Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, Washington DC
Inconsequential Reforms, Retarding Educational System and Impediment to Human Development
Commentaries and Analysis
King Abdullah: Reformer or Re-enforcer of Absolute Rule?
CDHR’s Analysis: Realizing that his era is coming to an end, King Abdullah has been rearranging the deck of cards to ensure that his wing of the ruling family remains in power after he no longer rules. He has been placing his sons and other trusted second generation princes in key positions primarily to secure the House of Saud’s supremacy and perpetual rule. Additionally, the king and his royal supporters are determined to deny the Sudari clan the possibility of regaining control over the country. The Sudari clan consists of seven full brothers including current Crown Prince Salman and his diseased brothers, former kings Faisal and Fahd and former Defense and Interior Ministers Sultan and Naif, among others. The Sudairis excluded other princes (including the current king) and controlled the state’s domestic and foreign affairs between 1964 and 2012. They were loathed for their iron-fisted policies and adamant opposition to any reforms that could have led to power sharing, even with other princes, let alone with the populace.
In May 2013, the aging King appointed his son Mitab minister of the National Guard, a well-armed cadre of ferocious loyal religious and tribal men who reflect the king’s religious and nomadic sentiments. The King promoted another son, Mishal, to the governorship of Mecca, the holist city of 1.5 billion Muslims in December 2013. Before that, the king appointed another son, Abdul Aziz, deputy foreign Minister in July 2011. This blatant nepotism may boomerang, given the thousands of other ambitious princes, some of whom are more experienced and qualified than the king’s sons and many of whom, including princesses, feel entitled to rule. This nepotism could fragment the tyrannical ruling family which has thus far been compelled to reach compromises privately, assuring smooth successions.
Unlike their parents and grandparents who were related to chiefs of Saudi tribes through marriage, many of the second and third generation royals were born to foreign mothers and were raised differently. Many of them are educated, exceptionally competitive and prefer a meritocracy over the seniority system that has kept royal successions publicly smooth in the past. Furthermore, the younger royals hardly know each other and many of them grew up without even seeing their fathers. These realities diminish loyalty to the family and obedience to their elders, ties that bound their forefathers.
King Abdullah is said to be assigning key positions to princes, especially his own sons and supporters within the family, who will ostensibly carry out his reform agenda after he is gone. The question that Saudi men and women who are advocating a participatory political system and social justice are asking is: what legacy of reform will King Abdullah leave behind that needs to be sustained? The answer that Saudi activists, human rights groups, social media users and even some Western observers would give is, “very little or nothing.”
Most of the steps King Abdullah has taken and been praised for have been cosmetic, designed to appease critics in the West and to silence domestic activists demanding political reform. Under pressure from the Bush Administration, then Crown Prince Abdullah (became king in 2006) arranged for deceptive municipal elections in 2005 from which women were banned from participating and where armed and security forces, as well as males below the age of 21 were not allowed to vote. Additionally, only half of the candidates were allowed to stand for election; the other half were appointed by the royal family to counteract any possible outcome that could have weakened total royal control over the decision-making process. To further ensure total royal domination, the elected officials were not allowed to serve those who elected them in the 2005 or subsequent 2011 elections from which women were barred again.
The other sensationalized cosmetic event that the king undertook was appointing 30 women to the Consultative Council, Majlis Al-Shura, which was first established in 1928 prior to the establishment of the Saudi state in 1932. The Council is based on nomadic tradition where the chief of a tribe receives feedback and consultation from his followers regarding communal matters. The function of the current council is a continuation of that tradition, contrary to claims that it has legislative powers.
Despite domestic and global veneration of King Abdullah as a reformer at home and a reconciler among adherents of different faiths globally, facts show that he is neither a reformer nor reconciler. While the King is said to genuinely empathize with his disenfranchised subjects’ misfortunes, for which his ruling family is responsible, his overriding objective is to keep the population subservient to his family. In fact, he may go down in history as the most anti-reform king at home and a staunch opponent to spread of democracy in Arab and Muslim countries as exemplified by his opposition to the Arab peoples’ uprising against tyrannical regimes.
The king’s other major objective is to spread and legitimize the Saudi brand of Islam in Muslim and non-Muslim communities worldwide. This is being shrewdly done under the pretext of interfaith dialogues, none of which has been held in Saudi Arabia due to official Saudi disdain for other faiths, specifically Judaism and Christianity.
