by Lars Døssing Rosenmeier, MPhil Student, and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, Professor, both Copenhagen University
(This article was printed in the Danish daily Information 7 March 2009 and can be read in Danish here)
Can Saudi Arabia reform itself?
King Abdullah’s political testament seeks to move the country towards a more liberal state governed by law. But enlightened absolutism is probably still too optimistic of a description.
In early February, a 23-year-old unmarried woman was sentenced to one year imprisonment and 100 lashes in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. According to local media she had ‘confessed’ to the judge that she had been forced to have sex with several men after she accepted a ride from one of them. After the rape the young woman realized that she was pregnant and in desperation tried to get an abortion at a military hospital in Jeddah. Instead she was arrested.
The young woman’s case brings to mind another case from the province of Qatif, which received a lot of attention in both Saudi and Danish media in the winter of 2007. In Qatif a woman was sentenced to lashes after being raped by a group of men who had caught her and an unrelated man together in a car. In both cases the women’s crimes consisted in social contact with an unrelated man before being raped, and in the more recent case also the attempt to terminate the pregnancy. Several Saudi media described with amazement the hostility that the girl from Qatif and her lawyer met in the legal system during the appeal process, which ended up increasing the girl’s punishment. Fortunately, she was later pardoned by the King.
These kinds of cases, and the discontent they raise among liberal Saudis, in the Saudi media and in the international community is seen by international and local observers as a major motivation for the reforms that King Abdullah decreed February 14. The most remarkable of the king’s decrees replaced conservative managers in the ministries of justice and education, appointed the first Saudi female Minister and gave the Council of Senior Ulama (Saudi Arabia’s most senior religious institution) a more pluralistic profile.
A convenient approach
In a commentary in the Danish daily Politiken Anders Jerichow made it clear that these reforms should not lead us to applaud King Abdullah, as Saudi Arabia is still one of the most oppressive and religiously intolerant countries of the world. He is right. It is also true that the Saudi regime’s insistence that reform must come gradually, is a bit of a convenient strategy. Yet it is not unfounded. The royal family is not popular in all parts of the country, and some observers had thought that the king was too fearful to even dare challenge the religious establishment. Since the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, the royal family has maintained an alliance with the influential Saudi ulama (religious scholars). The puritanical and reactionary ulama have been allowed to dominate the country’s religious institutions, courts and religious police and operate a significant mission abroad. In return the ulama support the Saudi monarchy. Yet King Abdullah’s royal order shows that the regime still sets the framework for cooperation with the ulama. What is perhaps more surprising is that the king had both the will and the backing to honor some of the expectations that both secular and religious liberals have held for his term of governance.
Judges on a leash
For the king, the most risky intervention has been the reforms in the judicial system, but they have also been the most popular. Even Islamists – at least in the liberal end of the spectrum – have expressed great satisfaction with the reforms. In a telephone interview the Saudi human rights activist Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb said that the reforms in the legal system contain all the essentials components that reformists had dared hope for, and that they will put an end to the most arbitrary and inhumane sentences. The replacement of the conservative Sheikh Saleh bin Muhammad al-Luhaidan as President of the Supreme Judicial Council is seen by observers as a penalty for al-Luhaidans reactionary blunders, among which is the increase of the Qatif Girl’s punishment. The new chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, is the former chairman of the Shoura Council, which is a parliament with all members appointed by the king. He is known for being professional, progressive and of course loyal to the king. Along with the new minister of justice he will be charged with keeping the judges on a leash and introduce a new legal system with a supreme court as the ultimate body of appeal.
Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the muttawwa, have been at least as unpopular among reform-oriented Saudis as the conservative judges. It is therefore most welcome that the king has replaced its chairman, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, with the royal adviser Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Humain. It is a slap in the face of the mutawwa that the new man on the job is one of the king’s trusted men rather than from their own ranks.
