DISSIDENCE IN ARABIA
Saudi Arabia's royal family is convinced it presides over a country that is peculiarly blessed. It feels it has created a fusion of political and religious power ideal for an Islamic society, and it is puzzled that other Arab states do not emulate its system. It vows it will not have an army, like its neighbors Syria and Iraq, that can take over the state. It sees the disorderly parliaments of Kuwait and Egypt as warnings against the temptations of democracy. Although King Fahd was reported to have suffered a stroke in early December, the House of Saud insists there will be no succession crisis. The Sauds are proud of their leadership, which they say was vindicated in 1991 when Saddam Hussein's army stood at the border and the Saudi people rallied round.
Yet to the royal family's dismay, discontent has risen steadily since the Persian Gulf War ended five years ago. The war was not popular in Saudi Arabia. It aroused no nationalist fervor and was at best supported as a necessary evil. Before and after the fighting, many questioned the government's judgment in summoning an infidel army to defend the country against aggressive fellow Arabs. Where, they asked, had the billions gone that had been spent over the previous decade on national defense?
In November a car bomb destroyed a building in Riyadh in which American military personnel assigned to train the Saudi armed forces were based. Five Americans were killed and about 60 injured, and at least one other foreigner died. Weeks passed without the government issuing a report on the blast. Its only announcement was a denial--skeptically received--that internal forces were responsible. Iraq or Iran, it said, was the most likely culprit.
Other signs of domestic discontent were harder to deny. In the fall of 1994, Safar al-Hawali, a clerical critic of the royal family, was arrested in Mecca, where he taught at the Islamic university. A few days later, Sheikh Salman al-Audah, who had denounced the royal family from the podium of his mosque in Buryada, was taken into custody. Audah's arrest by antiriot troops over the protests of hundreds of his supporters, though blacked out by the Saudi press, was clandestinely videotaped and disseminated throughout the country.
That week as many as a thousand dissidents were secretly detained in a countrywide sweep. Reports of the arrests published in the international press were officially dismissed as "lies and misleading information." The government finally admitted seizing 157 men on charges of sowing dissent. Most, it said, had been released after confessing error, but 27 remained in custody, Audah and Hawali among them. The government went on to warn of dire consequences for repeat offenders and promised harsh measures against those who committed "any action that undermines the faith or the [internal] security of the country."
INSECURITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Most Saudis agree the trouble started when the government brought in American and other foreign troops to fight the Gulf War. The royal family, they felt, thereby defaulted on the basic compact of the state, under which the many lesser tribes have pledged their fealty to the Sauds, a strong tribe, in return for protection. The deal, rooted in desert tradition, has given Arabia nearly two and a half centuries of relative stability, and lies at the heart of the Saudi autocracy. In the war and its aftermath, Saudis turned a critical eye on the system. Despite the ultimate victory, the war left a shadow over the Saud family's political legitimacy.
"Saudis are not used to being in danger, and though Riyadh took only a few Scud missiles, we didn't like it," an intellectual said to me in his home last summer. Like most Saudis I met, he agreed to talk only if I promised not to identify him. "Of course, these matters were not discussed publicly. The newspapers, as always, were obediently silent. But we were very angry at being unable to defend ourselves.
"Even now, we see ourselves surrounded by neighbors that don't like us--Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen--and we wonder what's next. The West seems to think that the impact of the war was cultural, that we were upset by women in T-shirts driving jeeps. But the truth is, we felt the royal family had let us down."
In May 1991, barely two months after the war ended, some 400 Islamic intellectuals, Audah and Hawali among them, submitted a letter to King Fahd calling for a series of governmental reforms. Low-key though it was, this was the most daring challenge to royal authority since Islamic extremists' violent occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. The government, in fact, lumped the 1991 signers with the 1979 extremists, and indeed their grievances were somewhat similar, in that both called for an end to the Saud family's corruption, ostentation, and imitation of the West. Hawali and Audah, however, went further, pressing such purely political demands as public accountability, equality before the law, an independent judiciary, and popular participation (though not necessarily democracy) in decision-making. Their aim, in short, was to curb the royal family's absolutism.
