In Saudi Arabia: Can It Really Change?

Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, with Omani Defense Minister Badr bin Saud al-Busaidi and US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at the US–Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, April 2016
Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, with Omani Defense Minister Badr bin Saud al-Busaidi and US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at the US–Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, April 2016

Until the Wahhabi conquest of the Arabian peninsula at the turn of the last century, the mixture of sects there was as diverse as it was anywhere in the old pluralist Middle East. In its towns there lived, among others, Sufi mystics from the Sunni branch of Islam, members of the Zaidi sect, which is linked with the Shia branch of Islam, Twelver Shia traders, and seasonal Jewish farmhands from Yemen.

From the eighteenth century onward, successive waves of warriors from the Wahhabi revivalist movement, formed from Sunni tribesmen in the hinterland, have struggled to enforce a puritanical uniformity on the cosmopolitan coast. Toby Matthiesen recounts in The Other Saudis that, a few years after taking the eastern shores of the peninsula from the reeling Ottomans in 1913, Wahhabi clerics issued a fatwa obliging local Shias to convert to “true Islam.” In Hijaz, the western region that includes Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah, militant Wahhabi clerics and their followers ransacked the treasuries of the holy places in Mecca, lopped the dome off the House of the Prophet in Medina, and razed myriad shrines.

But their success was only partial. In 1930, when the Wahhabi Brethren began raiding Iraq and Jordan and upsetting the region’s British overlords, Abdulaziz al-Saud, the modern state’s founder, reined them in, slaughtering the zealots by the hundred.

Afterward, the peninsula regained much of its old tempo. Shia clerics applied their versions of Islamic law in the east. Jeddah’s newspapers continued to publish listings of Western as well as Islamic New Year’s Eve celebrations, cinema screenings, and concerts. Then, in 1979, apparently inspired by the Iranian overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an Islamic republic earlier that year, Islamic militants stormed Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the holiest place in Islam, and declared a new order under a leader who proclaimed himself the Mahdi—the redeemer—and sought to replace the Saudi monarchy. Wahhabi forces loyal to the monarchy counterattacked, saved the al-Sauds, and retook the mosque. But a crucial deal was made: loyalist clerics approved the removal of the militants by force; but in return demanded that Saudi royals cede them power to strictly control personal behavior. The last cinemas and concert halls shut down. Women were obliged to shroud themselves in black.

Thirty-five years later, foreign descriptions of Saudi Arabia remain for the most part remarkably bleak. The writers of all four books under review examine the domination of the al-Saud dynasty with the fascination with which a zoologist might regard a black widow snaring its prey. Pascal Menoret describes young men whose only escape from Riyadh’s Islamist social strictures is the homoerotically charged practice of joyriding down the city’s grim highways. Matthiesen describes the often difficult lives of two million Shias in eastern Saudi Arabia—many of them employees of oil companies—whose right to practice their form of Islam contracts and expands according to royal whim. Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants describe the suppression of Saudi women, who still need a man to study, work, travel, or open bank accounts. Simon Ross Valentine is appalled and fascinated by the power of Wahhabi clerics; he stays behind after a clumsy public decapitation to watch a mosque steward hose down the blood. Yet through all of these recent books comes a nagging question: If Saudi Arabia really is the wellspring of ISIS and if it imposes, as it often does, an orthodox conformity, how, a century after its creation, does the kingdom these authors describe remain, as they also make clear, such a heterogeneous and nuanced place?

Each of the authors acknowledges the gap between the totalitarian ideal and the looser reality. “Wherever I lived in [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia],” writes Valentine in a chapter entitled “Serpents in Paradise,” “I was not only offered drugs and alcohol, but also ‘woman, for good time.’” Aarts is surprised by a portrait gallery violating sharia injunctions against figurative art. There are plenty of censors, but the Internet and satellite TV, he found, have made them obsolete. Menoret records how the joyriders have turned the uniform urban grids into an escape route from state planners and authoritarian governors as they speed down the streets.

