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Why Saudi Arabia Is on the Defensive

Open Society Fellow Madawi al-Rasheed teaches social anthropology at the London School of Economics and is the author of A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia, and two other books. She spoke to us about recent developments in her native country and the surrounding region.

King Salman took power in Saudi Arabia on January 23. What is your impression of his attitude toward human rights and reform?

King Salman, who served as governor of Riyadh for over four decades, is actually a very conservative man. But he built a media empire while he was governor, and now presents himself as the supporter of intellectuals. He tries to pass himself off as the enlightened prince.

While it’s true that he has never been particularly close to the religious establishment, this is simply because they fall under the control of the Interior Ministry, which was controlled by his brother. Once Salman became king and ensured that his own sons were safely placed in positions of power, he chose a very conservative cleric, Saad al-Shethri, to be his personal advisor.

What to make of this? I think the king wants to hedge his bets, to appease the religious groups, while continuing to be seen as a patron of the so-called liberal sector in Saudi Arabia.

How do you think the king will handle the case of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for criticism of the clerics? Will he uphold the sentence?

Well, the new king has not pardoned him. The weekly lashes have been suspended, but we don’t know what will happen next. Obviously the punishment given to him is terribly excessive, since he has done nothing wrong. All he’s done is make some criticisms of the clerics. He should be freed at once.

But it really is unfair to focus on his case alone, when Saudi jails are filled with prisoners of conscience. I’ve worked on hundreds of cases—those of lawyers, professors, young activists, and others—whose only crimes were to have spoken with the foreign media, or read banned literature (including my books), thereby “tarnishing” the reputation of the kingdom in the international community.

The list goes on and on. Criminalizing these activities is in direct violation of international human rights treaties, including those to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.

You’ve written that the kingdom today finds itself “encircled” by hostile neighbors. How did that happen?

The encirclement of Saudi Arabia by hostile forces is the result of the failure of its foreign policy in the four years since the Arab uprisings started. Because it felt threatened by the Arab masses who were demanding democratic change, the kingdom took it upon itself to act as a counter-revolutionary force. It used its surplus oil wealth to ensure that the Arab world returned to the status quo.

After the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt [in June 2012], Saudi Arabia poured over $20 billion into Egypt to ensure the revolution was thwarted. They helped install what is, in effect, a military dictatorship, which has alienated a large percentage of the population.

In Bahrain, they used both diplomacy and ground forces to defeat the uprising there, in order to prevent the emergence of a constitutional monarchy. In both cases, though the states may not be hostile [to Saudi Arabia], many of the people are.

The Arab uprisings did not generally start out as sectarian conflicts. And yet they have become largely about the Sunni-Shia rift, or the divide between secular military forces and religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. How did Saudi Arabia help catalyze this shift?

People marched to the squares four years ago for reasons that were primarily economic—high youth unemployment, a lack of jobs, that sort of thing. These grievances were compounded by the brutality of policing, which stifled debate and criminalized a whole range of activities. And there was no functioning justice system for them to turn to. Back then, people demonstrated not for Sharia; they wanted dignity, prosperity, and justice.

But the Saudi government preferred to dub any revolution it didn’t like—no matter how secular—as a sectarian revolution. This happened in the kingdom itself, when the Shia started demonstrating for their prisoners to be freed [in 2011]. Immediately the government condemned those protests as sectarian and sponsored by Iran.

The same thing happened in Bahrain. Initially the demos were organized by groups that included both Shia and Sunnis. But the Bahraini and Saudi governments conspired to depict the uprising as sponsored by Iran.

In my view, this was a counter-revolutionary tactic, in order to discredit it and make it less appealing for the rest of the population. But with the counter-revolution, certain forces became more powerful—the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, and other groups that were grounded in religion. These groups saw the uprisings as an opportunity to push their own agenda.

Does the collapse of oil prices over the past several months affect the kingdom’s ability to influence events in the region?

The drop in oil prices will not affect Saudi Arabia in the immediate future, simply because it has over $750 billion in reserves. But in the long term, it will certainly affect its ability to influence conflicts outside the country, and also to subsidize domestic consumption.

You should also know, however, that Saudi Arabia has announced that it will keep its oil production levels high, and this antagonized smaller oil-producers, which wanted to see a cut in production to drive up prices. So for now, the revenues continue to flow in, even though the prices are a lot lower. But in the future, no one can say for sure what will happen.

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