In the months that followed, the government fumbled about, taking no punitive steps. The leading Islamic elders dutifully denounced the petition for its disrespect to the king but were themselves ambivalent. The problem facing both the political and religious hierarchies was that among the dissenters were distinguished clerics recognized not just for their intellect and integrity but for their piety; the next generation of religious leaders, these men could not easily be dismissed. Sensing the indecision, the dissidents issued more statements, attracting more signers. In a 45-page manifesto in September 1992, they boldly attacked the clerical elders for endorsing the king's domestic and international policies.
Meanwhile, a second protest effort was being organized, this one from outside the religious establishment. To describe it as secular would be inaccurate, for in Saudi Arabia whatever is political has an Islamic component. Saudis respond not to Rousseau or Jefferson, a professor reminded me, but to the Prophet and his followers; occasional Western-style protests have gained no public support.
The organizer of the new protest was Muhammad al-Massari, a practicing Muslim about 50 years old, with a doctorate in theoretical physics from the United States. A faculty member at King Saud University in Riyadh, he had been a sporadic critic of the government, but the Gulf War turned him into a full-time dissident. Many of his followers had collaborated with Audah and Hawali, but for the most part they were businessmen, professors, judges, and other professionals rather than clerics.
On May 3, 1993, in Riyadh, Massari announced the formation of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), which he described as an association devoted to human rights and political reform--within the context of Islamic law. The announcement shattered the government's lethargy, and several days later Massari was arrested. Dozens of CDLR sympathizers, many of them Massari's kin, followed him to prison in the ensuing months. Tried and convicted of heresy, Massari remained in custody until early 1994. A few months later he slipped across the border into Yemen and turned up in London, where he established a CDLR office. Since then, he and a handful of associates have provoked the royal family by feeding information and criticism via telephone, fax, and bootleg cassette to the international press and the intellectual grapevine inside Saudi Arabia.
Currently the relationship between the CDLR and the Audah-Hawali dissidents is uncertain, as is their doctrinal compatibility. In the Saudi tradition, both make their demands in the name of Islamic orthodoxy. Neither professes such liberal values as popular democracy, unlimited freedom of expression, equality for women, or religious freedom. (Being Sunni, both keep Saudi Shiites, a substantial but powerless minority in the country, at arm's length.) Both groups are faintly anti-Western and not so faintly anti-Israel. Both speak more of reform than rebellion, and neither seems to have plans for moving beyond peaceful protest.
Sympathizers admit that the dissidents do not at present have a popular movement backing them. Massari's calls for sit-ins in the mosques on Fridays have evoked no response. Under Saudi law, political organizing is prohibited (even parent-teacher associations are banned), and Saudis I met, including the harshest critics of the government, acknowledged, with some embarrassment, that they had no stomach for defying the rules. Still, one told me, the dissidents represent an "attitude" that is spreading.
As for its ultimate goals, the CDLR seems more concerned with conventional politics, whereas the Audah-Hawali doctrine is more theological and may in fact stand on a foundation that resembles Khomeinism. But for now the two groups are in tacit alliance. While Audah and Hawali sit in detention, Massari in London churns out faxes extolling the "martyrs" in the homeland who are bravely confronting the repression of the House of Saud.
Some Saudis dismiss the protests as generational: the dissidents are mainly in their thirties and forties while the ruling elites, political and religious, are in their seventies and eighties. Few in the country dispute that a changing of the guard is overdue.
But the dissidents' appeal is by no means limited to the young. During my month in Saudi Arabia, Audah, Hawali, and Massari were the talk of every drawing room and many of the offices I visited. Saudis are no doubt attracted simply by the dissidents' daring. The culture of the country is not only politically repressive but also imposes rigid conformity on social behavior, on what people read and how they dress. Social norms had never been challenged, but the Gulf War snapped the reticence. Now calls for reform--whatever the reforms may be--seem almost intoxicating.
