Will Saudi Arabia Ever Change?

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James Hill/Contact Press Images
Portraits of King Abdullah when he was crown prince (left) and the late Prince Sultan (center), who was heir apparent when he died last year, on the outskirts of Riyadh, September 2003

It’s a funny place, Jeddah. Nobody knows the half of what goes on.
—Hilary Mantel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street

1.

On September 25, 2011, the aging ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, gave a remarkable speech to the Majlis al-Shura, the formal advisory body to the Saudi monarchy in Riyadh. Beginning in 2013, the king said, women would be allowed to serve on the 150- member body; and beginning in 2015, they would also be permitted to vote and run for office in municipal council elections.

To most outside observers, these moves were hardly worth noting. In 2011, popular revolts were toppling autocratic regimes across the Middle East; even fellow monarchies like Morocco and Jordan were amending or changing their constitutions to show they would be more accountable to the people. By contrast, the Saudi king’s speech conceded no new authority to the Majlis al-Shura, an unelected body with limited powers of consultation only, and Saudis have shown little interest in the largely symbolic local councils, only half of whose members are elected. Moreover, Abdullah’s innovations, such as they were, would only happen in the future: the 2011 municipal elections, which took place a few days after the speech, were, as in the past, open to men only.

Yet in a country whose only written charter asserts the Koran as its basic law and in which women have few legal rights, let alone the right to vote, the announcement struck many as revolutionary. Liberal Saudis and women activists called the decision “historic,” citing it as further proof that their nearly ninety-year-old monarch was a “reformer.” For their part, members of the government rushed to reassure the country’s powerful ulama—the religious leadership, which adheres to the puritanical branch of Hanbali Islam known in the West as Wahhabism—that the new women members of the Shura would not mix with the men. The king himself, in making the announcement, carefully noted that “since the time of the Prophet, the Muslim woman has had valid opinions and [sound] advice that should not be regarded as marginal.” Even so, prominent Saudi clerics suggested that the decree did not have religious backing, and two days later, as if to assert their continuing writ, a court in Jeddah sentenced a woman to ten lashes for driving a car.

Thus the king’s revolutionary speech was also a deft maneuver to preserve the status quo. On the one hand, the monarch was appeasing one of the country’s most aggrieved constituencies—educated Saudi women—and openly acknowledging that the country’s political institutions must evolve. On the other hand, he left the Saudi system hardly more democratic than before, and by raising…


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