Most striking of all is Matthiesen’s meticulous portrayal of contemporary Shiism. He describes how the Shia residents of the Eastern Province are treated as second-class citizens; but he makes it clear that they are also able to stage Shia ritual processions through the streets, and how their ayatollahs maintain networks of close relations with one another and with their Iranian counterparts that “allow for a certain independence from the state.” Some have opened hawzat, or theological colleges, including one for women. Such open displays of Shia religiosity and autonomy make many a Wahhabi cleric writhe. But they survive nevertheless.

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Mike King

In January, I went with my editor in chief from The Economist to Saudi Arabia to meet Mohammed bin Salman, a young, previously little-publicized royal, known to his courtiers as MbS. Upon his aging father Salman’s coronation in January 2015, he rose to become deputy crown prince, minister of defense, and de facto ruler. We met with him at an inauspicious time. He had marked the New Year by executing forty-seven people—including forty-three Sunni jihadists and four Shias—the kingdom’s largest group of executions since the crackdown that followed the retaking of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979. Throughout the meeting, the young prince watched reports of the executions on a large television screen—seeming to confirm the caricature of himself on social media as a teenager who played at brutal statecraft as if it were a video game. Iranian protesters had stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and in response MbS promptly severed relations with Iran. “We try as hard as we can not to escalate anything further,” he told us at dinner, while his acerbic foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, portrayed his masters as valiantly defending against the Persian Empire’s march west.

Mohammed bin Salman’s treatment of domestic affairs seemed as headstrong as his treatment of foreign ones. Apparently in return for sanctioning the youngster’s accumulation of power, the clerical establishment secured the dismissal of the country’s first female minister, appointed in laxer times by Abdullah, the late king. Religious police resumed their raids on private premises. A young female accountant told us how they had detained a male colleague sharing her office, in violation of their codes. A spring festival in the south was shut down after prepubescent girls joined in a folkloric dance. McDonald’s revamped its fast-food franchises, and renovated signs segregating their counters and seating areas by sex.

At literary salons, writers recounted stories of people jailed for blaspheming. Some were fed watermelon to fill their bladders, they said, and then had their penises tied. In November 2015 Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet raised in Saudi Arabia, was sentenced to death for voicing religious doubts. “I am Hell’s experiment on the Planet Earth,” he had written in his offending volume of poems. (After much international protest and a worldwide reading of his poems, a panel of judges upheld the verdict of apostasy but commuted the sentence to eight years in prison and eight hundred lashes.) “For the first time in my life, I’m truly afraid,” a news editor told me. The dearth of names in this review is testimony to how nervous even prominent figures have become.

Having proven his conservative and repressive capabilities, MbS tacked leftward. Earlier this year, after the executions, he stripped the special unit of the morality police of its powers to arrest people and locked up popular preachers who dared challenge this change. Among them was Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi, a prominent televangelist, who sneered, “There are some rulers who think that renouncing their religion to satisfy infidels will put an end to the pressures on them.” News of his arrest soon after was tweeted 22,000 times.

Similarly dismissive of tradition, Mohammed bin Salman pointedly gave his first on-record interview to my editor in chief, an unveiled Western woman who rejected the black abaya our minders wanted her to wear. He received her in the living room of his out-of-town rest house in a renovated desert fortress. The daggers of old battles hung from the wattle-and-stucco walls above them. IPads lay strewn on the coffee table in front of them. He expressed views in favor of reform. Curing the kingdom’s oil “addiction” would require diversifying its economy, he said, which in turn might require modernizing its rigid hierarchies. Women should have a more productive part in the kingdom’s economy. Migrants should have the rights of residents. (“All nationalities?” an alarmed interviewer on Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned Arabic-language channel, asked him later. “Without a doubt,” replied MbS without a twitch.)

A relaxation of the social code would have economic advantages. To discourage his citizens from frittering away their earnings on trips to Dubai or Beirut (both capitals where women can drive and people freely drink), the Saudi kingdom, he said, should construct its own tourist resorts, to keep the money at home. As part of his $5 billion plan to develop the country’s entertainment sector, he told us, he would build theme parks and resorts on the kingdom’s untouched islands in the turquoise Red Sea. Saudi pop stars—“the best in the Arab world”—who performed in the kingdom in his father’s youth might soon be allowed back to perform—perhaps before the year’s end. Footage from Mecca during his grandfather’s reign showed women riding on camels, beating drums, and selling wares in the marketplace. They might yet do so again.