What stuns the royal family is the dissidents' Islamic claims. The Sauds' legitimacy is founded on their championship of a particular brand of Islam and their adherence to its strictures. They would never describe their foes as fundamentalists because they reserve that term to describe themselves. Their tactic is to denounce the dissidents as fanatics who are degrading the faith for impious ends. They cannot, however, conceal their pain, for the dissidents have put them on the defensive in their own game.
THE KINGDOM AND THE CLERICS
The modern Saudi state was built on the ruins of the system Muhammad established 1400 years ago. In the centuries after the Prophet's death, Arabia drifted away from the rigorous form of monotheism he had introduced, and the center of the Islamic world moved elsewhere.
Like the Prophet before him, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an itinerant preacher, was deeply troubled by the state of affairs in Arabia. Born in a southern oasis in 1703, he studied in Medina, then in Iraq and Iran, and returned home committed to leading a revival. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's aim was to restore the Prophet's Islam, which meant to him not only rigor in religious practice but austerity in social behavior. His puritanical views made him few converts, so he set out to find a tribal leader to help him promote his sacred cause.
In 1744 Ibn Abd al-Wahhab persuaded Muhammad ibn Saud, a tribal chief ruling over a small village, that Islamic revivalism could fuel the latter's ambitions for territory and power. The two men exchanged oaths of fidelity, and Ibn Saud embarked on a holy war against the infidels of Arabia. In a series of military campaigns, the chief and his descendants unified the peninsula, and by the end of the century they had reduced the shrines of the apostates to ruins.
The alliance between the two families is the core of the state to this day. The Sauds are the enforcers of Islamic orthodoxy, while the descendants of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab provide them with divine legitimacy. The kingdom they created in Arabia was twice brought down by the Ottomans, and the British nibbled off pieces. Yet the alliance proved resilient. After each fall the state picked itself up and, with popular support, rebuilt its institutions, without ever abandoning its unique mix of religious and temporal authority. The parallel hierarchies that governed 250 years ago still govern today.
In theory the monarchy is the executive and the ulema--the organization of the clergy--the moral guide, but in practice the two are often rivals, each tugging constantly at the other. Yet they understand their mutual dependence. The dissidents demand reform, but history strongly suggests that the Saudi regime has survived this long precisely because it has never altered its basic structure.
Abdullah bin Muhammad Al al-Shaikh, the minister of justice, is an example of the system at work. A direct descendant of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, he gravitated through family ties into the clerical establishment. Educated at Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh, familiarly known as Imam University, where most of the high clergy are trained, he received a doctorate in Islamic law and became a professor, then a dean. Now 46, he presides over the country's Islamic system of law, the only law it has. He speaks softly but conveys great certainty.
"Islamic law requires the presence of a state," he told me in a conversation at his ministry. "My ancestor could have gone to the mosque to seize political and religious power, but he understood his limitations. He imparted to Muhammad ibn Saud the wisdom he needed to become caliph, a successor to the Prophet Muhammad. His personal mandate was to be the ruler's guide, but even in religious matters the state is the final authority."
When I asked Shaikh how Islam responds to the corruption in Saudi Arabia about which I had heard so much, rather than dismissing the question he had a ready answer.
"It is forbidden in Islam to raise a hand against a ruler. If he makes a mistake--even a big one like corruption, and that includes adultery or stealing or drinking--overthrowing him is prohibited. If he forces others to violate Islam, you may refuse to follow him, but you can go no further. Overthrow of a ruler is not permitted, because when a people is without a ruler the result is fitna--public disorder--and that is worse than corrupt rule. Obedience to rulers is part of Muslim practice."
The most serious strains between the kingdom's two hierarchies have been brought on by the intrusion of Western ideas, especially in the guise of technology. The royal family has consistently had to concede power to the clergy in return for its acceptance of modernization. To bring radio stations to Saudi Arabia, the king promised broadcasts of the Koran, which now dominate the airwaves. To win consent for girls' education, he granted the administration of the schools to the ulema. When Khomeini's revolution threatened to make Iran more Islamic than Saudi Arabia, the king bowed to the clergy's request that he close movie theaters and ban music and drama from television. More recently he had 70 women arrested for demonstrating for the right to drive, after which the clergy endorsed the stationing of some Western troops on Saudi soil.
