Money exchange, woman with male guardian
© Ikhlasul Amal on Flickr, under Creative Commons
Money exchange, woman with male guardian
Last updated: February 16, 2015

Back to the future in Saudi Arabia

Banner Icon Writer Victor Argo speaks to a Saudi friend and gets the idea of letting rural women rule the Kingdom. Here's why.

Liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to ten years in jail and 1000 lashes, to be received in portions of 50 lashes each Friday. A woman of Burmese descent, Leila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim, was dragged down a street in Mecca and beheaded with three strikes of the sword. She was convicted of murder of her seven-year-old step daughter. 

What is going on in Saudi Arabia? Why this public display of harsh punishments and a cruelty only matched by ISIS? How do Saudi citizens assess the state of their society – particularly in times of change at the top of the Saudi monarchy? I called my friend Ma'an in Riyadh to have his insights.

Ma'an is married with children and holds a management position within the country’s large energy sector. “You have to understand”, he told me, “that Saudi Arabia is currently running the biggest change management program in the world. We are still a young nation and we are reforming. But, as everyone knows who works in management, changing mindsets takes a long time.”

“This is certainly true”, I replied, remembering my own share of experience in change management. “But still”, I insisted, “why is there no mercy in pious Saudi Arabia for people like Raif Badawi and Leila Basim when Allah is the Merciful?”

"Saudi Arabia is currently running the biggest change management program in the world"

“We need to separate the two cases”, my friend explained. “The woman from Mecca was a blood feud case. The father of the dead child, Leila Basim's husband, could have saved her, but he didn't. In the end, it was not the government's decision to have her executed. Actually, the government tries very often to talk to the victims' families and ask them for forgiveness. But they don't always succeed.”

“In Raif's case”, Ma'an went on (and I was astounded to hear my friend mentioning Raif Badawi by his first name only, which made it sound almost intimate), “even his own father filed a complaint against him. And the Saudi government was flooded with letters from concerned citizens asking them to do something about Raif because he had crossed a red line.”

“What red line?”

“In the eyes of these citizens, Raif had insulted Islam, Saudi Arabia and the people of Saudi Arabia all together. After all, they argued, Saudi Arabia had a particular liability towards Islam, as custodian of the holy mosques.”

When I read the writings of Raif Badawi, I was surprised how bold his statements were. Raif aimed his pen at almost everybody. Who should come to his rescue now?

“I’m not in support of the Israeli occupation of any Arab country”, Badawi wrote, “but at the same time I do not want to replace Israel by a religious state whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernization and hope. States based on religious ideology have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life.”

“How could Raif Badawi write such things and think that he could get away with it?” I asked Ma'an. His answer was intriguingly logic. “Look”, he said, “Raif daring to make these statements is precisely a proof that there were reforms in Saudi Arabia in the last ten years. The developments have gone further than in the seventy years before. And this made Raif comfortable to publish his ideas.”

“However,” my friend continued, “Raif Badawi pushed the envelope too fast too far. As much as I regret what is happening to him now: Saudi Arabia was not ready for his radical agenda.”

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INDEED, it is not just the Saudi government or the clergy that are conservatives, it's the Saudi society as a whole. This was exactly the point that Haifaa al-Mansour made in a TV interview while visiting the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. Haifaa al-Mansour of course is the first female film director from Saudi Arabia, internationally praised for her film Wadjda. The Saudi society is very religious, she said, and secularism is undesired.

“And that's the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the people.”

But why, the interviewer wondered, do Saudi people like to be showered with Western culture but don't want to become Western-like themselves?

“You see”, the film director responded, “we are very proud of what we are. We love the desert and the camels; this is our culture and we want to keep it this way. It's not about adapting Western ideologies, it's about building in the global topic of tolerance and mutual respect. That's not a Western value only. We must see it as our own value.”

Haifaa al-Mansour's sentiments were much shared by Ma'an. We need to transform, he told me, but we don’t want to lose our identity.

“If you take the religion out”, he said, “the culture of Saudi Arabia is the culture of the bedouins. It's a tribal culture. It's all about honor and generosity. It means being humble and keeping your word.”

I understood. While analysts often focus on easily accessible people in urban areas, polling them and gauging their Internet preferences, it is in rural areas, in the mountains and the deserts, where the true culture of a people lies. 250,000 activists on Cairo's Tahrir Square were not enough to decisively alter the course of 80 million Egyptians mostly living along the river Nile outside the capital.

And then: Saudi Arabia's culture is not that far away from places we naturally label as 'Western'. “I keep telling my friends overseas”, Ma'an quipped laughingly, “that Saudi Arabia is the Texas of the Middle East. We both are religious conservatives, we like big cars and guns, and we hold our families and our privacy dear.”

“And you both equate the capital punishment with 'doing justice'!” I quickly added.

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No conversation with a Saudi citizen can be complete these days without talking about women and their rights in Saudi Arabian society. I was well aware that the control of women was the basis of every tribal society: let your women go off (and therefore, ultimately, procreate) with anyone they choose, and that is the end of male tribal authority – and of the tribe itself.

“Let me tell you a story”, Ma’an said. “When I got married, my father gave me one advice only. Listen, he said, women like your mother are gone. Women now want a different role for themselves. You need to treat them as equal and not as a servant.”

“In today's Saudi Arabia”, Ma'an proceeded, “only a minority still sees women as second class persons and as mere sexual objects.”

Education used to be difficult for women in Saudi Arabia at the time of Ma'an's mother as sometimes there were just no schools for girls. In the 1970s people were protesting against a decree by King Faisal that allowed girls to go to school.

"We are very proud of what we are"

HOWEVER those days are over. Ma'an's wife works in a mixed environment, with men and women in the same office. She doesn't even cover her face. Ten years ago this would have been a taboo and in no way possible.

“We need more women in the workforce”, Ma'an said. “We need more women like Sarah al-Suhaimi.” Last year, al-Suhaimi became the CEO of the National Commercial Bank, Saudi Arabia's biggest commercial bank. Her appointment was a big deal in Saudi Arabia; it was unfortunately underreported in Western media.

“And when will women in Saudi Arabia finally be allowed to drive a car?” I asked Ma'an. “Hopefully soon”, he answered, “since I am tired of driving my wife to work and my children to school every day before I can go to the office.”

Quite possibly economical reasons will do more for women to drive than 'lone wolf operations' uploaded to YouTube. Saudi businessmen understood the value of having women in the workforce first. They often are better performers and they don't have the excuse of 'driving responsibilities' for missing working hours, such as men have.          

“For me”, Ma'an started to finish our conversation, “women driving cars or participating in sports are not the most pressing issues. I give higher priorities to education, job equality and salary equality. Because only education and an active participation of women in all aspects of societal life will get us to a reformed society. We cannot import a solution from Europe, the U.S. or from China.”

“And anyway”, my friend concluded, “out in the desert, woman already drive and always have. These are no-joke women, driving pickup trucks and carrying AK 47s.”

Let the desert culture rule, I thought, when I hung up the phone. Let these women take over the country! Maybe in order to reform, Saudi Arabia shouldn't look ‘forward’, to Europe, or to the United States, but rather ‘backwards’, and find the true essence of where it came from again. Or, as Antoine Saint-Exupéry has said: “what makes a desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”

Victor  Argo
Victor Argo, which is a pseudonym, regularly writes for Your Middle East. He is personally connected to Lebanon.
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