FaithWorld

Witness – Searching for reforms in King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia

(Saudi King Abdullah address the nation from his office at the Royal Palace in Riyadh March 18, 2011. Saudi King Abdullah announced on Friday billions of dollars in handouts for his people and boosted his security apparatus in a renewed effort to shield the world's top oil exporter from unrest rocking the Arab world. REUTERS/Saudi Press Agency)

(Saudi King Abdullah address the nation from his office at the Royal Palace in Riyadh March 18, 2011/Saudi Press Agency)

Ulf Laessing was Reuters chief correspondent in Saudi Arabia until last week when the government terminated his accreditation over coverage of recent protests in the kingdom. He was based in the Saudi capital Riyadh since 2009 and previously worked in Kuwait after joining Reuters in his native Germany in 1997. In the following piece he describes the little progress of reforms launched by King Abdullah often titled as “reformist” in the Western press.

By Ulf Laessing

RIYADH (Reuters) – The moment my wife and I left our apartment compound in downtown Riyadh, a jeep screeched to a halt in front of us and a bearded man stepped out. “Is this your wife? I want to give you some advice. Don’t let her wear makeup,” said the religious policeman, dressed in a traditional white robe. “If she uses makeup, other men will only look at her,” he added, raising his forefinger to stress his point and staring hard at me.

A woman wearing makeup or not completely covering up would go unnoticed in most parts of the world, but in Saudi Arabia it can be enough to get you detained for “immoral behaviour.” Encountering religious police roaming the streets to uphold the kingdom’s values of an austere version of Sunni Islam was one of the most striking experiences of living in Saudi Arabia. It was also a reminder that the Gulf Arab state remains a deeply conservative country despite hype in the West praising King Abdullah for reforms such as overhauling outdated state education or liberalising the economy.

“Moderate” and “reformer” are regular descriptions of Abdullah by Western diplomats, intellectuals and business people since he took office in 2005. Some even call him “liberal.” But during my two years as Reuters correspondent in the Saudi capital, I did not notice any changes in a strict social code banning unrelated men or women from mixing and forcing shops and restaurants to close five times a day for prayers.

Handouts dash Saudi king’s reformer reputation

saudi king

(Saudi King Abdullah addresses the nation from his office at the Royal Palace in Riyadh March 18, 2011/Saudi Press Agency)

Saudi King Abdullah’s lavish social handouts and a boost to security and religious police, but no political change, leaves his prized reputation as a reformist in tatters, analysts say.

The king, believed to be 87, has carefully crafted an image as a cautious reformer in a country ruled by a single generation of his brothers as absolute monarchs for nearly six decades. But faced with unrest rocking much of the Arab world, he is playing the old game of buying support from key sectors of society to keep family rule as it is.

Watching Bahrain, Saudi Shi’ites demand reforms

saudi shi'ite

(Shi'ite Saudi Muslim worshippers during the Ashura festival in Qatif ,December 27, 2009/Zaki Ghawas)

When Saudi Shi’ites mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, meeting at mosques and exchanging sweets is only part of what’s going on. The Shi’ites also are testing the tolerance of Sunni clerics and taking advantage of reforms introduced by King Abdullah that allow them greater freedom to practise their branch of Islamic faith.

For the hundreds of Shi’ites who gathered on Sunday in the rundown eastern town of Awwamiya, near the Gulf coast, this year is special. Just an hour’s drive and a bridge away is the island nation of Bahrain, usually a place where Saudis go for a bit of weekend fun but now the scene of a majority Shi’ite uprising that is challenging the minority Sunnis’ grip on power.

Saudi Shi’ites mark Ashura festival in anxious mood

ashura (Photos above and below: Saudi Shi’ite Muslims mark Ashura in Qatif, December 16, 2010/Zaki Ghawas)

Like their Shi’ite brethren across the Middle East, Hussein and his Saudi friends marked the mourning day of Ashura on Thursday, their mood tinged with worry over their future in the strict Sunni Muslim kingdom. Hundreds of black-clad Shi’ites in the small Gulf town of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, rose early to join once-forbidden processions to mark the slaying in 680 of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein.

Long viewed as heretics or even agents of Iran by the Saudi authorities and hardline Sunni clerics, Shi’ites have been testing pledges to let them practice their rites more freely. Now they fear a reversal in their long struggle for recognition. The freedom to mark Ashura relatively unhindered in Qatif and nearby villages is a fruit of changes launched by King Abdullah since he ascended the throne in 2005.

But the king is about 87 and is in New York for medical treatment. His slightly younger half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, spent the past two years abroad with an unspecified ailment. With a possible succession in prospect, many Shi’ites worry that a more conservative king might be tougher on them.

