Almost everything about Saudi Arabia is different from neighboring countries, starting with its opaque politics and secretive decision-making and the manner in which it treats people, especially women and foreigners. The desert kingdom, the largest producer of oil in the Organization of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC), claims that the Qur’an and the Sunnah are its constitution –” but this constitution stipulates that the form of government would be a monarchy and kingship would pass to the next brother in line. Critics have asked, where in the Qur’an does it say that monarchy is permissible or that the brother (or even the son) can succeed brother or father to the throne? Such arguments, however, are discouraged by Saudi court ‘ulama insisting any opposition to the ruler, regardless of how low his character or policies, amounts to “sedition” and is not permitted. Again, no evidence is offered from the Qur’an for such assertions.
In recent weeks, however, the Islamic awakening sweeping the region has also affected the desert kingdom but in its own peculiar ways. There were attempts in mid-March to organize protests demanding reforms and more say in the political process. Unlike other countries, these were quickly put down. Suppression of dissent was accompanied by bribes to people amounting to $37 billion. The aged and ailing king, Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, upon his return last February after back surgery in the US announced the package to “help” people. The handout package has since been increased by several billion. This is a huge sum but when the kingdom’s earnings from oil at $200 billion annually are taken into account, this does not appear extraordinary. Even so, these billions can buy a lot of loyalty. And they have, although compared to the hundreds of billions handed out to the army of princes, according to WikiLeaks cables from the US Embassy in Riyadh (Reuters, February 28, 2011), the bakhsheesh for people is chicken feed.
Protests against the regime have been sporadic and largely tame affairs in comparison with other countries. There is no public gathering place like Tahrir Square in Egypt or the now demolished Pearl Square in Bahrain. The central square outside the main masjid in Riyadh is often used for public beheadings of foreign workers –” mainly Pakistani, Indian or Sri Lankan –” accused of petty crimes. The royal thieves get away scot free with their multi-billion dollar grand larcenies or habitual dalliances.
Saudi Arabia also carries another, self-imposed burden: as guarantor of regional stability. With Hosni Mubarak driven from power, not without strong protests from the Saudi rulers, the House of Saud is left alone to carry the burden. This is a role it is not familiar with. While Riyadh rushed 1,000 heavily armed troops to Bahrain to prop up the corrupt Al-Khalifa family in power, it is having a much harder time controlling events in neighboring Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounded in a bomb blast on June 3 had faced months of protests that had descended into tribal warfare. Uncertainty on Saudi Arabia’s southern border greatly worries the Saudi rulers. They pushed a plan through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to try and ease Saleh out of power but he proved a slippery customer. Badly injured in the blast, he is now being treated in a Riyadh hospital. Reports about his condition vary; some say he suffered burns to 40% of his body and there is shrapnel lodged in his body just below the heart. Others insist he is making speedy recovery and will soon return to Sana’a. The Saudis are caught on the horns of a dilemma: they fear instability in Yemen will spill over into the kingdom and it has no capacity to curb such protests but at the same time, they do not wish to dictate to Saleh who is not only stubborn but his family –” son, nephew, etc. –” still exercise considerable control in the country by virtue of controlling elite troops.
While these external problems give the Saudi rulers sleepless nights, they are facing a challenge from an unlikely source within the kingdom: veiled female drivers. Barred from driving cars, a group of Saudi women used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to organize a mass mobile protest on June 17 defying the kingdom’s ban on women drivers. They argued, with impeccable logic, that if women could ride camels at the time of the Prophet (r), why could they not drive cars today? The regime understands the gravity of the challenge. It is even more acute in the case of the muttawwas, the ubiquitous religious police, whose views are so extreme that they make most Muslims cringe. Despite this, the overwhelming majority of Muslims appear powerless in the face of Saudi petrodollars that are dished out to buy loyalty globally. There is basically a symbiotic relationship between the religious establishment and the regime. By allowing the religious establishment a free hand to preach and implement their extremist interpretations on social mores, the regime gets a stamp of approval for its rule that acts as a deterrent for most Saudis to stage an uprising.
