Saudi social fragility exposed in quest to "modernize"

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When Wikileaks arrested world headlines, the mainstream media coped by focusing on the gossip dished up by embassies on US allies, “frenemies” (friendly enemies), and outright foes. Channeling public interest towards tidbits like US diplomats describing Angela Merkel as “rarely creative” or Nicolas Sarkozy as “excitable” was a way to defuse illegal operations of US statecraft. Better steer readers towards a political version of Gossip Girl rather than the Pentagon Papers and the implied obligation of accountability.

And while European leaders were besmirched, the disdain for allies like the Saudi monarchy was particularly pronounced. Cables from the embassy in Riyadh and consulate in Jeddah character-analyze the Saudi princes in every diplomatic and social interaction. We are given such snapshots as Assistant Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Sultan’s response after being reprimanded by a US diplomat for hitting a Yemeni medical clinic during Saudi airstrikes. “If we had the Predator, this would not have happened,” he exclaimed, referring to the drone aircraft. The diplomat saw fit to reproduce the prince’s words in capped letters in his report.

Other cables contain close socio-psycho analysis of the Saudi elite desperate to prove they belong to the modern world rather than to the ideology that maintains iron-fisted social order for them in the Hijaz. Fissures in Saudi Arabia, a result of the United States’ post-9/11 displeasure with Wahhabism, are becoming increasingly obvious. To recollect, the original contract between Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab –” later ratified by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud with British and US blessing –” is the foundation of the Saudi state. This guaranteed state-wide propagation of Wahhabism for the benefit of the sect and a mechanism of social engineering for the Saudi monarchy –” a marriage cementing the power and privilege of each.

This fuels Wahhabism’s xenophobic reinforcement of Saudi national identity, a good example of which is the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abulaziz Al-Sheikh’s prayer for the Saudi soldiers’ victory over the “deviant-minded” Houthis, as revealed in a December 2009 cable. “Mujahedeen Brothers, I salute your courage and congratulate you on your Jihad for the sake of Allah. You are facing a corrupt and astray enemy of deviant thoughts.”

This is fairly obvious and perhaps expected –” Wahhabis excel in takfir, the easy declaration of other groups and communities of Muslims as kafirs. But in case the State Department analysts did not quite get the picture, the diplomat spelled it out for them. “This statement of support by the… highest religious authority seeks to reinforce the message that the truest form of jihad is fighting to defend the nation, and to remind that those who seek to bring the nation down are deviant in their thoughts.” In short, the kafirs are those who oppose Saudi interests, revealing how the sect has reinterpreted Islam as Saudi nationalism.

However, the marriage between the Wahhabis and Saudi rulers may be heading towards a War of the Roses-style divorce. Shocked by 9/11 and the subsequent restrictions to the easy worldwide flow of Saudi funds, the ruling family has accelerated the liberalism that they had quietly nursed behind closed doors. Liberalism is many things and can be interpreted in manifold ways, but certainly one component for the Saudis seems to mean adopting a more permissive code of social behavior –” what the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, on a recent trip to the Kingdom, dubbed “loosey goosey Saudi”.

This sows tension between the elites enjoying boundless pleasures generated by the country’s petro-wealth and the Peninsula’s broader social strata (all the way from the merely comfortable to the slum dwellers). After all, Wahhabism and its claims to religious guardianship formed the glue binding together the elites and the other social groups.

As per a December 2009 cable: “Over the past few years, the increased conservatism of Saudi Arabia’s external society has pushed the nightlife and party scene in Jeddah even further underground. One high society Saudi remarked, ‘The increased conservatism of our society over these past years has only moved social interaction to the inside of people’s homes.'” The cable goes on to say, “Saudi youth get to enjoy relative social freedom and indulge fleshy pursuits, but only… the rich. Parties of this nature and scale are believed to be a relatively recent phenomenon in Jeddah. One contact, a young Saudi male, explained that up to a few years ago, the only weekend activity was ‘dating’ inside the homes of the affluent in small groups.”

Now, the diplomat helpfully explains to the State Department: “It is not uncommon in Jeddah for the more lavish private residences to include elaborate basement bars, discos, entertainment centers and clubs.”

The growing disconnect between the American-aspirational elite and a population that grows more conservative in response to the moral shocks like Israel’s massacre in Gaza and US military action in Afghanistan, is fraying the glue binding together Saudi Arabia for the past century. Having been forbidden by the US to publicly propagate Wahhabism, the monarchy is bereft of the stage on which it assumed a pious persona for the benefit of the populace. Saudi-funded jihad operated as a pressure valve in the desert kingdom, channeling local tensions towards the global oppressions in Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, and other locales.