MbS’s new education minister, an academic whose book Wahhabi censors had banned for criticizing clerical control over curricula, spoke of breaking the preachers’ stranglehold by opening branches of American universities in the kingdom. An Information Ministry official showed me architects’ drawings for a Royal Arts Complex that he said would wean the kingdom off “ISIS values.” Saudi Arabia had closed its last public cinema in the 1970s, but the new complex would have both a movie theater and an opera house. One day, the official said, it might stage La Bohème. “We want to break the social resistance that prevents women driving, provide an alternative to the conservatives, and work gradually to eliminate extremism,” he told me. Another official added that MbS’s recent acquisition of a $3.5 billion stake in Uber, the cell phone app for ordering taxis, would give women greater freedom of movement.

An adviser to Mohammed bin Salman compared the young prince to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who turned his sleepy creek of Dubai into a libertine metropolis. But for all his talk of theme parks, the only one near completion is Diriya, the reconstructed town outside Riyadh where his forefathers and the founder of the Wahhabis, Ibn Abdel Wahhab, sealed their pact in 1744. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd built an opera house that never opened because of religious objections and remains a gleaming white elephant on the outskirts of Riyadh. Advisers who had anticipated an announcement that women would be allowed to drive sounded glum when MbS dismissed the idea.

There are private beaches where local women can wear bikinis, but the kingdom seems unprepared for mass domestic tourism on a scale that proliferates elsewhere in the Middle East. Such a development, a Jeddah hotelier told me, would happen “only over the graves of the religious establishment.” As MbS attempts to placate both camps, he risks satisfying none.

Each year, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city, hosts a festival recalling pre-Wahhabi times. Under the seemingly innocuous slogan Kunna Kidda, “That’s How We Were,” charitable associations funded by local businessmen evoked memories of a more pluralist past. From the glistening white square where the regime stages its executions, I joined the crowds floating through the arched gates into the Old City. In blown-up sepia photographs lining the port city’s historic alleys, religious buildings flattened when the al-Sauds and their conquering puritans descended from the desert highlands in 1925 rose again. Beneath lattice balconies, families stopped to marvel at Sufi lodges and the domed shrine of Eve, the first woman—toppled by zealots who frown on saint-worship. Inside a glass case running the length of a house, mannequins flaunted the colorful capes women wore before the Wahhabi sheikhs mandated that they wear black. Recalling a time when Jeddah was Arabia’s diplomatic capital, spotlights illuminated the whitewashed buildings that were once the American and British consulates, as well as the residence of the Ottoman caliph, the steps of which were so shallow that a camel could plod to the fifth floor.

Excited girls, outnumbering the men in their segregated stands, cheer comedians on an open-air festival stage. Between acts, a DJ spins discs, defying the ban on music. “Suck me,” screech its English hip-hop lyrics. After the show, the more adventurous of both sexes then mingle onstage, taking group selfies. “The festival is our answer to the desert tribes who disparage our cosmopolitan port city ways,” one of the organizers tells me.

His remarks underlined just how much resistance Wahhabis face in a peninsula relandscaped as their own. Mecca’s ancient hill has been laid low and its old town leveled to make way for sixteen towering apartment hotels, and shrines to the Prophet’s descendents, historically venerated by Sunnis and Shia alike, have been bulldozed. “The crime has been committed,” says a Jeddah art curator and conservationist, who on his office wall has a painting of a group of bland hotels looming over the Kaaba—the inner sanctum of Mecca’s Grand Mosque—and shrouding its black sanctity in shadow. “Our task is to salvage what remains.”

But unlike the Islamic State, which in two years of depredation has purged its territory of Muslim and non-Muslim nonconformists, Wahhabis have failed to suppress the peninsula’s many cultures and sects, despite a century of rule. Zaidis, in their wan-colored adobe houses beneath the shadow of Yemen’s mountains, and the Nakhawila, Medina’s indigenous Shias, continue to visit the graveyards where the shrines of the Prophet’s family once stood. On Thursday nights, their Sufi neighbors recite their zikr, or mystical incantations—deemed profanities by the Wahhabis—to the beat of the daf, or traditional drum. In Medina, erudite advocates of conservation, drawn primarily from the shurafa, the pre-Wahhabi nobility of Hijaz, successfully lobbied the authorities not to let the Wahhabis demolish the Prophet Muhammad’s house as part of their expansion.

