‘Las Vegas without the bars’

Those of you who read Dutch can find my article on Saudi Arabia here, on the website of the Dutch newspaper ‘Reformatorisch Dagblad’. I was on a research mission in Saudi Arabia in November and December of last year and interviewed a number of ‘liberal’ activists, journalists and academics who were mostly very enthusiastic about King Abdullah, his ‘liberal’ attitude (and advisers), his willingness to challenge the rule of the mashayikh (religious authorities) and (possibly, in the long run) to get rid of some of the more restrictive legislation. They contend that the ‘dark ages’ of the 80s and 90s are over. The title I proposed for the article (but which the editor of the newspaper changed) was ‘Osama bin Laden deserves a statue’, a quote from a member of the Royal Human Rights Commission installed by Abdullah, who states (along with others I interviewed) that 9/11 and especially the attacks of ‘al Qaeda in the Peninsula’ in Saudi Arabia itself in 2003 were the pivotal point that made the government and large parts of the population realize there was something not entirely sound about the religious fanaticism that was/is determining much of the country’s internal laws and politics. For me, it was the first time in the country, so I can’t compare it with the way it was before, but ‘liberal’ it is only in the economic sense and ‘liberated’ its people are definitely not. It’s true that there is a rather amazing freedom of speech in the press (relatively speaking and within certain clear limits of course), there have been partial elections at the municipal level, and the National Dialogue sessions are kind of revolutionary in that they forced the religious establishment to defend itself against its critics for the first time, and live on national TV for that matter. But the mutaween (religious police) still rule the streets, there is no public social life worth speaking of and everything remotely suspected to be fun is still mamnu3 (forbidden). Everybody still gets thoroughly brainwashed at school and knowledge about the world outside the kingdom, even the rest of the world, is very limited among the general population. Even at university level, such dangerous and insubordinate subjects as logic and philosophy are forbidden in an education system which remains firmly in the hands of the religious establishment, as does the justice system. While I was there speaking to the cautiously optimistic intellectuals (‘in 10 years’ time, all these silly laws segregating the sexes etcetera will be repealed’), a judge convicted a gangraped woman to prison time and whiplashes because she had been in the company of an unrelated man when the incident happened. When her lawyer brought the case out to the press, his licence was revoked and the woman’s punishment was doubled. She has since been pardoned by the king (after the case attracted international publicity) but that doesn’t change either the legislation or the mentality allowing such preposterous incidents to happen. Only weeks after Saudijeans blogger Ahmed al-Umran told me that ‘journalists and bloggers may get harassed by fundamentalists and the police and even lose their jobs, but at least they are not jailed’, Fouad al-Farhan was arrested (he’s still in jail). Some time after I left, a business woman from Jeddah was arrested because she was caught meeting with a male Syrian business partner in a Starbucks in Riyadh. Incidentally, I went there to study a ‘liberal opposition movement’, but what I found was a number of barely organized individuals (any form of political organization is strictly punished and even social gatherings of more than a dozen people need official permission) who were mostly in the pay of the government (directly through universities or research institutes, or indirectly in the press, where their job security depends entirely on government approval) and not all of them were even remarkably ‘liberal’. After all, how ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ do you have to be to hold the opinion that women should be allowed to drive cars and uncover their faces in public…?

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