Saudi king, religious police, Islam and donkeys – via WikiLeaks

mutaween 1 (Photo: Religious police perform dusk prayers with Saudi youth outside a Riyadh cafe on June 27, 2010 during half-time of the Germany-England World Cup soccer match. The police ensured that people watching matches in cafes said their prayers during the tournament/Fahad Shadeed)

WikiLeaks has come up with an interesting insight into the way King Abdullah views his own kingdom’s religious police, the mutaween who enforce Islamic behaviour in public. A cable from the Riyadh embassy entitled IDEOLOGICAL AND OWNERSHIP TRENDS IN THE SAUDI MEDIA and dated 11 May 2009 mentions what appears to be a U.S. diplomat’s visit to a Saudi newspaper editor whose name is XXXed out. The Saudi says the king had visited the office and complained about how ignorant the religious police were about Islam and how they  treated people like donkeys:

//Okaz//
18. (S) In a meeting with Jeddah CG and XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX was blunt when asked about SAG efforts in countering extremist thinking. “King Abdallah was here,” he said, pointing around his well-appointed office XXXXXXXXXXXX in Jeddah. “He told us that conservative elements in Saudi society do not understand true Islam, and that people needed to be educated” on the subject. King Abdallah, he said, used a metaphor of a donkey to explain how the religious police use the wrong approach. “They take a stick and hit you with it, saying ‘Come donkey, it’s time to pray.’ How does that help people behave like good Muslims?” XXXXXXXXXXXX quoted the king as saying.

The same cable also comments on a new and more moderate tone in religious programming on some television channels:

Why did the U.N. proclaim World Interfaith Harmony Week?

unga 1 (Photo: United Nations General Assembly hall, 23 Nov 2006/Jérôme Blum)

The United Nations General Assembly passes a stack of resolutions every year and many of them go all but unnoticed.  One such document just approved in New York established a new World Interfaith Harmony Week. High-minded resolutions put most news junkies to sleep, so it’s probably no surprise this one got such scant media coverage (see here and here). But there’s more to this one than meets the glazed-over eye.

muslims at synodThe resolution, accepted by consensus on Wednesday, urged all member states to designate the first week of February every year as the World Interfaith Harmony Week. It asked them to “support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week based on Love of God and Love of the Neighbour, or based on Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.” (Photo: Mohammad Sammak, secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, addresses Vatican synod of bishops, 14 )ct 2010/Osservatore Romano)

Amid the standard legal wording of U.N. resolutions, that phrase “Love of God and Love of the Neighbour” stands out both as a rare example of religious belief in an official document like this and an unmistakable hint at the authorship of this text. Readers of this blog will recognise it as a trademark phrase of the Common Word group, the Muslim scholars who have been pursuing better interfaith understanding through dialogue with Christian churches. They’ve held a number of conferences with different churches and two of the manifesto’s signatories last week became the first Muslims to address a Vatican synod of bishops. Now the group is pursuing its mission on the diplomatic stage with an appeal to governments to help foster interfaith contacts.

Saudi national day reflects monarchy’s growing clout against clerics

abdullah (Photo: King Abdullah on a visit to Jordan, July 30, 2010/Muhammad Hamed)

Saudi authorities are taking greater liberty in celebrating the modern monarchy’s anniversary, a sign of their growing clout against clerics who have criticized holidays outside of the Islamic calendar.

Present ruler King Abdullah, 86, emphasised his push to reform the deeply conservative country upon taking power in 2005 by decreeing September 23 as an official holiday marking the kingdom’s unification led by founder King Abdul-Aziz and an army of ultra-conservative followers.

Since then, celebrations have been getting more colourful to attract larger masses and the labour ministry took the extra step of granting a paid-day off for all public and private sector employees for the day marking unification.

Saudi royal order says only appointed clerics can issue public fatwas

saudi fatwasSaudi King Abdullah has ordered that public religious edicts, or public fatwas, be issued only by clerics he appoints, in the boldest measure the ageing monarch has taken to organise the religious field.

Timid efforts by the absolute monarchy to modernise the deeply conservative country have led to a profusion in fatwas from scholars and mosque imams in the country, who use the Internet to publicise them as they fight what they perceive as the westernisation of the country. (Photo: Saudi King Abdullah, 30 July 2010/Ali Jarekji)

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah gestures during his meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah at the Royal Palace in Amman July 30, 2010.

Sonorous black Saudi cleric rescinds objection to fatwa against singing

saudi singerAn imam whose voice helped him become the first black Saudi to lead prayers at Mecca’s Grand Mosque said he was wrong to speak against a fatwa prohibiting singing, in the latest spat between reformist and conservative clerics in the kingdom.

King Abdullah’s push for reform has fostered divisions among senior Saudi clerics, and Adil Kalbani shocked conservative clerics in June by speaking in favor of singing, saying neither the Koran nor Prophet Mohammad’s sayings prohibited it. (Photo: Saudi singer Abdul Majeed Abdullah at Qatar’s Song Festival in Doha, January 11, 2007/Fadi Al-Assaad)

But, in remarks published by Saudi al-Hayat newspaper on Wednesday, Kalbani said that he had discussed the fatwa with people including Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz bin Mohammad al-Sheikh and had changed his mind.

Saudis say Muslim women exempted from wearing face veils in France

saudi niqabTwo Saudi clerics have declared Muslim women are exempt from wearing full veils in France, which is planning to ban them, but added they should avoid visiting it as tourists.

The comments, by Islamic jurisprudence scholar Mohamed al-Nujaimi and author and cleric Ayed al-Garni, come two weeks after French lawmakers passed a bill under which women could be fined for appearing in public with the all-covering burqa or the niqab, which leaves the eyes exposed. (Photo: Saudi women snapping photos in Riyadh, September 23, 2009/Fahad Shadeed)

“For a woman who permanently resides in France or is a French citizen, if there is harm in wearing the veil … it is permitted that she shows her face when need and necessity demand it,” Nujaimi said in remarks published by al-Watan newspaper.