this week, in its 'outreach to the radicals' guise, when Muhammad Abdul Bari, chairman of the East London Mosque and secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), appeared as a guest at the Queen's banquet for King Abdullah. Mr Bari supped with the sovereign just as a document was released by Policy Exchange, 'The Hijacking of British Islam', giving details of the dissemination of ultra-radical literature, inspired in Saudi Arabia, at his mosque.
But the main consideration in dealing with King Abdullah must be that Saudi Arabia remains appallingly different from other countries, including most other Muslim lands. Saudi political reformers — of whom there are far more than the West realises — refer to the countries from Kuwait to Yemen as 'the crescent of normality', because none of them features the bizarre abuses daily seen in the kingdom, and none so avidly promotes extremist Islam. All permit non-Muslims to practise their religions openly — Bahrain has a synagogue, and Oman has Hindu temples as well as Christian churches. All allow women to drive cars, go to university and dress as they wish.
In the Saudi media you find examples of a pseudo-religious ideology gone beyond madness. In September a Saudi man divorced his wife because she allegedly violated morality by watching men on television to whom she was (obviously) not married or related. The court vacated the charge but granted the divorce. In another sinister twist — one reminiscent of the propaganda emanating from Red China and Soviet Russia — the daily newspaper Al Hayat (Life) reported that a Saudi convict had written a book in Arabic and English praising his positive experience in Saudi jails, and claiming that the Wahhabi state protects human rights. This sort of thing is going on while popular outrage increases over murders and other crimes by the so-called religious police, or mutawiyin. The mutawiyin continue to operate with impunity, thumping women in public with their long sticks if the victims let a centimetre of flesh show between the all-covering abaya and their shoes, raiding homes and beating (even to death) Saudis suspected of possessing alcohol, and fatally assaulting suspected unmarried or unrelated couples.
Sometimes the absurdity is so outrageous that it is comical. Not long ago Saudi newspapers were heatedly debating whether camel 'beauty contests' should be discouraged, since they seemed to be an expression of primitive tribalism. When US diplomats attended such a contest there was an uproar because 'unbelievers' had gained access to the event. But this week, as King Abdullah was honoured with parades and gun salutes in London, the radical website al Sahat(the Battlefields) carried a post arguing that camel beauty contests could be the basis for the creation of political parties, which presently are banned. Given this sort of stuff, and looking back at great democratisation movements like Polish Solidarity, or considering the protests in Burma, it's hard to believe that real change can come to the kingdom. All the same, increasing numbers of Saudis believe change can no longer be avoided.
What's Britain's role here? It is not easy to avoid the conclusion that just as the UK is the main centre of jihadist activity in Western Europe, so the British authorities, even more than the American, have bent to Saudi economic and political influence.
The lively debate over Saudi Arabia that began in the US after 9/11 has largely been absent from Britain; and then there was the quashing last year of the Serious Fraud Office probe of corruption in arms deals with the kingdom, with £43 billion as an estimate of the monies involved.
Saudi Arabia is a land of beheadings. It is symbolised by the 'neck-cutter' or execution blade favoured by the late Ibn Saud, father of Abdullah. The curved, heavy sword is reproduced on the Saudi national flag and escutcheon. The country is infamous for atrocities against women, including female genital mutilation, another tribal habit absorbed into Saudi culture and treated as a sacred custom. Saudi Arabia continues its merciless persecution of non-Wahhabi Muslims as well as denial of the religious rights of non-Muslims. It practises lawlessness in the name of order, and it is the main global centre for export of radical Islamist ideology. Yet oil blackmail — obliviousness to which is aided and abetted by the foreign energy industry — leaves Westerners disoriented when the Saudi question is brought up.
The perverse relationship between the Saudi monarchy and the West is unique in history. No other tyranny has been granted such ample exemptions from modern canons of human rights, financial transparency, and simple respect for other states and peoples. Critics of Islam decry the past practice of Muslim rulers in exacting a tax, the jizya, from their non-Muslim subjects. But in the world today, it appears the Saudis are in the global saddle, with the rest of humanity serving as their horses and camels, and that the equivalent of the jizya tax levied at the petrol pump exceeds by far that paid under the Islamic empires.
Britain, no less than the US, has every right to press for more rapid reform in the kingdom, especially when its leaders meet with King Abdullah. Making Saudi Arabia a country worthy of international respect does not require war, nor loss of resources, nor anything other than conscience on the part of Western — and Muslim — leaders.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director and Irfan Al-Alawi is international director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism (islamicpluralism.eu).