The Saudi dilemma - Rafia Zakaria - Wednesday, February 09, 2011

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THE Egyptian uprising has caused many countries to rethink their foreign policy. Most notable has been the challenge before the US which has been forced to prioritise democratic principles over strategic interests and come out in support of the Egyptian protesters.

President Obama’s speech and statements by other US officials have reiterated the need for meaningful reforms and an end to repressive tactics by the Mubarak regime.

The Americans have not been the only ones squirming in discomfort at the uncertainty heralded by the decline of the Mubarak regime. Ten days into the protests the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh condemned the Egyptian protesters.

In a statement widely quoted in newspapers around the Arab world he called the protests “chaotic acts” carried out by “enemies of Islam” to “divide the Muslim world”. The religious leader was speaking after Friday services in Riyadh on the same day that protesters in Tahrir Square had called for a ‘day of departure’ asking people to join protests after the Friday congregational prayers.

The Grand Mufti is not the only religious cleric to follow the political authority of rulers. Saeed Amer, a leading religious scholar at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and head of the fatwa committee, told an Egyptian newspaper that protests are forbidden in Islam. He said, “As for peaceful demonstrations they are rejected in Islam as Islam has never witnessed such a phenomenon.”

This stance on the part of the Al-Azhar University stems from the head of the institution being appointed by the Mubarak government, and hence the belief in kowtowing to its political demands.

While the denouement of the crisis and the impending ouster of the Mubarak regime are causing some Al-Azhar clerics to distance themselves from the regime, the Saudi case presents a deeper dilemma. The Grand Mufti enjoys a close relationship with the Saudi monarchy. In the particular case, Sheikh Abdul Aziz was appointed in 1999 after the death of his predecessor Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz. Holding the position for over a decade, he has issued fatwas on a variety of subjects including the permissibility of child marriage for girls.

Given his relationship with the Saudi monarchy, the statements by the Grand Mufti pertain just as much to the local challenges faced by the Saudi regime as to the events in Egypt. While it is unlikely that widespread protests such as the ones in Egypt will spread to Saudi Arabia, recent events indicate festering resentment that is unprecedented in the country.

Recently, a group of 40 women staged a demonstration in Riyadh asking for information on their relatives that have been held without charge for years in connection with the Saudi kingdom’s efforts to fight Al Qaeda. According to human rights groups, thousands of Saudis have been imprisoned and held without being allowed any contact with their families on alleged contacts with terrorist groups. In a recipe similar to the one used by the Mubarak regime, the catch-all category of fighting terrorism has given the Saudi monarchy the ability to imprison anyone who may pose a political risk to the established order.

In addition to discontent over human rights violations, Saudi Arabia also faces economic challenges which are an unfamiliar prospect for the wealthy nation. In 2009-2010 unemployment in the country rose to 10 per cent suggesting that being an oil-producing country may not cure all of Saudi Arabia’s ailments. The rising cost of food prices is also a challenge since Saudi Arabia relies almost entirely on imports to feed its population. Inflation has soared in recent times and the prices of edibles like chicken, beef and vegetables have nearly doubled in the past few years. With wealth concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, this scenario presents a festering stream of discontent.

To add to the saga of woes, the Saudi monarchy is mired in a struggle for succession. The Saudi king and crown prince are beset with the health problems of old age. In Saudi Arabia succession moves not from father to son but from older to younger brothers. With both brothers of the family now old and ailing, the sons of each, reports say, are vying for control.

In the cumulative uncertainties posed by rising discontent, economic problems and battles over succession the control over religious clerics is crucial for the Saudi monarchy to maintain its legitimacy. Like Hosni Mubarak the contenders for the Saudi throne know that maintaining and controlling the muftis means control over a religious narrative that has justified their rule for generations.

The protests in Egypt have laid bare these political manipulations that maintain theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran under the guise of religious sanction. In refusing to follow the edicts of Al-Azhar or the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Egyptians and by their example other Muslims around the world have learned that they can oppose religious leaders without denouncing religion.

It is in fact this final development that is most troubling for theocracies such as Saudi Arabia. When the Muslim public realises that opposing religious clerics does not amount to giving up religion itself, it becomes exceedingly challenging for self-styled Islamic regimes to justify mute acceptance of anything presented in the guise of faith.

While the ultimate outcome of the Egyptian uprising is as yet unknown it marks the development of a modern discourse of dissent within Islam as its most welcome gift. The protesters in Tahrir Square have defied the muftis and both prayed and protested creating a political position that has been heretofore unknown and whose time has finally come.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy.

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