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Prospects for Change in Saudi Arabia

Observations from empirical sociological data and informal conversations with Saudi citizens*

by Mansoor Moaddel, Eastern Michigan University

This past summer I was a member of a U.S. delegation to Saudi Arabia for a weeklong goodwill visit, and I recount here some informal impressions from the “streets” of Saudi Arabia and from my perspective as an academic sociologist doing attitudinal survey research in the Middle East. The other delegates were Farrakh Ameri, Chairman of World Affairs Council of Orange County (California); Joseph Genslak, a freelance writer; the Honorable Abdul H. Haidus, Mayor of Wayne (Michigan); Dan Fette, Director of Berrien County (Michigan) Economic Development; Frank Burd, President of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs; John Browne, board member of the World Affairs Council of Florida and former member of Parliament (United Kingdom); David Dumke, Principal of the MidAmr Group.

During this trip, we met influential individuals connected to the government (including Prince Abdul Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz) and the business community (including leadership at the Chamber of Commerce in Jeddah), political activists, women activists, newspaper reporters, members of academia, and a few members of the public at large. Without exception, these citizens and officials were friendly, expressing pleasure that we were visiting their country, and wishing the current Middle East difficulties to be overcome soon and the ties of friendship between the two nations to grow stronger. At the same time, they were not shy about their complaints against U.S. policies. For example, many stated that visas to the United States have become very difficult to obtain, Saudis are portrayed negatively in the U.S. media, and some influential groups and individuals in the United States have displayed overly hostile attitudes toward the Saudis and Muslims, in general.

One of our hosts sent me the following message:

Your openness and sincerity reassured us that the Americans are still those fellows that we knew, simply good, loving and sincere humans…. I hope that you all will pass our feelings and thoughts to your fellow Americans … and explain to all of them that we are not all terrorists as you are not all the evil guys at “Abu Ghraib” and what we ask for is justice which is a moral obligation of the US being the super power of this era.

And another sent this one:

I believe that . . . through open and transparent dialogue we are able to properly communicate and foster better understanding . . . . We must learn to build on our common values and respect our differences, which are what make us interesting as a global race.

Imminent Cultural Transition

Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a major cultural transition, but it is very difficult to predict its course, speed, and outcome. What seems clear is that the Saudi public prefers less, rather than more, religious intervention in their lives. According to data from our National Science Foundation-funded comparative values surveys of the past several years, compared to the citizens of many other Middle Eastern countries, Saudis appear to be less religious overall (see January 2003 Footnotes, p. 1; and April 2003 Footnotes, p. 1).

Saudis’ attitudes toward democracy and arranged marriage also indicate a moderating undercurrent. For example, a higher percentage of Saudi citizens than those of other Arab countries in our surveys believed that marriage is an outdated institution, and about half believed that marriage should be based on love rather than parental approval. Also, 62 percent of Saudis described themselves as religious, compared with 82 percent of Iranians, 85 percent of Jordanians, 98 percent of Egyptians, and 81 percent of Americans. Saudi participation in religious services—compared to that of citizens in other Middle Eastern countries in our NSF research—further reinforce this conclusion. Only 28 percent of Saudi citizens indicated that they participate in weekly religious services (see graph below right). The comparable percentage is 27 for Iranians, 44 for Jordanians, 42 for Egyptians, and 45 for Americans. It makes sense to think that when state religious authorities enforce strict codes of behavior, people would tend to rebel, and move away from officially sanctioned religious institutions. Little wonder, then, Egyptians and Jordanians, who live in countries where the state does not enforce piety, are more religious than Iranians or Saudis, who are both faced with local “virtue” police that are associated with the state.

“Virtue Police”

The Saudi youth, in particular, demand entertainment and freedom from harassment by the religious police. If in the past they were discussing soccer in their majalis (gatherings), today they all have become political analysts!

Generally, the current government is sandwiched between the liberals, who demand change and pluralism, and the conservatives who wanted to protect the old order. The stronghold of the liberals, we are told, is Jeddah (and the western region of the country), and of the conservatives, Riyadh (and the central region). Qasim is the most active center for the religious extremism. According to the values survey, however, the difference between the western and central regions is not so clear-cut, and in some crucial respects the central region appears to be less conservative than the western region. Conflict is more pronounced not where people are more or less uniformly conservative or liberal, but where conservative groups, in the case of Saudi Arabia, find themselves being increasingly surrounded by liberal groups and people with alternative lifestyles, which may be the case in Riyadh.

Contested Issues

Cultural transition involves conflicts, debates, discussions, and negotiation over significant issues. Reflecting this process is the recent publication of two new dailies and three women’s magazines in the country. Recently, religion has become one of the most important contested categories. Who has control over religion, how religious texts should be interpreted, and what type of rituals and figurative behaviors are considered Islamic are the issues being discussed and debated in Saudi society. While young people, women, and intellectuals all profess to be Muslims, they demand a more inclusive, a more pluralistic and tolerant religion.

