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Ms. Madawi Al-Rasheed: Saudi society appears to be controlled, but beneath the surface, there is widespread discontent

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We’re continuing our discussion about U.S. and Saudi relations. President Obama was in Saudi Arabia meeting with King Abdullah on Friday.

Now joining us again from London is Madawi Al-Rasheed. She’s a visiting professor at the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She’s originally from Saudi Arabia. She currently lives in London. Her research focuses on the history, society, and politics of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State.

Thanks for joining us again, Madawi.


JAY: So, in the first segment of this interview, I opened it by saying certainly one of the key if not the key differences between the Saudis and the Americans and how they see Iran and the Arab Awakening, Arab Spring, the uprisings, is that the Saudi regime sees both of these things as existential threats and the United States does not. Why do they? Let’s start with the Arab Awakening. What is the situation inside Saudi Arabia? In the final analysis, domestic politics usually determines almost all other politics. What are the Saudis afraid of? They seem to be so in control of the place.

AL-RASHEED: Well, it is appearance, I think. The problem in Saudi Arabia is that society has changed a lot since the 1970s. Today we have a large cohort of youth, young people who are educated, who are using social media in a frenzy, I think, simply because other outlets are not allowed or banned. They have demanded political reform.

Two thousand and one to 2011, there were 12 petitions addressed to the king asking for political change. Basically, these petitions in a country like Saudi Arabia are the only way to engage the leadership and express the wish of a cross section of society. They happen to be men, women, Islamists, non-Islamists, some are called liberals, others are more towards the religious side. But all of them wanted real political change.

So what did they want? They wanted a constitutional monarchy, basically. Make the king more like an honorary figure, and have political participation in the country. You realize that Saudi Arabia until now–we are in the 21st century–does not have a national elected council, a parliament. It does not have the right to form civil society. There are no political parties. Basically, the country is run like an absolute monarchy with multiple heads, meaning that princes control important ministries that are their own sort of center of power, and the king is almost like an honorary figure who supervises these various ministries with their princely heads. And Saudis wanted to change that. They wanted more accountability. They wanted an end to corruption, which is very rife in the country. They wanted just basic rights, such as freedom of expression.

You realize that a Tweet or a video clip on YouTube can actually land you in prison for several years. Just during Mr. Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia, three young Saudis posted video clips individually of themselves asking the king that their salaries are not enough, while they see that the Saudi princes enjoying luxury, which was actually made so obvious to them as a result of Mr. Obama’s visit. There was one journalist, an American journalist accompanying Obama, who started Tweeting photos done on her iPhone to show the inside of the king’s palace, and almost, like, a ranch outside [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah, this was, I think, the White House correspondent for Politico.

AL-RASHEED: Yes, absolutely. And these photos went viral, because it gave Saudis an opportunity to see the opulence of these palaces while they were complaining that their salary, which is 1,900 Saudi riyal wasn’t enough. Also, the three men who posted these YouTube videos, within 24 hours, they were taken into prison. And today, just a fourth one joined them in posting yet another video clip, protesting against the arrest of the previous ones.

And therefore the Saudis are engaging with globalization, they are engaging with the discourse of human rights. They have been invigorated by what happened in the Arab world in 2011, but also disappointed by their government’s position against these uprisings in the Arab world. And in the summer of 2013, a group of Saudis wrote a petition and circulated it saying that they are actually against what their government did in Egypt–mainly, supporting the military through subsidies, more than $12 billion by now, and in order to depose the Egyptian president, who was elected a year ago. And therefore the Saudi domestic scene is very volatile. But the government is keeping the lid on this sort of pressure cooker as a result of repression.

But one is amazed how courageous those people are when they know that only a Tweet could lead someone to prison. And this has happened. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch reported that the repression increased since 2011, and they have detailed reports on the various cases. And they are all political prisoners, prisoners of conscience or people who are put in prison simply because they formed a civil and political right association. And the sentences tend to be harsh. Some of them end up in prison for ten or 15 years. All this is making the Saudi regime worry about the impact.

JAY: How significant is the repression and the resistance amongst the Shia in Saudi Arabia? I know it’s a majority Sunni country, but the Shia are significant, and they also, if I’m correct, live mostly where most of the oil is.

AL-RASHEED: Yes, absolutely. And the Shia are different from the Sunni majority in the sense that they are more experienced in civil disobedience, in staging demonstrations, in actually resisting. And they’ve been doing that since the 1950s as a result of their engagement with the right–the workers movement in the 1950s, which was suppressed, and later, in 1979, when they staged a rebellion in Saudi Arabia.