Reformists and parts of the Saudi press have often expressed dissatisfaction with the judicial system and the conditions of Saudi women and they have put focus on cases where the mutawwa have been seen as too brutal and as having exceeded their mandate. Although they are inadequate, the new reforms can therefore also be seen as a small victory for the reformists and the more liberal media. A new minister for culture and media has also been appointed, but the boundaries of freedom of expression are patrolled with a heavy hand by the politically conservative and powerful Minister of the Interior, Prince Naif, King Abdullah’s half brother. Prince Naif is brother to Crown Prince Sultan, who is also seen as a conservative. Liberal observers therefore fear the development the regime will go through after King Abdullah’s death, although the two brothers are also both over 75 years of age. It is therefore not impossible that these reforms are to be seen as Abdullah’s political testament and an attempt to set a course for the development after he has passed away.
The female minister
As such the Saudi women’s rights advocates hope that the appointment of the new female minister Nura al-Faiz, is a promise of better times to come. Nura al-Faiz is the new deputy minister for girls’ education, a typical field for an Arab country’s first female minister. In the west we often focus on the fact that a Saudi woman cannot drive or travel without her husband. The biggest injustice for the Saudi woman, however, lies in the fact that because of legislation and discrimination she is in practice a legal minor, and for example needs her male guardian’s permission to access the courts. This means that she is dependent upon the will of her male guardian. Many male guardians do not hesitate in interfering in the lives of Saudi women. Hence, the conservative and misogynistic view of women is not only widespread among the reactionary ulama but also in the population. The appointment of Nura al-Faiz shows that King Abdullah does not support the conservative view that women cannot be capable leaders and managers and cannot work with men. Nura al-Faiz, however, has said that she would prefer modern means of communication over direct contact with her male colleagues.
As her new boss Nura al-Faiz will get the 56-year-old Prince Faisal. The prince has a direct experience in fighting religious extremism, but also more liberal forces as deputy head of the Saudi intelligence service. He replaces the highly conservative minister of education, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Ubaid, who was appointed in 2005 under pressure from among others the ulama. The appointment of the new minister of education is a sign that the regime believes that education must be wrested from the ulama if future generations of Saudi citizens are to be better qualified but also less conservative and more inclined towards pluralism.
An upper limit for lashes
Kong AbdulIah has also ensured that the Council of Senior Ulama, gets a hint of pluralism. The Council is enlarged by three members to a total of 21 members. Most significant are two new members who have their background in the hanafi and maliki schools of Islamic law. Previously, only the hanbali law school was represented and the Saudi ulama have often expressed a hostile view on ulama from the other three major Sunni law schools. The new council will not likely in any greater extent draw in rules from the other law schools and the new members are known to be conservatives. But whereas previously the authorization of the members was only held in their representation of the right doctrine, it now seems to be the intention that the council should reflect the country’s population. Many Saudis follow a different school of law than the hanbali, especially in the more cosmopolitan and less conservative area around Mecca, Medina and the commercial city of Jeddah. Hence there seems to be an underlying idea of representation, and thus a popular mandate behind this new initiative.
The Council of Senior Ulama will most likely play a central role in an expected future codification of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia. Such a codification will contain new limitation on sentences for various criminal offences, including a maximum number of lashes for immoral dealings with the opposite sex. One should not expect that the religious leadership will abolish lashes as a sanction. It may be hoped that the reforms in the judicial system can lead to fewer people being sentenced toinhumane forms of punishment.
King Abdullahs reforms do not change the fact that Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s most repressive and religiously conservative regimes. Rather, the new measures put focus on the fact that the regime sets the limits of the religious scholars’ influence, not the other way around. We can hope that the reforms are an expression of an understanding that the educational sector and the religious institutions need to be reformed to disseminate a new way of thinking among the Saudi population. But the regime’s political conservatism and its clinging on to power are highlighted by the lack of political reforms in this new initiative. At the same time the oppressed Shia Muslim minorities are also still barred from religious institutions, for example the Council of Senior Ulama and have not received the amount of seats in the Shoura Council that some reformists had wanted.
This is ultimately the essence of the reforms: The king has set a slightly more progressive team, but has not shared the royal family’s power or influence. The liberally inclined Saudis are still rather powerless. They must, as the girl in Jeddah and previously the girl in Qatif, place their trust in the mercy of His Royal Highness.