"By Saudi standards the king is probably very enlightened," said the editor of an Islamic paper. "In terms of social change he is ahead of the people. We have an enlightened, Western-oriented middle class, which favors reform. Its members behave un-Islamically when they go to London or Cairo and even behind the doors of their own homes. They'd like to end the hypocrisy, but the national consensus remains very Wahhabi. The women who demonstrated for the right to drive did not get public support, and the king was applauded for punishing them. The clergy are not the only obstacle. Fahd can't be more liberal than the masses."
A Western-educated intellectual had a different take on clerical power and social stasis. "In recent years," he said, "this country has exploded with new experiences, in technology and in areas like banking and management. But the old social issues remain untouched. Islamic society has not resolved three questions: where women fit in, what the goal of education is, and how much freedom of dissent the people and the media should be granted.
"Meanwhile, conformity grows worse. Our clergy are certainly as powerful as the Catholic hierarchy, and Imam University is our Vatican. It funnels a great number of Islamic Ph.D.s into big jobs in the government. Many of them work in education, enforcing the directives of the ulema.
"These people brainwash our students. A few decades ago Saudis were mainly illiterate, but now thousands graduate every year. Many return to the schools as teachers--particularly the women, since no other work is available to them--where they reinforce religious thinking. Before higher education was developed here, most of our students went abroad, and they came back with some modern ideas. Now we have seven universities, and our students stay home and become more ingrown. It is ironic that when the schools were established they were regarded as a liberalizing instrument.
"The royal family has responded to every crisis by granting more concessions to the clerics. It thinks it is co-opting them, but they keep demanding more. What they bring us is not higher spiritual values but more ritual, which translates into greater doctrinal and social conformity. We still have the mutaween--the religious police--patrolling the streets and the markets to make sure people are saying their prayers. There are more beards among the men, and more veils on the women. But we are not better Muslims, because as you ritualize religion, you marginalize belief.
"I'm not certain that Audah and Hawali, rebellious as they are, depart from this pattern. They come from the trend that says women shouldn't drive and Shiites are not Muslims. They demand political accountability, but they urge even greater restrictions on popular freedoms. As for Massari and the CDLR, they are apparently still developing their ideas. I think they represent a progressive view of Islam, but it's like the opening frames of a movie--we still don't know the plot.
"We hope the younger generation of the royal family will be different. Its members still go abroad to school and are said to understand that the country is being held back. But it will be a long time before the old men who rule us now give way to the next generation."
LESSONS NOT LEARNED
The royal family's failure to learn more lessons from the war--financial, military, and political--left many Saudis disenchanted.
Because the government releases whatever information it chooses, no outsider can pretend to have a clear picture of the state's finances, but a reasonable guess is that the war cost Saudi Arabia about $60 billion. This came on the heels of some $30 billion that Saudi Arabia contributed in the 1980s toward Iraq's expenses in the war against Iran. The state may have spent another $50 billion refitting its forces after the Gulf War. To pay these huge bills, the government had to draw down its reserves.
Though temporarily pinched, Saudi Arabia is far from poor. Oil prices and sales indicate that reserves have begun to rise again in the past year or so. The state still levies no income or profits taxes. But it bothers many Saudis that the royal family, faced with the extraordinary expenses, has shown little inclination to change its spendthrift ways.
Unlike his predecessors, King Fahd is said to impose no limits on family members' spending. Some 5,000 princes and an equal number of princesses continue to receive large stipends every month for no work. The Sauds still build lavish palaces and pocket huge commissions on foreign contracts, and they pay nothing for utilities, airplane tickets, and other state services. For the first time, moreover, the king is said to condone the princes' muscling in, Mafia-style, on private businessmen. These practices are straining the patience of a class that has always been loyal to the status quo.