While most of the so called reform initiatives undertaken by King Abdullah have been purely cosmetic, some have had positive psychological consequences. Appointing women to the toothless Shura Council, relaxing press censorship, reducing religious oppression and conducting national dialogue have created popular illusion both domestically and globally that positive change is occurring, which made King Abdullah look like a reformer. Despite people’s initial hopes that more concrete reforms would ensue, none occurred. This is because all the changes that have been made were cosmetic and not structural. The underlying oppressive nature of the Saudi system and its institutions remain unchanged. Peaceful activists languish in prisons without charges, corruption is rampant, women are still marginalized, the male guardian system and discrimination against religious minorities are still institutionalized, criticism of the ruling elites is considered a criminal offense, the judicial system is still arbitrary, the religious police still terrorize people, the educational system still teaches racism and intolerance and the royal family’s grip on power has never been stronger. Until these institutions are fundamentally transformed, neither King Abdullah nor his successors can be called anything, but absolute dictators.
Overhauling the “Retarding” Saudi Educational System
CDHR’s Commentary: The most important and noble service a Saudi prince can ever deliver is transforming the progress-impeding and intolerance-propagating Saudi educational system. The selection of the former governor of the Asir and Mecca regions, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, can potentially propel the academically backward country from its current nomadic status into a new era of enlightenment and scientific advancement without which the country will slip further into the gutters of darkness and clutches of religious extremism.
The price the Saudi people pay for the poor education they receive is their dependence on people they are brainwashed into disrespecting, demonizing and hating. The result of a bigoted and non-scientific-based educational system is that Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s richest countries, still imports its nurses, doctors, engineers, surveyors, pilots, stewardesses, laborers and most of its food, medicine, clothing and electronics from foreign countries, some of which are poorer and younger than the Saudi kingdom.
Prince Khalid Al-Faisal is educated, a poet, painter and has advocated non-governmental investment in the educational system. He has also advocated support for private learning institutions which reflects his disdain for the religious establishment’s crippling opposition to teaching of liberal arts and scientific disciplines which, by his definition retards Arab societies. “It is obvious that the main handicap that retards Arab societies, in general, is the low quality of education and the inability of its prevailing systems and means – such as prompting and keeping by heart – to qualify humans to be able to advance a society pursuant to a scientific rule that adopts contemporary means and technology, and to fulfill the urgent need for training the educated on thinking so as to reach the right decision.”
Prince Khalid’s assessment of the wrenching Arab scientific and technological backwardness can only be matched by Arabs’ abysmal backwardness in democracy, respect for human rights, religious freedom, freedom of expression, free press, marginalization of women and discrimination against religious minorities, including Muslims and non-Muslims. There is no country in the Arab world that has suffered more from these detrimental elements than Saudi Arabia which Prince Khalid’s family has conquered, named after itself and ruled single handedly since its inception.
Given Prince Khalid’s literary credentials, experiences, disdain for the religious (or irreligious) establishment’s manipulations and control of the Saudi schools’ curricula and his outspokenness against intellectually choking educational systems, one can only assume that he was selected by King Abdullah to cleans and transform the Saudi educational system. However, Prince Khalid can only succeed if he puts the people’s interest and advancement before or at least at the same level as those of the autocratic ruling family and its extremist religious establishment.
During a meeting with Sheikh Abdullateef Al-Asheikh, the chief of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the dreaded religious police. During the meeting, Prince Khalid is quoted as saying, ‘We are all responsible for education and every official in this country should contribute to education reform…Education should be our shared project to help raise a generation able to compete in the production of knowledge in all disciplines.’
One can only wish Prince Khalid success in his most important assignment upon which the sustainability and security of the country depend. However, in order for him to succeed, he should be empowered to rid the educational system of all input, supervision and interference by the religious establishment, especially the Mufti, in the educational system. The religious police must be banned from entering any school from kindergarten through university. Prince Khalid should be empowered to increase public input in all decisions related to education.
In addition to scientific-based curricula, all learning institutions, including the incubators and wholesalers of extremists like Umm Al-Qura, Imam Mohammed and Madina Islamic universities, should include courses on human rights, pluralism, non-Muslims faiths, women’s rights and equality under the rule of law. Teachers and experts in individual fields should control the creation of curricula without Prince Khalid’s and other officials’ interference and intimidation. Compulsory gender segregation must be removed and banned forever. As a graduate of Oxford University, Prince Khalid can appreciate freedom and openness of an educational setting where men and women students sit together as equals to discuss, compete and socialize.
Prince Khalid’s determination to cleans, modernize and advance the Saudi educational system will be in vain unless corresponding social, political and religious reforms are put in place in the country. Saudi students will excel when they are motivated and driven to succeed in the new model Prince Khalid is promising to create. Students have to realize that their labor will be rewarded with dignified jobs based on merit, ability and contribution to the well-being of society as opposed to an oppressive and reactionary system.