Some even detect a growing acceptance of other religions and a reexamination of the Wahhabi doctrine—cited by a senior royal—that non-Muslim worship should not be allowed in the entire peninsula. (“If Saudi Arabia had lands in Africa, we would undoubtedly have opened a church there,” he said.) The kingdom includes perhaps the largest and fastest-growing Christian community in the Middle East. Despite the formal ban on non-Muslims in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, non-Muslim domestic servants and drivers live and work in the shadow of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Though Christians are forbidden from worshiping publicly, congregations at weekly prayer meetings on foreign compounds can be several hundred strong. “A generation ago we pretended Christmas didn’t exist,” says a Saudi businessman who has two live-in Christian servants from the Philippines. “Now we give them Christmas presents, and host Winter Festival receptions for our Christian employees.”

Students at Effat Women’s University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2009; photograph by Olivia Arthur from her 2012 book, Jeddah Diary
Magnum Photos
Students at Effat Women’s University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2009; photograph by Olivia Arthur from her 2012 book, Jeddah Diary

At one of Riyadh’s universities, a minor Saudi prince who studied Hebrew in Boston teaches Jewish studies. And with their non-Arabic signs and street food, whole stretches of southern Riyadh feel more Bengali, Keralite, and Afghan than similar parts of London. That Saudi Arabia tries to conceal such diversity from the outside world underscores its deference to its clerical establishment, but for a journalist raised on books like those listed here the kingdom’s tentative foray into multiculturalism can be jarring.

One morning I went to Riyadh’s modernist off-white Criminal Court. I had been told that anyone hoping for a fair hearing should grow an unkempt beard, showing piety. In Courtroom 39, a clean-shaven taxi driver and father of six from the poor southeastern part of the capital was pleading for mercy from a young, bearded judge in white Wahhabi garb who was sentencing him to eighty lashes for drinking whisky. “But the police said that you would let me off with a warning if I confessed,” the taxi driver protested. “No man can tamper with the punishment God has prescribed [in the Koran],” the judge said, in a tone that suggested he wished he could. Glancing at the conspicuous foreigner in his courtroom, he placed a Koran under his armpit and reenacted a mercifully limp-wristed whipping. “The police can only use their lower arm,” he said, interrupting proceedings to tell me that patriarchal tradition, not the Koran, was to blame for excesses and that he favored letting women drive.

In his dilapidated house on the eastern outskirts of Riyadh, I talked with Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, now an active protester but formerly a well-paid bureaucrat whose needs were all met by the state. As a clerk in the Education Ministry, he told me he had distributed cassettes of Bin Baz, the chief mufti who preached that the world was flat. But a trip to Afghanistan and the predominance of Saudis involved in the suicide attacks of September 11, 2001, he says, induced a change of heart. Dar al-Razi, a publishing house in Amman, Jordan, published his book, Preacher Not Prophet, a refutation of the “corrupting” tenets of Wahhabism’s founder, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He was dismissed from the ministry and sent, twice, to prison. Unrepentant, he emerged to denounce the kingdom’s application of God’s law that he told me “was hard on the people and soft on the rulers.”

The elite, al-Maliki argued, bypassed sharia in their beach clubs and mansions equipped with cinemas and bars, but the poor had no such retreats. “The clerics serve the regime by banning protests and freedom of expression, and exonerating all its corrupt acts,” he said as we had tea. The Prophet himself, he said, lived peacefully among kuffar, or nonbelievers, in Mecca. Why couldn’t their self-proclaimed successors?

Al-Maliki is unusual in his determination to withstand the regime’s pressures and temptations, but he is not alone. When I visited the small town of Awamiya, near Dammam, the Eastern Province capital and large oil center, I found that it had been taken over by Shia insurgents. Activists had used a bulldozer to dig up and block the one-lane road leading into the town. Snipers were said to lurk in the date palms, waiting for security vehicles. Locals celebrated their intifada, which, they said, had chased out Saudi forces and fortified the town against their return. The nearest checkpoint when I visited was unmanned, and Saudi policemen inspected papers several kilometers away, standing behind large cement barricades. People in the town proudly told me that they had rejected government offers of help in guarding against ISIS militants, who over the past year had blown up seven Shia mosques in the kingdom. Instead, on Fridays, local volunteers patrolled mosques in the town and neighboring villages, guarding against outside attack.