The women of Saudi Arabia are the victims of such narrow obscurantist interpretations. In the face of such restrictions, how do Saudi women get around? Their blood relatives –” husband, son, brother or other close relative –” must drive them around. This is not always possible and often unlikely. Saudi men are busy elsewhere –” in their offices where they do little or no work, chasing business deals or even women in foreign countries, mostly Europe and Southeast Asia. The irony is that while Saudi women are locked up in their homes or behind the veil (portable house, according to one commentator), they must be chauffeur-driven or ride in a taxi driven by a complete stranger if they have to go out. Chauffeur driven cars are the most common means of transportation for Saudi women. There are 750,000 chauffeurs in the kingdom; most are employed by rich Saudis to drive their wives and daughters around. This practice itself is contrary to Islamic injunctions because a Muslim woman cannot be alone with a stranger to whom she is not related by blood or marriage. This has resulted in illicit relations between Saudi women and their chauffeurs, leading the poor chauffeurs, often poor Pakistanis or Indians, to the public beheading square. There are no known instances of Saudi men being beheaded much less any members of the royal family.
When the issue of female drivers came to a head last year, one Saudi court preacher came up with a strange solution to the problem: that Saudi women should breast-feed their chauffeurs; they would then be considered their sons and could go around with them without arousing concern. This scandalous suggestion led to heated debate in the kingdom and much derision everywhere. Such questions as to whether a woman had to milk her breasts before the chauffeur would consume it or he would draw milk directly from her breasts were asked. While this appalling suggestion made rounds in the media and on talk shows (naturally not in the desert kingdom), one Saudi woman asked: why women cannot be allowed to drive rather than going through such convoluted arguments? The religious establishment had no answer to this simple question but it did little to end the archaic practice of ban on female drivers.
This episode, by no means rare, is at the heart of Saudi men’s anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. The muttawwas insist that public space –” streets, cars, malls etc. –” and the right to enter and leave them at will –” belong exclusively to men. A woman can only enter accompanied by a male relative. Women that trespass are regarded either as sinful “street-walkers” or expected to cover themselves completely in an abaya including their face. Interestingly, many Saudi women, whether accompanied or not, discard such dress when they go abroad. Perhaps, once they are out of reach of the muttawwas’ glaring eyes they can do what they like. How ludicrous –” and dangerous –” the muttawwas can get, can be gleaned from an incident in March 1992. A fire broke out in a girls’ school in Makkah. When the girls tried to escape the burning inferno, the muttawwas prevented them from doing so on the grounds that they were “not properly covered.” They even prevented firefighters from entering the school building because it would have violated the muttawwas’ insistence on separating men and women that are unrelated. At least 14 girls were burned alive and some 50 others suffered serious burns to their bodies.
While the Saudi rulers and their muttawwas have made their society the most gender-segregated in the world, it has created other problems as well. For instance, stores that sell women’s clothing and lingerie are staffed exclusively by men. How does one advertise women’s products, whether for clothing or hygiene using men is a question the Saudis do not wish to address. Under pressure from women’s groups, King Abdullah announced on June 12 that such stores should have female staff to serve female customers.
The muttawwa-imposed practices have even affected Hajj pilgrims and how they are dealt with. Upon arrival at Jeddah’s Hajj terminal, men and women are separated from each other even if they are related by blood –” mothers, sisters or daughters –” or by marriage –” wives. Saudi officials insist on separating them for immigration processing. In many instances, the women may not even be able to fill out forms that are handed out to them by male Saudi officials. Similarly, only male officials handle passport and visa formalities for women pilgrims but insist these women cannot stand in the same line with their male relatives!
The gender apartheid policy apart, Saudi Arabia is now facing a new challenge: jobs even for men. Traditionally lazy and unaccustomed to work, they are brought up to believe that they can have whatever they want because expatriate workers are there to serve them. There are an estimated eight million foreign workers who are poorly paid and often mistreated.