The prince job is cut out for him and his success will depend on whether he has the moral courage and political will to expose the root causes of the country’s educational backwardness.
Impediments to Human Development and Their Consequences
CDHR’s Analysis: Saudi Arabia is considered one country where all elements conducive and challenging to human development-socially, politically, scholastically, sexually, psychologically and physiologically-are either banned or branded antithetical to the Muslim faith as interpreted by the men who rule the country single handedly. By applying intrusive surveillance, physical and mental intimidation and financial handouts, the authoritarian Saudi rulers micromanage every aspect of their disenfranchised population’s lives. They determine what’s permissible and what’s illicit. The ruling princes have outlawed many social functions that are concomitant with human development. Gender mixing, non-religious celebrations, women’s sports, all forms of public entertainment and musical performances, freedom of expression, free access to unregulated information and questioning of authority are considered un-Islamic. Forbidding these practices continues as Saudi government policy enacted by royal decrees, arbitrary ministerial orders and religious fatwas.
During its December 9, 2013 meeting, the Saudi cabinet (the King and his submissive ministers) “…ordered the General Commission for Audiovisual Media to monitor the moral and other content of traditional and electronic media, including social media platforms.” On November 28, 2013, the highest religious authority, the Mufti, warned the population against the use of the empowering social media and its users’ agenda, “They seek to undermine the social fabric and they are platforms for malice that promote misleading doctrines.’ In order to preempt a peaceful mass demonstration against the oppressive system planned for March 11, 2011, the Mufti and his High Council of Ulama (religious experts) issued a fatwa declaring that all forms of public expression are un-Islamic, a threat to national cohesiveness and therefore must be prohibited.
From the start of their union in the mid eighteen century (1745), the Saudi/Wahhabi allies designed an absolute sectarian system, Tawhid, which granted them the right to carry out grisly raids, conquer other tribes and rule in perpetuity. From the very outset, they declared and imposed the Quran and Shariah to be the constitution and the law of the land as they interpret them. After centuries of bloody wars, the descendants of the Saudi/Wahhabi clans created a country from confiscated territories in 1932, named it after themselves (“Saudi Arabia”) and declared themselves its “righteous rulers.” Thereafter, they have treated the country as their private property.
By imposing their debauched version of Islam, Wahhabism, on the entire country, the Saudi/Wahhabi dynasties designated themselves sacrosanct rulers. They consider opposition to their arbitrary policies and repressive practices contrary to “God’s will,” a crime punishable by death. To remind the increasingly inquisitive population of the royals’ ownership of the country, King Abdullah issued a royal decree in April 2011, stating that criticism or defamation of the ruling authorities and institutions was a criminal offense.
Despite the fast changing and aspiring Saudi society, especially the social media generation, the Saudi rulers continue to rely on the application of their lethal political ideology. They glorify the practices of society in the seventh century when Islam was founded instead of dealing with the realities of the 21st century. The government’s religious police still force people physically to pray five times a day. The socialization process at home, in school and in mosques is based on the state’s religious doctrine. Dress code, business practices, human interactions and perceptions, marriages and personal relationships as well as court indictments and verdicts are shaped by the state’s repressive Wahhabi dogma re-enforced by a xenophobic religious-based educational system.
The educational system continues to emphasize non-scientific and non-liberal arts curricula. Women’s and human rights, as well as courses on other beliefs and democratic systems continue to be banned from Saudi schools. The Saudi educational system still emphasizes the teaching of religion and custom and bans courses that are likely to develop students’ critical thinking which authorities fear will lead to loss of control over people’s minds. While more technical fields are open to male students, obedience to the ruling dynasties via religious and traditional instruction overwhelms prospects for thought-provoking liberal education and impedes human development.
Controlling and regulating people’s behavior, perceptions and aspirations, the Saudi monarchy and its institutions, especially the educational system, have intentionally impeded human development of the Saudi people. The characteristics implied by the term “human development” include such things as intellectual advancement (especially in scientific areas), the freedom to think independently, curiosity to explore, openness to new ideas, unregulated social interactions, an adventuresome spirit and creative initiatives. These characteristics have been deliberately suppressed under the Saudi system.
The Saudi system’s suppression of human development via government controlled institutions is particularly evident in the marginalization of Saudi women. Excluding women from major roles in public life constitutes a leading impediment to children’s development and societal progress. As in most societies, especially in male-dominated countries like Saudi Arabia, children are raised by their mothers almost exclusively during their most impressionable developmental years. Growing up seeing their mothers treated as inferior and accepting it, Saudi males’ supercilious attitude toward women is generationally re-enforced. If mothers in any society are underdeveloped in the manner “human development” is used here, how can they teach their children that which is denied to them?