The execution in January of this year of the Shia preacher Nimr al-Nimr, Awamiya’s leading cleric, had revived the protest movement that Shias in the Eastern Province had launched in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. “After the killing of Nimr, we see ISIS and the security forces as one and the same,” one of his relatives told me. Graffiti pronouncing “Death to the al-Sauds” could be seen throughout the town, including on the cemetery walls, and inside them female relatives tended to the shrines of eighteen local men whom, they said, Saudi forces had shot dead while suppressing unrest. Lampposts were draped in mournful black ribbon, and Nimr’s image hung over the town on posters, billboards, and stencils imprinted on walls. Two armored cars were parked in front of the sole police garrison, their gun turrets pointing into town. The approach road was strewn with barbed wire, rocks, and burned tires. Not a Saudi policeman was to be seen.

Nimr’s brother, Mohammed, guided me around the town, introducing local grocers, peddlers hawking banned Shia liturgies, and women grieving for sons and brothers buried in the cemetery. Almost everyone I spoke to had a close relative in one of the regime’s jails. Mohammed’s son, Ali, had been detained, aged seventeen, for participating in protests and was now on death row. The family had a history of protest dating back four generations, Mohammed explained, after Saudi Arabia conquered the Eastern Province in 1913. A century later, Nimr al-Nimr had revived his grandfather’s cry of resistance, appealing to young Shias to rise against systemic state discrimination.

Though Shias make up over 10 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, their Saudi rulers had yet to appoint a single Shia minister after a century of rule. Shia community leaders across the Eastern Province told me that the authorities had staffed Shia schools with Wahhabi teachers who taught that Shias were apostates, and they pocketed the oil revenues while leaving Awamiya and Shia villages near the oil wells sunk in poverty. For over a decade, Nimr al-Nimr had championed the cause of equality. If the Saudis opposed it, he warned, Shias might opt for separation. In the heady days of 2011, he roused Shias onto the street. Alone in Saudi Arabia, the Shias of the Eastern Province joined the Arab Spring protests. Five years later, Nimr was beheaded. Outraged by his execution, the town of Awamiya simmered with anticipation of self-rule.

And yet Nimr’s brother, Mohammed, is no revolutionary. He runs a plumbing business selling toilets, drives a Lexus SUV, and relaxes on weekends in his palm groves on the outskirts of town. In better times, he participated in officially sanctioned interfaith meetings with Wahhabi clerics. Even after his brother was executed and his son sentenced to death, Mohammed insists that the rift with the al-Sauds is redeemable. “We tell the government to deal with Sunnis and Shias politically, but they only respond with security.” He told me that if Mohammed bin Salman had only diverted a fraction of the billions spent fighting Shias in Yemen and Syria and maintaining the standoff with Iran to development in Shia towns in the kingdom and around its borders, Shias across the region, including in Awamiya, would be kissing his hands.

Popular sentiment mattered less when Saudi Arabia could distribute payments from its oil revenues with abandon to relieve its citizens’ frustrations. But in an age of low oil prices and bloated budget deficits, the Saudis might have to broaden their popular base if they are to persuade their people to foot the bill. As long as Saudis pay no income tax, they have no right to representation, Mohammed bin Salman insists. But if he is to realize what he says are his two policy objectives—transforming the kingdom from a single-resource state into a productive economy and securing regional support to stymie Iran’s advance west—MbS will need to reach out beyond the Wahhabi core of the hinterland to the country’s many diverse sects on its productive edges.

Few Shias, Sufis, or secular Saudis want the kingdom to collapse, least of all to ISIS zealots. MbS’s vision of a new social contract suggests that he understands the benefits of a more inclusive society, even if he stops short of fully engaging his kingdom’s multiple parts. There is still a chance that future books about the kingdom might not be so dark, but MbS will need more than words if he is to convince his heterogeneous population that the Saudis are rulers for all their people, not just themselves and the Wahhabis.

—September 14, 2016