The status of women is another contested issue (see graph below). Almost on a daily basis, major periodicals publish articles that criticize the social conditions of women in Saudi society. On the censure of polygamy, one recent article, titled “Polygamist Husbands Accused of Unfairness,” claimed that “[S]cholars of Islam agree that polygamy is not a rule as some men claim. It is an exception to the normal case” (The Saudi Gazette, 6/5/04, pp. 2-3). In a letter to the editor, a woman described in graphic detail the abuses she had endured from her husband. “He not only forbade me to have a job, but was also keen on blasting me, calling me names and humiliating me in the presence of guests or even total strangers or, even worse, in front of our children and their wives” (The Saudi Gazette, 6/6/04, p. 8). A third article, titled “Islam Shuns Wife-Beating” (The Saudi Gazette, 6/7/04, p. 19), addressed another aspect of women’s status. Finally, female commentator Suraya al-Shebry subtly criticizes the conservative religious establishment, arguing, “Islamic doctrine rests on the belief of the individual. That belief comes through wisdom, exhortation, discussion, proof and evidence. These don’t grow in an environment that doesn’t encourage freedom of thought …. The Qur’an enhanced the role of the intellect and raised the principle of will above arbitrariness” (Arab News, 6/4/04, p. 3).

Two Major Trends

In the spectrum of views and political movements, two poles are discernible. One includes the extremists and the militants. The other group consists of the pragmatists and Muslim modernists. With regard to extremists, of the 60,000 mosques serving the nation, according to a public authority, at most ten percent, or 6,000 mosques, have been under the control of the militants. There are thousands of Saudi Afghan fighters who have returned home. These people do not have the power to overthrow the regime but are powerful enough to create chaos and disorder. One cannot exaggerate the extent of their brutality. If the kidnappings and killings of foreigners continue, they may cause the collapse of Saudi economic infrastructure. Some observers even believe that the entire country is going to “break down” within six months (which is about now). Although this assessment may be exaggerated, there are a lot of nervous people inside the kingdom and among outside observers.

It took the Egyptian government about five years to learn how to fight its militants effectively. The situation in Saudi Arabia is certainly different. Some Saudis believe that people within the royal family are supporting the militants. There are several thousand princes, and, in all likelihood, some are extremists themselves. For example, it is argued that the incident in Waha (the shopping mall in Al-khobar), where several hostages were taken and foreigners were executed, would have been impossible without the assistance of the security guards. When the security forces stormed the building from the rooftop, the terrorists had already been tipped off and were long gone. The killing of BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers and critical wounding of the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner—who were attacked while filming the house of Ibrhaim al-Rayyes, a wanted terrorist gunned down in a shootout with security forces last year in the capital—were planned in advanced. There are lots of mysteries surrounding the incident like the camera was rolling while the killing was going on! Then again, there are lots of rumors and it is hard to separate fact from fiction.

The pragmatists and Muslim modernists, on the other hand, attribute the source of current problems to the domination of the sociopolitical environment by the narrow-minded conservatives and their terrorist offshoots. They point out that the group who destroyed the invaluable archeological sites and the Islamic cultural heritage in Mecca and Medina and those who committed the horrific terrorist act on September 11, 2001, belonged to the same school of thought. They maintain that the restrictions on women’s social function, gender segregation, and mandated style of dress for women do not have anything to do with religious tenents. They argue that women need no proxies to do business. They demand the freedom to drive, to engage in business activities, and participate in social functions.

One prominent pragamatic spokesperson indicated that Islamic civilization has “always been inclusive, not exclusive, and wherever it went, a new civilization evolves that accommodates the diversity of the local civilization and… Islam.” All of these points are a subtle reference to the narrow-minded view and exclusiveness of Wahhabism. During our visit, we learned that some Saudis had criticized the United States for failing to listen to their admonitions about Wahhabis. They indicated that more than 20 years ago they warned the U.S. government of the danger that religious extremists posed to the world. They were referring to the incident in which a group of Ikhwan (brothers) Muslim extremists took over the Mecca mosque. Current Wahhabi terrorists, they said, are the scions and followers of this brutal group.


Insofar as the Saudi public is concerned, the majority supports democracy. This support in fact corresponds with a number of other liberal-minded attitudes that our research uncovered in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi supporters of democracy are people who tend to be less religious, more secular, more tolerant of others, more in favor of privatization, more critical of public-sector performance, and more concerned with Western cultural invasion.

Beyond the survey data, history has shown that liberal ideas become more popular when people are governed by a despotic monarch that is allied with a religious establishment. A strong current of liberalism appeared in the late 19th century in Ottoman Syria in response to the religious despotism of Sultan Abdülhamid. At the same time, an anti-clerical secularism and constitutionalism appeared in Iran as a reaction to the absolutist alliance between the Shah and the religious establishment. Considering the similarities between these historical examples and the current state of affairs in Saudi Arabia, perhaps we ought to be expecting Saudis to demand more transparent politics and a less interventionist religion.

How long the Saudi power elite is willing to crack down on the Wahhabis, how far they are willing to tolerate the liberals and promote sociopolitical reforms, and how much the U.S. government is willing or able to exert pressures on one of its most loyal allies in the 20th century, only the future can tell. What is clear is that we cannot afford alienating the Saudis, not for their oil but because they are forever the custodians of two of the most revered sites in Islam.

* Editor’s Note: Moaddel has been conducting National Science Foundation-funded attitudinal survey research in the Middle East since before September 11, 2001 (see January 2003 and April 2003 Footnotes). He is the author of Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).