This is a guest note by Salman Al-Rashid, a Master’s student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and an intern with the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.
In early January The New York Times reported that the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, a human rights group in Saudi Arabia, petitioned King Abdullah to remove Prince Nayef from his post as interior minister. Given that popular uprisings calling for reform and leadership change are sweeping through the region, might this letter represent a tectonic shift in Saudi domestic discourse that spells trouble for the House of Saud? Don’t bet on it.
Nayef, a staunch conservative and active political figure, took over as interior minister in 1975. He oversees internal security matters and has ruthlessly combated terrorists in the kingdom. Nayef also serves as Second Deputy Prime Minister, a position that allows him to influence economic and political policies in the kingdom.
The letter, which calls for Nayef to be prosecuted, maintains that the Interior Ministry under Nayef has instituted policies that exacerbate extremism and foster violence in the kingdom. Despite reports that the letter was emailed to the Associated Press in Cairo, no news source has published the full text of the petition. The AP does say that the letter argues that the Interior Ministry exhibits less tolerance for those who seek to rectify corruption and injustice and thus actively restricts the rights of Saudi citizens.
While the contents of the letter remain shrouded in mystery, recent reports of civil rights abuses in the kingdom may corroborate the petition’s general claims about the ministry. Whether or not the accusations leveled against Nayef have merit, it is safe to say that Abdullah will not fire his powerful half-brother, who also happens to be second in line to the Saudi throne. Nonetheless, the petition calls attention to a significant, albeit gradual, change in Saudi political discourse.
In the past no one in Saudi Arabia would have dared evoke political and socioeconomic grievances to call for the removal of a senior, powerful figure in the House of Saud. But Abdullah has solidified his reputation as a monarch responsive to the demands of his subjects, and Saudis are more and more inclined to voice their complaints. In the past five years, Abdullah has addressed some of the concerns of several marginalized elements of Saudi society, which include Shiites, women and liberals.
Take the example of Shiites. In 2008 Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s southwestern province of Narjan complained that their governor, Prince Mish’al, sanctioned widespread discrimination against them in terms of education, state funding, and housing. He even sought to dislocate them by encouraging Sunni Yemenis to settle in the region. Abdullah responded by relieving the governor of his duties.
In the Nayef case, a dissatisfied, liberal segment of Saudi society is similarly evoking a notion of government accountability to demand the removal of a government official, one Saudi liberals clearly see as an enemy in the gradual process of liberalization initiated by Abdullah.
Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, liberalization is happening in Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah’s six economic cities currently under construction in different regions of the kingdom seek a confluence of economic and social liberalization, and women will soon be allowed to argue cases in court and perhaps vote in the next round of municipal elections. After a prominent member of the Council of Senior Clerics, Sheikh Saad al-Shithri, complained that the newly opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology would lead to the mixing of the sexes and threaten the very fabric of Saudi society, Abdullah gave him the governor-of-Narjan treatment.
The call for Nayef’s removal and prosecution, however, is significant because Nayef is not an imam or regional governor. He is the head of Saudi Arabia’s most important ministry and commands the loyalty of the secret police, which preserves domestic order and constantly thwarts terrorist threats against civilian and economic infrastructure. He enjoys cozy relations with the religious establishment. If Abdullah were to remove Nayef, would other ministers be spared? Would internal security disintegrate? Would liberals and conservatives alike be galvanized?
The petition is interesting in the context of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, in which protesters toppled regimes that they deemed stagnant, inadequate, and greedy. Tunisians who took to the streets believed that Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali and his web of corrupt cronies administered the country in a way that did not accord with their own vision of a just and righteous order. Scores of Egyptians with a host of economic and political grievances ousted the seemingly invulnerable Mubarak police state.
Middle East experts and commentators warned and continue to warn that the earthquake emanating from Carthage may eventually topple other Arab regimes. At last, the ultimate Arab paradox of political stagnation combined with drastic socioeconomic change will be resolved. At last, the Arab palace will reflect the interests of the Arab street.
What of Saudi palace and Saudi street? For now the open-minded Abdullah seems to have mastered the tricky balancing act of accommodating both religious conservatives and liberal voices. Moreover, continued oil revenue affords Abdullah the luxury to offer generous economic packages that insulate the royal family from the kind of unrest sweeping through other states.
It is tempting to see parallels between the narrative of the pre-revolutionary crisis state and Saudi Arabia today by arguing that simmering tensions hovering under the guise of a stable autocratic order will explode to the surface. But one should not project Tunis or Cairo onto Riyadh just yet.
A man in southwestern Saudi Arabia recently engaged in a Tunisian-style self-immolation, but he was a Mauritanian who was frustrated that he could not attain Saudi citizenship. In a recent blog-post, Robert Dreyfuss suggests that a recent protest, a petition to create a political party, and social networking buzz in the kingdom collectively spells trouble for the establishment.
In the protest that Dreyfuss refers to, participants sought improvements to Saudi infrastructure following floods from a rare rainstorm. The kingdom quickly and quietly cracked down on the ten Islamic scholars who formed the Umma Islamic Party. Sure, Saudis are joining Facebook groups that call for political reform, but this social networking activity is occurring in a different, less tenuous context that is devoid of the impetus to mobilize and demand immediate change.
In the meantime, Nayef will sit comfortably in his office in the heavily fortified Ministry of Interior in Riyadh. He will continue to obsess over domestic security, even at the expense of individual freedom and civil rights. And if the Saudi street decides to rise up, he will be the person the king calls upon to restore order.
— Salman Al-Rashid