Similarly, the war produced no revision of national security policy. Although it invests heavily in air defense, the country spends very little on its ground forces. The most embarrassing question I could ask Saudi officials, it seemed, was why Saudi Arabia, with a larger population and greater wealth than Israel, could not build a comparable defense force. Officials would admit that the royal family has no appetite for a strong standing army. (The ground forces historically have been divided into two bodies, making them rivals of each other rather than the monarchy.) Pentagon sources have described Saudi Arabia's defense strategy as preparing the infrastructure a friendly foreign force would need while limiting itself to the power to delay an aggressor--a carbon copy of the Saudi role in Operation Desert Storm.
"Moving from a state of scarcity a few decades ago, our priority was a good life, not a defense force," said Prince Saud al-Faysal, the Saudi foreign minister and a nephew of the king. "Building an army cannot be our top priority. The comparison with Israel isn't fair. Our achievement in the Gulf War was to retain our cohesion with hundreds of thousands of foreign troops on our soil. We recognize that every country should be able to defend itself. But to deal with the Soviet Union, the West relied on collective security for decades. We applied this principle to Saddam Hussein, to the benefit of both ourselves and our allies. We are prepared to rely on it again."
The biggest change in the wake of the Gulf War was King Fahd's appointment of a Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council. Shura--consultation between the ruler and the ruled--is enjoined in the Koran, and as such, is one of Islam's few political commandments. Some Islamic thinkers take it as a call for democratic government. The House of Saud interprets it far more modestly.
Originating in Bedouin practices, shura had long been part of the state machinery, falling into disuse only when a cabinet system was adopted in the 1950s. On assuming the throne in 1982, King Fahd promised to restore shura, and had a sumptuous palace built for the purpose. As time passed, Saudis grew skeptical, but shortly after the war a law establishing the Majlis al-Shura was issued, and in 1993 the body met for the first time.
The king named all 61 members of the Shura. Tapping no royals, he weighted the body toward academics, then added engineers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, religious scholars, and retired civil servants. The appointments followed no pattern of geographic or tribal distribution. Naturally no dissidents were named. The principal qualifications seemed to be intellectual achievement and practical experience. More than half the members are Ph.D.s, and two-thirds studied in the West.
The body considers drafts of laws and international agreements that the king submits to it; the budget is not included in its legal mandate. Organized like a parliament, it has committees that hear outside testimony and send recommendations to a plenum, which debates the issues and reaches decisions by majority vote. It is empowered to summon government officials and request state documents but was given no watchdog functions. What mainly distinguishes it from a real parliament is that its decisions have no binding force.
Abd al-Aziz al-Fayez, a respected political scientist from Riyadh University, said he was surprised when the king named him to the Shura. Flattered, he, like the others, agreed to serve full time for a four-year term, receiving a modest stipend. His fellow members are conscientious, he said, and their debates are thoughtful and respectful. None of them, however, has any illusions about the council's power.
"We're Saudis, and we're used to paternalism," Fayez said. "We were instructed to give our honest judgments on public issues, and we do. We provide information and analysis from outside the ministerial circle. In short, we are a body of advisers to the king, nothing more."
According to Fayez, the king seems to take the council's recommendations seriously. Its deliberations are secret, however, and its members are barred from discussing any of its business with the press. Many Saudis are not aware that the body exists, and others mock it because they have no idea what it does. Critics of the government regard it as a political lapdog designed to give the king cover against charges of despotism.
"The people are not meant to be represented in the Majlis al-Shura," said Sheikh Muhammad bin Jubair, the old tribal chief who serves as its chairman. Jubair, surrounded by aides, received me beneath a glittering chandelier in a cream and gold sitting room at the council's palace. "If we left it to voters, they would not choose members qualified to offer the king advice--they would elect tribal chiefs unable to read or write. Instead, we have educated men, real experts. The Shura is not a legislature, and it is not a step toward democracy. It is our own system, coming from our religion and habits and tradition."
Abdullah al-Naseef, the Shura's deputy chairman, takes a different view. Naseef studied in the mid-1960s at the University of California at Berkeley, and though he acquired some unfavorable impressions of American freedoms, he is regarded, within Wahhabi limits, as a committed liberal.