Through no fault of their own, Saudi women’s development is severely constricted by their government’s institutionalized and enforced discriminatory policies as evidenced by the male guardian system or “modern day slavery.” Without permission from a male relative, women cannot travel, go to school, work or deliver babies in hospitals. As stated by an appalled critic of the Saudi treatment of women, “I cannot believe that a Saudi female cardiac consultant, a PhD holder in nanotechnology or a researcher at international center can be prevented from traveling just because her male guardian has not given her permission to do so. This guardian may be her own son who still receives pocket money from his mother.”
The detrimental consequences of repressing human development in Saudi society are manifold. Despite its wealth and small population, Saudi Arabia is among the least politically, socially, scientifically and technologically developed countries in the world. The country imports most of its food, clothing, hospital equipment, medicine and workforce, including engineers, doctors, nurses, plumbers and ditch diggers. Globally, Saudi Arabia has become synonymous with intolerance, extremism and terrorism. Until all the current pre-modern institutions in the country are transformed to meet the demands of the Saudi people and those of the 21st century and until the grip of Saudi/Wahhabi ideology is eliminated, the country and its people will continue to be backward and ostracized regionally and globally.
The Mufti’s Derision for Society Continues: Men are “Evils” and Women are “Seducers”
CDHR’s Commentary: While the autocratic Saudi system is being threatened by mounting domestic demands for political reform and by unprecedented regional mass revolts against Saudi-like Arab despots, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, the Saudi Mufti Abdulaziz Al-Alshaikh continues his acrimonious attacks on Saudi society, especially women. In a recent sermon, he associated women’s right-to-drive with seduction, ‘The objective behind not allowing women to drive is to protect society from evils.’ He has repeatedly accused those who call for political participation and social justice of disobedience, threatening the state’s stability and its Islamic character or absolute system. In this respect, the Mufti agrees with many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who argue that Islam is incompatible with secular democracy specifically asit relates to individual liberty and women’s rights as equal citizens under the law.
The Mufti’s unrestrained demonization of women, contempt for society, condemnation of those who do not show total submission to the ruling elites, religious intolerance and his persistent attacks on social media users are inflammatory, destabilizing, divisive and offensive, to put it mildly. He advocates the strengthening and continuity of a pre-modern system that does not recognize human evolution and the needs such a process creates, which must be met in order to avoid a sense of deprivation among the oppressed that leads to human discontent and eventually to violence against ruling elites. As Robert Gurr correctly stated, ‘Men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations.’
The Mufti’s obsession (or is it instructions from above) with the denigration of women and his contempt for the Saudi people represent the mindset of the system that gives him the power and freedom to think of women only in terms of sex objects and of men as evils who are stripped of all forms of compassion and humanity. The Mufti’s jihad against women and society in general has been going on for decades. Despite his claims of protecting society from “evils,” his words and behavior are encouraging evil consequences. His relentless denunciations and intolerance are contributing to the country’s instability and disunity.
The Indefatigable Saudi Women
CDHR’s Commentary: The incredibly resilient Saudi women are empowering themselves despite crushing and systematic discriminatory governmental policies. By denying women their basic human rights, such as the right to drive, and by institutionalizing and enforcing men’s supremacy over women, the Saudi ruling princes have chosen a path that sets them outside the perimeter of civil, natural, logical and minimal understanding of human evolution. This is evidenced by the Saudi ruling elites continued refutation of human progression as exemplified by their insistence that gender equality is an alien Western concept designed by “unbelievers” to contradict Islamic teachings and at the end destroy Saudi society with its pre-modern (Salafi) Islamic character and shepherding traditions.
However, the 21st century’s Saudi women are determined to obtain their human and citizenship rights despite their autocratic regime’s bigoted political, social, religious and economic policies. Marginalizing half of Saudi society, women, is neither God’s design nor accidental. It’s a well-constructed plot calculated to divide society, turn people against each other and exploit their wealth. Without women’s full participation in nation building, Saudi Arabia will remain underdeveloped and technologically stagnant as Bill Gates correctly and courageously stated during a presentation he gave in a partitioned conference hall where women sat on one side (covered in black) and men on the other side of the partition.
At a time when Saudi influence is dwindling regionally and globally and the regime’s traditional allies turn their focus to other parts of the Middle East and the world, the ruling princes should be concentrating on developing, uniting and strengthening their threatened society through democratic reform by including all citizens. Denying women’s inclusion in all aspects of the state’s affairs will only exacerbate an already explosive social, religious and political environment over which the regime is desperately struggling to maintain control.
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