Now it means fending off the Houthis from the border with US-supplied weaponry, and even that, incompetently. In the summary of a US diplomatic report: “The Houthi battles will be intensively studied in the months ahead, including how they revealed Saudi military shortcomings. The Saudi military, particularly the Air Force, resorted to the use of enormous firepower (despite low munitions inventories) that proved to be inadequately precise and minimally effective…”

As the Saudi jet-set firmly ties its fortunes to the US, they attempt to culturally make-over the Kingdom into something resembling Dubai (an apparently successful model where Europeans and Americans can be bribed to mingle with the Arabians). However, this places enormous stress on the fragile coalition with the Wahhabi complex. Partying away the nights in discos built in palace basements is one thing, exporting their Bellagio sensibilities into the public space is quite another. And yet, King Abdullah has precisely taken the lead on creating a reformed Saudi Arabia that will be attractive to US investment even after the oil is gone.

As reported by the New York Times, Saudi Arabia is authorizing the construction of four “Economic Cities,” hyper-modern districts adjoining Jeddah, Madinah, and two other locations, where futurist architecture provides the backdrop for liberal young Saudis and Americans to mingle together. Open elections would of course be political suicide, but Dubai-style social decadence and economic opportunity is being given shape on the hot desert sands. The thwacking mutawwi’un policing the Haramayn would be completely barred from these spaces –” instead, “Aramco rules” would prevail, a reference to the settlements built for US oil workers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Somehow, in photocopying US and European systems and landscapes, the Saudis and the Gulf Arabians always seem to overdo things (case in point is the $11.2 million Christmas tree in the lobby of an Abu Dhabi hotel, for which the government later apologized after the ridicule, admitting that it was in bad taste). Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, except when it becomes a garish parody. For instance, in the King Abdullah Economic City, materializing on the shore of the Red Sea, the architecture looks like “the set of a 1920s silent film fantasy,” according to the New York Times’ Nicolai Ouroussoff.

These economic cities are intended to lead the way for social engineering; they are intended to be “islands from which change would seep out drop by drop,” as Ouroussoff puts it. The danger is, however, of creating a collision between the state and the religious class that will cause Saudi society to implode.

The Wahhabis have already demonstrated what they think about such programs, triggering state crackdowns. In the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the Kingdom’s first coeducational institute, a YouTube clip emerged of dancing in the cafeteria. Wahhabis were outraged and a member of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars declared the institution to be evil. King Abdullah responded by firing him, imposing garrison-like security at the university, and placing a gag order on Wahhabi sheikhs.

The increasing divergence between the Wahhabi complex and the Saudi monarchy is perilously isolating the elites. Embracing limited forms of social liberalism does not produce the longed-for cultural approval from the US and Europe. For instance, the Kingdom invited New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on an extended visit, hoping to impress her and her readers with their behind-closed-doors-modernism. Unfortunately for them, she resorted to a Sex and the City 2 style plot, portraying herself as a feminist who sets out to shock prehistoric Saudi society into the modern age with her sexual freedom.

In her Vanity Fair feature on the trip, Dowd sneers, “Today, Saudi Arabia is… even toning down the public beheadings” and talks about how she “shakes up the Sheikhs” by ordering food from male-only cafeterias and wearing hot pink skirts.

The New Republic’s Martin Peretz discussed her piece, mocking the expansiveness of the Saudi royal family: “Don’t be too impressed by the title,” he said, referring to Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, “there are more princes in Saudi Arabia than taxi drivers”. Sadly, the elites’ attempts at modernization only seem to make them a greater laughing stock in US and European media. And though many are or aspire to be “half-American,” as King Abdullah called the US-educated Saudi Ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, there is also a grim precedent for Saudi elites disgruntled by US treatment. Osama bin Laden, anyone?

Still, petroleum continues to grease the wheels of the state, enabling Saudi princes to have their cake and eat it too. That is, they can enjoy their petro-lifestyles and flush the Wahhabi religious complex with enough cash to provide the latter with the somnolence of comfort. But unfortunately, this cake is non-renewable and by many accounts, the Saudi oil fields have already hit the dreaded Peak Oil point (after which oil production steadily declines in the face of hungry world demand).

Panic is driving the unstable political climate in Saudi Arabia, with the elites attempting to disturb the golden formula that ensured social complacency throughout the 20th century –” the foundational alliance with Wahhabism. Panic at the declining graph of Peak Oil, and at US backlash against the previously approved Wahhabization of Muslim lands. Also, it is no doubt a relief for the Saudis to thrust aside the mask of Wahhabi conservatism that they had worn yet disdained for quite some time. But as the princes ponderously introduce modernity, in so far as they understand it, they are destabilizing the warp and woof of the Saudi edifice. And the moral of this parable might be that the ravenous sands will prove themselves a more potent force than the mineral ore beneath.

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