"Sheikh Jubair is concerned that elections will bring `unsuitable' people to the Majlis. He thinks discord and argument violate our religion, and it is true that there are limits to speech in Islam. Our faith is our strength, and what I witnessed in Berkeley 30 years ago would not be good for us. But the government doesn't understand how badly the people want to have more say about the country. Nothing in Islam bars holding elections for the Shura, even with women as candidates. Nothing bars more open government, and I believe our meetings will soon be covered on television. I am among those who think this must be the start of Saudi democracy."
AUDIENCES WITH THE PRINCES
Prince Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, the youngest full brother of King Fahd, has been governor of the province of Riyadh--a rather good governor, most say--since 1962. Not yet 60, he is said to be a sure bet to become king in time. The current heir to the throne, however, is Prince Abdullah, a half brother who at 72 is just two years Fahd's junior. In a society that reveres blood relationships, the king's selection of a half brother as his successor puzzles most Saudis. Abdullah, the commander of the National Guard, is not particularly close to the monarch, while Prince Salman is one of his most trusted advisers.
Prince Salman denies that the royal family is aloof from the people, as many Saudis claim. In an interview at the governor's offices in downtown Riyadh, he explained that the leading princes are kept informed not just by the intelligence services but by meeting personally with private citizens. The prince himself holds an audience twice a day, during which all Saudis are invited to bring him their problems. At his invitation, I witnessed one of these sessions, held after the noon prayer in a huge, opulent receiving room in the palace. Dozens of robed men, most with the sun-dried faces of Bedouins, sat in chairs around the periphery, rising deferentially when Salman entered. Each in turn approached the throne, shook the prince's hand, presented him with a petition, and for a few seconds delivered a personal plea. The issues were private, I was told, like getting an elderly mother into a hospital or a miscreant son out of jail. The prince listened, then handed the petition to an aide, to whom he whispered instructions. It was a touching scene of desert governance transposed to modern times; whether it conveyed to the prince what the people were thinking about his family was another matter.
"Yes, the royal family is aware that there is discontent in the kingdom," Salman told me. "Like all Saudis, we are looking for the best for our country. But we are not prepared to undermine our cultural strengths or to adopt practices that do not suit us.
"Our goal is to preserve our country's unity. Arabia used to be a collection of regions and tribes; now we are becoming a single family, under a king who loves us. Troublemakers like Audah and Hawali don't represent our people. They are only promoting anarchy. We know we as Sauds have not attained perfection--there is no ideal system on earth. But we are developing our country within a context of faithfulness to our traditions."
In several talks with members of the royal family, I frequently heard the disarming admission that the Sauds were not perfect. One prince acknowledged that family members sometimes engage in corruption and conceded that princes suffer lapses from Islamic morality, into alcohol or adultery. I heard princes admit that the enormous oil wealth of Saudi Arabia has been, at the least, mismanaged. But the family line seems to be that the Sauds have, in the final analysis, done rather well by their country.
More than one Saudi--loyalists, to be sure, if not apologists--asked me to weigh the following: "Look at other countries that have been blessed with oil riches. We could have become a snakepit like Algeria or Venezuela or Nigeria. But we didn't. Just take a look around at what we have become." And to confirm the boast, one need only regard Saudi Arabia's prospering cities, its efficient communications and transportation systems, its universities and factories and mosques, and note the sense of order that pervades the society. Yet the royal family is troubled today because Massari and the CDLR along with Audah, Hawali, and their followers--and perhaps the unidentified car bombers who struck in November--do not consider these achievements enough.
Prince Nayif, another of King Fahd's full brothers, is indignant that a Muslim would challenge the Saud family's statecraft. As minister of the interior, Nayif is the kingdom's chief law enforcement officer. Within the circle of the king's intimates he is regarded as a hard-liner, although it is difficult to pin down gradations in the brothers' attitudes. Nayif was the most affable of the princes I met, but the dissidents' demands for reform clearly exasperated him.
"The king has an open heart and an open door, and we will examine any proposal that does not contradict Islamic law. But the reforms Audah and Hawali called for are not legitimate, and by exposing their petition to the world they embarrassed us. That was unacceptable. The public also believes that their bringing their cause to the mosque was a violation of Islamic principles. Ours is an Islamic state, and our family does not need such people to tell us about Islam.