THE PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVE, USA

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Volume XIII, Issue # 4, January 4, 2011
Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr., Editor
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IS SAUDI ARABIA OPENING UP?
By Dr. Daniel Pipes

THE DEBATE OVER SOCIAL CHANGE, POLITICAL REFORM, & MODERNIZATION IN SAUDI ARABIA:  CAUTIOUS STEPS TAKEN BY THE SAUDI KINGDOM TO JOIN THE MODERN WORLD -- EFFORTS TO REFORM CHILDREN'S EDUCATION & THE SELECTION OF POLITICAL LEADERS -- THE BATTLE AMONG ISLAMIC RELIGIOUS LEADERS BETWEEN REFORMERS & HARDLINERS -- THE DEBATE OVER GENDER SEGREGATION -- THE ANALYSIS OF DR. ROEL MEIJER
FULL STORY:   On January 1, 1996, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz became Regent and effective ruler of Saudi Arabia. His 15th. anniversary this week offers an opportunity to review the Kingdom's changes under his leadership and whither it now heads.

His is perhaps the most unusual and opaque country on the planet, a place without a public movie theater, where women may not drive, where men sell women's lingerie, where a single-button self-destruct system can perhaps destroy the oil infrastructure, and where rulers spurn even the patina of constitutional democracy. In its place, they have developed some highly original and successful mechanisms to keep power.

Three features define the regime: controlling the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, subscribing to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and possessing, by far, the world's largest petroleum reserve. Islam defines identity, Wahhabism inspires global ambitions, oil wealth funds the enterprise.

More profoundly, wealth beyond avarice permits Saudis to deal with modernity on their own terms. They shun jacket and tie, exclude women from the workspace, and even aspire to replace Greenwich Mean Time with Mecca Mean Time.

Not many years ago, the key debate in the Kingdom was that between the monarchical and Taliban versions of Wahhabism an extreme reading of Islam versus a fanatical one. But today, thanks in large part to Abdullah's efforts to "tame Wahhabi zeal," the most retrograde country has taken some cautious steps to join the modern world. These efforts have many dimensions, from children's education to mechanisms for selecting political leaders, but perhaps the most crucial one is the battle among the ulema, the Islamic men of religion, between reformers and hardliners.

The arcane terms of this dispute make it difficult for outsiders to follow. Fortunately, Dr. Roel Meijer, a Dutch Middle East specialist, provides an expert's guide to arguments in the Kingdom in his article, "Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Gender-Segregation Debate." He demonstrates how gender mixing (ikhtilat, in Arabic) inspires a debate central to the Kingdom's future and how that debate has evolved.

Current stringencies about gender separation, he notes, reflect less age-old custom than the success of the Sahwa movement in the aftermath of two traumatic events in 1979 the Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by Osama bin Laden-style radicals.

When Abdullah formally ascended to the Monarchy in mid-2005, he ushered in an easing of what critics call gender apartheid. Two key recent events toward greater ikhtilat took place in 2009: a change of high government personnel in February and the September opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (known as KAUST), with its ostentatiously mixed-gender classes and even dances.

Debate over ikhtilat ensued, with jousting among royals, political figures, ulema, and intellectuals. Meijer states:

    "Although the position of women has improved since 9/11, ikhtilat demarcates the battle lines between reformists and conservatives [i.e., hardliners]. Any attempt to diminish its enforcement is regarded as a direct attack on the standing of conservatives [hardliners] and Islam itself."

Meijer concludes his survey of the debate by noting that "it is extremely difficult to determine whether reforms are successful and whether the liberals [reformists] or conservatives are making gains. Although the general trend is in favor of the reformists, reform is piecemeal, hesitant, equivocal, and strongly resisted."

The state under Abdullah has promoted a more open and tolerant Islam but, Meijer argues:

    "[I]t is obvious from the ikhtilat debate that the battle has not been won. Many Saudis are fed up with the inordinate interference of religious authorities in their lives, and one can even speak of an anti-clerical movement. The liberals, however, speak a language that is alien to the world of official Wahhabism and the majority of Saudis and is therefore hardly likely to influence them."

In brief, Arabians are in mid-debate, with the future course of reform, as yet, unpredictable. Not only do elite and public opinion play a role, but, complicating matters, much hangs on the quirks of longevity and personality in particular, how long Abdullah, 86, remains in charge and whether his ailing half-brother Crown Prince, Sultan bin Abdulaziz, 82, will succeed him.

Saudi Arabia being one of the world's most influential Muslim countries, the stakes involved are high, not just within the Kingdom but for Islam and for Muslims generally. This debate deserves our full attention.


Daniel Pipes 2010
Originally Published in National Review Online, January 4, 2011
Republished with the Permission of Daniel Pipes
Reprinted from the Daniel Pipes Mailing List, January 4, 2011
URL: http://www.danielpipes.org/9274/saudi-arabia-opening-up


LINKS TO RELATED TOPICS:
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
Page Three    Page Two    Page One

Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
& Their Middle Eastern Neighbors

American Foreign Policy -- The Middle East

International Politics & World Disorder:
War, Peace, & Geopolitics in the Real World:
Foreign Affairs & U.S. National Security

   Page Two    Page One

Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.

Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization

Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies

Counterterrorism & U.S. National Security

U.S. National Security Strategy



Dr. Daniel Pipes, a Ph.D. in Islamic History (Harvard University, 1978), is Founder and Director of the Middle East Forum, Publisher of Middle East Quarterly, Founder of Campus Watch, Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, a signatory of the Project for the New American Century, a former board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a former adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Golden Circle supporter of the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon, a former member of the U.S. Department of Defense Special Task Force on Terrorism and Technology, and a former lecturer at the U.S. Naval War College, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Pipes was the Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute from 1986 to 1993.

Author or co-author of eighteen books, Dr. Pipes is a regular columnist for National Review Online, Front Page Magazine, the New York Sun, and the Jerusalem Post. His analyses of world trends and of forces and developments in the Middle East have appeared in numerous North American newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He frequently appears on American network television, as well as at universities and think tanks, to discuss the Middle East, Islam, and the Islamist threat to the U.S.A. and the West. He also has appeared on BBC and Al Jazeera, and has lectured in approximately twenty-five countries.

Dr. Pipes is a Polish-American Jew whose parents fled Poland in 1939, immigrated to the U.S.A., and assimilated well into American society and culture. His father is Richard Pipes, an American historian specializing in Russian and Soviet history and serving as Professor of History at Harvard University from 1950 until his retirement in 1996. During the Cold War, the worldview of Richard Pipes was strongly anti-Soviet and anti-Communist.




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