A Religious and Global Political Analysis of Saudi Liberalization

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King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud’s most recent decision to allow women to drive may be a confusing one. This is certainly not the beginning of the liberalization of Saudi Arabia. Starting in 2011, women have been appointed to the Shura Council. Women ran for public office for the first time in Saudi Arabia in late 2015. It is only natural for one to ask to ponder upon what has caused such decisions to be issued, knowing that Saudi Arabia has long been a champion of Wahhabi or Salafist (Salaf referring to the state of affairs at the time of Muhammad (peace be upon him)) Islam, a very stringent and impermissive fire & brimstone brand of Islam that was born as a reactionary force to the perceived dilution of the religion.

Of course there are myriad internal reasons for Saudi Arabia’s reversal of the infamous driving ban, but many of these have been very well documented. My aim in this article is to trace the external, or system level, forces on Saudi Arabia that have led to this seemingly paradigmatic decision, linking these to the internal and regional affairs of the Kingdom.


A religio-political context

The Kingdom has been involved in funding madrassas, Islamic schools, across the West, using a fundamentalist worldview of Islam to gain a foothold among foreign Muslim populations. Many argue that Wahhabism, a highly politicized and stringent form of Islam, exported in mass by Saudi Arabia and governing the Kingdom itself, lays the ideological foundations for terrorism. This reactionary ideology draws conclusions that perversions and ‘innovations’ that take Islam astray, away from its ‘pure’ version, are forms of disbelief and must be corrected by the use of force and politicization of the religion.

This ideological parting from traditional and academically consented upon Sunni Islam came from Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in a sharp reaction to what he felt to be aspects of idol worship being incorporated into the faith, such as the visiting of the graveyards, in 18th century Arabia. This is not so much a political variant of fundamentalist Islam to the same degree of the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, writing in mid-20th century Egypt, but the crux came when Wahhab convinced the founder of the modern Saudi state, Muhammad bin Saud, to expound this ideology politically.

It is no surprise that certain Wahhabi ideas are particularly conservative, as the ideas were born out of a historically conservative region. The niqab, the full face veil worn by many Muslim women (prevalent in Saudi Arabia), for example, is thought of by mainstream Islamic scholars as a non-requirement for Muslims. In fact, this practice was around in Arabia long before the birth of Islam — this is more a matter of culture than it is of religion in some aspects.

Thus these ideas now govern Saudi Arabia, and use physical force to cleanse undesirable acts from among the people, completely defying the Quranic statement that “there is no compulsion in religion.” Although this may have begun as a religious idea, we now see its politicization and even its use to suppress anti-regime rhetoric in Saudi Arabia by branding it as heresy. In January of 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people in a single day – 43 by beheading, the other four by firing squad (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Among them was Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a man who had voiced significant dissent toward the Saudi regime.

What is more, Saudi Arabia does not have written laws. Rather, because Sharia law is based on varying interpretations of the Quran and the Hadith, a collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the co-opting of the religious authorities is a slippery slope that leads to selectively adjudicating against political threats. This has been a key feature of the Islamic argument against Islamist (belief that Islam should inform government) parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is curious, therefore, that the Kingdom would start to water down their ideology due to the risk of hurting its potency and control over the political landscape at a time of increased public opposition and poor reputation over the Yemeni Civil War.

The bigger picture, a global political understanding

The Kingdom has thus far gotten away with their extensive denial of negative human rights, an offense that is widely understood to constitute irresponsible sovereignty and undermine, sometimes nullify, as in Libya, the internal and external sovereignty of a state. This was initially conceptualized by former Secretary General Kofi Annan’s request to investigate ways of intervening against genocide and ethnic cleansing as seen in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Kosovo, and now as the world bears witness to the persecution of the Rohingya.

The conclusion of the commissioned investigation, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), 2001, was that with domestic sovereignty – the ability of the state to make binding decisions on institutions within its borders, having no competition for a monopoly on the legitimate use of force – came responsibility not to infringe upon negative, human rights (right to life, religion, protection from arbitrary detention, voting). This idea has since been formalized into the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (r2p) and codified into international law through UN Security Council Resolution 1973, triggering the intervention against Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi’s threat to go door to door and “kill his people like rats.”

