Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative nations on earth, is witnessing some disconcerting new changes. Its new king, Abdullah, a pious and puritan individual, is turning out to be its first genuine reformer.
September 23, he unexpectedly presented his subjects with an annual independence day, a strange innovation for a kingdom founded by a tribal leader who crowned himself monarch in 1932 with the support of the austerely religious Wahhabist Brotherhood.
The date, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi specialists, has no significance in the Saudi kingdom’s brief history. Fireworks and other Western signs of gay celebration were shunned, but flags fluttered over the streets of the cities, festive parades were held in military camps, and the king threw his palace open for a grand reception attended by senior royals, tribal leaders, high military and security brass and the who’s who of Riyadh.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi sources note that the ulema, the high Wahhabi clergy, were conspicuously absent from the festivities in Riyadh and the district governates.
Mention of the new-fangled independence day was missing from sermons at last Friday’s prayers in the mosques across the kingdom.
Those sermons usually reflect the official palace and mosque line on current affairs.
By their thunderous omission, the clergy challenged the royal decree to celebrate a national feast day without any religious connotation. It was treated implicitly as bidaa, meaning an innovation that deviated from canon law.
In the 1960s, King Faisal tried to establish an annual independence day, but was forced by ulema disapproval to back down. Abdullah appears to have got away with it.
His success is a mark of the momentum at which of the once all-powerful clergy has been losing its influence in the last decade, and of the Saudi monarchy’s emergence from forty years of domestic stagnation dictated by the doctrinaire clergy.
Reforms inched forward until Abdullah’s coronation
The ulema are still the dominant authority for education, law and social mores, but since the 1980s their influence is on the wane.
The Sept 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, in which 15 Saudi religious zealots took part, were a crippling blow to its prestige. Since then, the clergy whose word was once law, have been forced to defend themselves against the charge of helping to foster the jehadists.
But no one dared take the clerical bull by the horns as long as King Fahd was alive, even after the reins of government passed de facto to crown prince Abdullah in 1996.
Fahd’s own prodigal lifestyle and alleged corruption rendered him morally unfit to face down the religious establishment. Rather than expose himself to recriminations, he left the clerics to their own devices and their monopolist control of traditional spheres untouched.
Abdullah’s personal morals, unlike Fahd, are above reproach. His religious credentials are impeccable and he is a longtime familiar of the ulema. He is therefore far less vulnerable to clerical condemnation.
Nevertheless, he was careful. The program of reforms he instituted during his years as king-in-waiting until Fahd’s death this year was never made public. It inched forward cautiously rather than provocatively, but it sliced effectively into the monopolistic powers held by the religious authorities in the fields of education, lawmaking, the judiciary, women’s rights, foreign labor, and the imposition of religious mores on society as a whole.
From 1996, Crown Prince Abdullah marginally amended the school curricula by expanding science and English studies at the expense of religious subjects. These changes looked minimal but were cataclysmic in terms of an education system that for decades had generated more theology than science and arts graduates from its universities.
The ulema utterly precluded lawmaking on the grounds that Sharia (Islamic Law) satisfies every possible need. This ban also left the clerics as the sole arbiters of the law and legislation. The royal government was only permitted to pass regulations and issue decrees subject to the Islamic codex. That situation became untenable when Saudi Arabia began integrating in the global economy fives years ago.
The Consultative Council – a king-appointed “parliament”
The closest the monarchy has ever come to a parliament is the Consultative Council, the Majlis al-Shura, whose members are appointed by the king. In 2003, when the need for modern laws became pressing, Abdullah empowered the Consultative Council for the first time to propose legislation for ratification by the royal government.
It then became possible to dodge round the ulema’s demand to weed through every word of each new draft and excise any hint of Western influence. This reform stripped the clerics of their unchallenged power over Saudi laws and lawmaking.
In 2005, Saudi Arabia had its first local council elections. Not all the councilors were elected and women did not have the vote, but it was a start.
Since his coronation in August, Abdullah’s reforms picked up speed in the spheres most crying out for change.
This week, Abdullah’s government approved a new labor law to replace the old 1968 statute which had been thoroughly censored by the clerics for any deviations from Islamic law. The new measure, regulating workers’ rights and employers’ responsibilities, was drafted by the Consultative Council and quickly approved before the clerics could step in. Just as well, because it affects hotly contested issues in the kingdom, like working women’s rights, the obligation to employ Saudi citizens rather than foreigners, compulsory retirement (aged 60 for men and 55 for women) at a relatively early age, to free up jobs for the unemployed.
Maybe now women will get to drive cars
Needless to say, none of these issues was addressed in the old statute.
Abdullah has deprived the ulema of its definitive say on the status of women in society by action to expand their permitted spheres of employment beyond teaching in girls’ schools, pediatric medicine and care giving, the only fields allowed until today.
Suddenly, in the last year, women landed jobs as heads of hospital departments, staff members of the foreign ministry and even piloted a plane. The king is still working on an amendment that would allow women to drive cars.
A Consultative Council member spoke out this week about this taboo and attributed it to a small group of conservative clerics. The social climate in today’s Saudi Arabia is changing fast. It favors expanded rights and freedoms for women.
The new king is responding with actions that are beginning to release society from the chains imposed by a narrow-minded hidebound theocracy. But he remains cautious, anxious to avoid any open confrontation with the religious establishment. In any case, Abdullah’s own vision is not that of a Western-style separation of religion and state. He will be satisfied with cutting down and placing limits on the religious establishment’s influence and powers.
So far, he has done quite well. How much further he means to take his reforms is moot, especially given the fact that he is in his 80s and, though in good health, cannot be too far from the end of his reign.
Saudi society, on the other hand, has accepted the ways in which the clergy’s powers have been reduced in recent years. But Saudis are innately religious and conservative and after Abdullah’s passing, are quite capable of turning the clock back.