But, interestingly, this mobilization in the Shia region did not lead to cross-sectarian solidarities, and therefore it remained isolated in the Eastern province. The Saudi regime adopted a strategy to basically undermine the credibility of the Shia uprising in the Eastern province and in Bahrain by claiming that these are Shia agents of Iran. And this is the dominant official narrative that some people, unfortunately, accepted at face value without challenging it or asking for evidence for the fact that the Shia are agents of Iran.

Now, in other parts of Saudi Arabia we have seen quite a lot of mobilization, but very low-key, simply because the government tried to warn against those so-called agitators, and anybody who expressed a political opinion was immediately put in prison. And I give the example of Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammad al-Qahtani, Suliman al-Reshoudi. These are really old activists who had been in and out of prison for more than 20 years now. And their crime, in the Saudi regime’s eyes, was to form a Saudis’ Association for Civil and Political Rights, to expose torture in Saudi prison, to actually encourage the relatives of political prisoners to assemble in front of the Ministry of Interior and the intelligence services asking for their relatives. And this kind of action is regarded as illegal in Saudi Arabia, and therefore Suliman al-Reshoudi, Mohammad al-Qahtani, and Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to between ten and 15 years in prison, and also banned from travel after the end of their prison sentence. And there are hundreds of other activists that face the same prison sentences in Saudi Arabia.

JAY: You mentioned the Saudi working class movement. What state is it in? Is there still much of a movement?

AL-RASHEED: It was a substantial movement in the 1950s, and it emerged out of the oil camps, where the American oil company started digging for oil. And they tried to organize themselves in a trade union. They staged demonstrations in the early ’50s. But, again, from that moment the Saudi government a law to say that demonstrations are banned, and also dissolved all associations as the workers association.

And now the only solution for Saudi activists is to get together online. So we have virtual protest that is serious. To just give you an example how it works, people, especially young Saudis, would devise a hashtag. For example, one hashtag was the salary is not enough. Or another one was the king doesn’t represent me. And within hours, these hashtags on Twitter gathered momentum, and a lot of people started joining and contributing their 140 characters.

But because there is no chance for this virtual mobilization to move to the real world now, it doesn’t mean that in the future there is no hope. But I think in an authoritarian system, I find people are very creative in resisting, and they resist through using social media now.

But there are other protests that has taken place in the real world. So we’ve already talked about the Shia protest movement. Another one is women.

Women have been staging, starting with virtual mobilization, in order to ask for the right of employment and the right of movement, to be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and then staged several campaigns, online campaigns. And slowly they are raising consciousness about these kind of issues. It hasn’t happened that the ban is lifted, but it is moving into that direction.

JAY: Do the–the Americans spend a lot of money from the Ukraine to Venezuela and many other places on what they call democracy promotion, giving money to NGOs and such. Did they do any of that in Saudi Arabia?

AL-RASHEED: Well, in Saudi Arabia the situation is very dangerous. If any group or association or civil society is proven to have received money from outside, that is a criminal activity and they will definitely end up in prison.

But, again, on Saturday, Mr. Obama honored a Saudi woman who is a doctor, and she was given an award, maybe in a symbolic gesture. But there are no really serious interest in gender equality in Saudi Arabia on behalf of all Western governments. While they are happy to criticize other governments for gender inequality, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, there’s always this veneer of, oh, we must respect the local values; these are Islamic societies that have a different value system from us. But this is absolute rubbish, I’m sorry to say. It just invokes the old orientalist stereotypes about the Arab world or the Muslim world. And it is a pretext used by Western officials in order not to deal with this very thorny file of gender equality. And the fact that some Muslim women themselves are asking for emancipation and empowerment, they want to drive, they are the ones who are actually signing petitions to drive, it doesn’t mean that driving is against Islam or it is not within that cultural tradition. And therefore there is this double standard and even hypocrisy on behalf of Western officials, that they make a big issue about these kind of files elsewhere, but when it comes to Saudi Arabia, they claim that they have to respect its own tradition and Islamic culture. And within Islam itself, we find the Islamists themselves have called for lifting the ban. Some of them have actually joined the campaign. And also they have called for the respect of human rights. I mean, the association that I mentioned, called the Association of Civil and Political Rights, was founded by a mixture of Islamists and liberals.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to continue our discussion with Madawa, and we’re going to discuss the rather complicated relationship between the Saudi government and al-Qaeda and some of the extreme Islamist forces. So please join us for the continuation of this interview on The Real News Network.


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