International law, as codified under a Chapter 7 (military and security issues) resolution, however, hasn’t derailed Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has wielded its rich oilfields as a chip to get the United States on its side for decades, prompting them into a war in 1991 against Saddam Hussein who was perceived to be threatening Saudi control over oil. The veto-wielding P5 states expectedly use their Security Council privilege as a means of securing their respective national interest, and thus allowing Saudi Arabia to run free with its Wahhabism, rapaciously expounded for the sake of political control over its internal enemies. In his recent speech to the UN General Assembly, President Donald Trump uttered not a single word about Saudi Arabia despite the fact that it mirrors the actions of Iran, a country he berated relentlessly.

Decoding the Saudis’ motives

Why, then, has Saudi Arabia decided to weaken its Wahhabi vanguard without the threat of adverse consequences, despite being able to cheat international law? The answer, on a global political level, lies in the gradual increase in the social capital of morality, the rise of soft power, and the consistent institutionalization of basic norms – the universality of human rights. Hard power, the ability to coerce or compel the other into your initial preferences, is still relevant and paramount, and has been crucial for Saudi Arabia in its oil exports. However, the idea of persuasion rather than coercion, as pointed out by scholars as Joseph Nye, is increasingly popular in the international sphere due to its relative practicality and examples of success.

The minds behind Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy know for a fact that it cannot survive forever on oil, as the world moves gradually to less fossil-fuel and more renewable energy based system, and that it must begin to conform to institutional norms ahead of time otherwise it is at risk of losing its footing as a regional and global power once it is no longer as legitimized for its oil supply.

The international political stress on the protection of human rights has manifested itself in the form of direct pressure against Saudi Arabia. In 2012, Saudi Arabia arrested pro-democracy protester and activist Ali al-Nimr, nephew of Sheikh Nimr (executed Jan 2016), and sentenced him to death by crucifixion and beheading. Having been a minor at the time, Saudi Arabia came under intense pressure from Amnesty International and have since suspend plans to execute Nimr. This is a textbook example of a non-state actor, free of an agenda and commitment to political alliance, being able to apply pressure, often referred to as moral jiu-jitsu, promoting human rights and thus being able to lead partially to their protection due to the popularity of universalist narratives.

As illustrated by Alexander Wendt, it is unreasonable to believe that the world is purely in a Hobbesian state of nature, with the constant threat of attack from all angles. Indeed, there is a strong argument for each state guaranteeing its own security due to the lack of a monopoly on the legitimacy of force on a system level. Conversely, social capital does indeed exist in international relations, and favorable behaviors are more likely to be rewarded and appeal to potential allies. Even in a state of complete anarchy, it is unthinkable that he who acts favorably, or legitimately from a moral perspective, will be left without allies or influence upon others within the group of competing individuals. This is core to human social behavior – it is evolutionary human nature that promotes reciprocal altruism, protecting the other in the interests that they will protect you in return.

A game theory analogy of international relations sheds light on how these institutions of norms and good behaviors are fortified over time: as actors enter transactions again and again, given the choice on whether or not to conform to an institutional norm, over multiple repetitions, actors may learn to take the mutually beneficial option in order to garner allies for its own protection, thus reinforcing the norm. Other states’ opinions do have an impact on the foreign affairs of states, and so favorable behaviors do matter.

These institutions, therefore, and the currency of the ideas that they embody, gain social capital over time, can lead to increased external pressure on states to change their behaviors, despite their hard power upper hand. Moreover, the minds behind Saudi foreign policy also know that the Kingdom’s greatest source of soft power, being the custodians of the two holiest sites in Islam, cannot be used as effectively with apparent inconsistencies that seem unjust to so many.

Using these sites as persuasive means of influence is a tactic that has been employed in the past, and to devastating effect. In the heat of the Great War, June of 1916, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of the holy city of Mecca, initiated the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, with soldiers led by his son Faisal, after having negotiated with British high-commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and been promised an Arab state. The Sultan, the recognized Caliph (leader of the Islamic Caliphate that was then in the hands of the Ottomans), had made a call for jihad against the British, but Sharif Hussein’s religious legitimacy as the Sharif of Mecca was able to undermine the Sultan’s call and persuade many, including captured Ottoman soldiers, to fight against the Turks.

As Saudi Arabia, through the Qatar blockade, attempts to wield its religious legitimacy in order to influence others into ensuring its own interests, it realizes that it cannot waste this legitimacy by carrying out acts that are deemed unfavorable. The dissent against Saudi Arabia from internal enemies is relatively inconsequential, the typical solution to which is beheading. Saudi Arabia cannot, however, silence those who protest in front of their embassy in Istanbul, or Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Its internal political affairs gain awareness, and the value of social capital in the international sphere, that gradually pressures the Kingdom to make changes to its religio-political regime.

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