The mistreatment of domestic workers, mostly Filipino, Indonesian or Sri Lankan women, is well documented. A 22-year-old Sri Lankan maid, Rizana Nafeek, was sentenced to death, allegedly for strangling a four-month old infant while she was taking care of him in Dawadmi city. The incident occurred five years ago when Nafeek, barely 17 and just arrived from Sri Lanka, was assigned to look after the infant son of Naif Jiziyan Khalaf Al-Otaibi, in addition to her other daily chores –” cleaning the house, washing dishes and clothes and be available on demand for ladies of the house to give them water or whatever else they needed. While bottle-feeding him milk, the baby started to choke. Nafeek shouted for help but on the way to hospital, the baby died. She was accused of murder and sentenced to death by the court that finally ended with appeal to King Abdullah for mercy. What kind of justice system would condemn a poor frightened girl –” and that is what Nafeek was at the time –” to death because an infant choked on his milk bottle? And why would a system force her to plead for mercy from a mere mortal even if he calls himself king, when only Allah (Ã) is the Mercy-Giving and Merciful? On June 18, Ruyati binti Sapubi, a 54-year old Indonesian maid, was beheaded without notifying her relatives or the Indonesian government after she was sentenced to death for killing her abusive employer.
Amid such scandalous mistreatment of domestic workers whose plight is seldom mentioned in Western media outlets or by other Western do-gooders, such as the myriad human rights organizations that are quick to point fingers at governments or rulers they do not approve of, the regime in Riyadh is now faced with a growing list of unemployed Saudis, many of them university graduates. The regime has embarked on a policy of nitaqat or zones. This applies to companies that are graded based on what percentage of Saudis they must employ. Companies whose employees’ list consists of 70% Saudis are placed in the green zone. Those under this percentage are placed in the yellow zone and companies with less than 30% Saudi employees are categorized in the red zone. The yellow and red zone companies cannot hire foreign workers until they meet the 70% quota.
Saudi unemployment stands officially at 6.9% but this is deceptive. In the critical 15 to 25-year age group, unemployment is 39%. The number of unemployed currently stands at 448,000. Concerned by these high figures, King Abdullah announced on June 12 that 66,000 new jobs should be created in the health and education sectors. He also said that 39,000 jobs in health sector should be reserved for Saudi women and 13,000 for men. For the 8 million foreign workers, the regime has announced that those employed for six years cannot get their visa extended. Foreigners are not granted citizenship so the regime is trying to blame them for mismanaging the economy where corruption is so widespread, especially among the hordes of princes. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues, there are millions of people living in poverty.
The Saudis’ abysmal human rights record was also brought up in the British House of Lords by Lord Nazir Ahmed on March 30 when he asked the British Foreign Office minister, Lord Howell of Guildford whether he was “aware that thousands of detainees are held in Saudi prisons, without any charge, trial or representation –” some for more than seven years, and a few for more than 13 years?” Lord Ahmed also asked if the government had made sure that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were not being used for internal repression. The minister’s reply was less than satisfactory. He merely stated that the policy was under review but such tactics have not resulted in any restrictions on arms sales to the Saudis. In fact, only weeks after this question was raised in the House of Lords, Britain announced an arms deal worth $40 billion. This is in addition to the Yamamah project under which $80 billion worth of arms were sold to the Saudi regime, weapons systems that the Saudi armed forces appear incompetent to use against any external aggressor but will willingly use against peaceful protesters in the kingdom.
Interestingly, the Saudis’ propensity to get fatwas from court ‘ulama to denounce anything they disapprove of was also brought up in the House of Lords by Baroness Falkner of Margravine. Addressing Lord Howell she said “my noble friend will no doubt be aware that the Saudi rulers have requested their clergy to issue a fatwa, stating that all democratic peaceful protests are un-Islamic. Does he agree that turning democracy into a religious issue sends a message to 1.5 billion Muslims that democracy is not an option open to them if they wish to adhere to their religion? Does he think that Saudi Arabia, given that attitude towards freedom, can any longer be trusted to pursue peace and stability in the Middle East?” This question was also deflected by the good lord on behalf of her majesty’s government because billions in arms sales were involved.
Saudi women demonstrating for the right to drive are beginning to challenge long-entrenched views of their role in society. By their protest, they have forced the establishment on the defensive. While the women may not succeed immediately, the issue has been thrust into the public domain even if Western media outlets refuse to give them the coverage they deserve. Had this been a women’s protest in Iran, it is certain, there would be screaming headlines in the newspapers and hours of air time allocated on television to berate the Islamic government in Iran. When it comes to the rulers of Saudi Arabia, they are treated with kid gloves. In the infamous words of one presidential advisor to Dwight Eisenhower, “Mr. President, they are our SoBs.”