Madawi Al-Rasheed: Washington is calling the worst repression in the Arab world “evolving reform”
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. As the Arab uprisings move from Tunisia to Egypt and throughout the Arab world, the one country and the country that is the real powerhouse, at least economically, in the Arab world that seemed not to react was Saudi Arabia. The question is: is there potential for this kind of mass movement in Saudi Arabia? And joining us to talk about this now from London is Madawi al-Rasheed. She’s a professor of social anthropology at King’s College in London and the author of A History of Saudi Arabia and the book Contesting the Saudi State. Thanks for joining us, Madawi.
MADAWI AL-RASHEED, PROF. SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY, KING’S COLLEGE: Thank you.
JAY: So, first of all, were there in fact some expressions of the same kind of uprising or resistance in Saudi Arabia that we didn’t hear much about? And then, if not, why wasn’t there more?
AL-RASHEED: Well, immediately after what happened in Tunisia in December and then Egypt in January, two petitions were circulating on the Internet, and these petitions were asking for political reform in Saudi Arabia. Then immediately after that, there was a day designated as the Day of Rage, on March 11, 2011. And before that, there were demonstrations taking place outside mosques. And these were very, very sort of, you know, small groups of people who would come out of the mosque after Friday prayers. And there was one specific incident that happened a week before March 11, when someone by the name of Mohammed al-Wadani came out of the mosque and held a sign saying, this is a peaceful protest. And before that, he went on YouTube and filmed himself calling for the overthrow of the Saudi regime. So immediately on that Friday, he was arrested, and he disappeared up till the present day. So on March 11, the Saudi state knew that on Facebook and on Twitter there was quite a lot of movement in addition to various opposition groups calling for demonstrations, in line with what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. But the regime deployed three strategies. First was the securities option. And on the day, there were hundreds of Saudi security agents and forces everywhere in every single city. The second strategy: on that day, they issued a religious decree by the religious establishment to say that peaceful demonstrations are in fact a sin against God, and they are calls for chaos and undermining of the Saudi state and the security of the state. And the final strategy which was used was to distribute handouts, economic largesse, to the population in terms of promises of housing, of employment, and they spent something like $36 billion with this package. And, therefore, on the Day of Rage we find that no Saudi actually came out on the street. And it was almost a curfew, that everybody was apprehensive and didn’t know what the consequences of going out on a demonstration would be.
JAY: Because if I understand it correctly, it’s just straightforwardly against the law to protest. There’s no right to protest at all. Is that correct?
AL-RASHEED: Well, this is the unfortunate thing in Saudi Arabia. I mean, if you look at the last sort of hundred years, peaceful protest is not part of the vocabulary, is not part of the tradition. What we have seen is actually violence as a way of expressing opposition since the 1920s, up to possibly the last four or five years. And, therefore, this idea of peaceful protest, such as a demonstration, or even civil disobedience, is not part of the culture. But the Saudis actually are learning, and they are linking up with what’s happening in the world, specifically in the Arab world. And we see that since March. We find small groups of people, either, for example, graduates of universities, who would go as a group to the Ministry of Education asking to be employed as teachers, or other–women, even women are going in groups to demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Interior asking for the release of their political prisoners, basically their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, etc. And the interesting thing is that when these things happen in Saudi Arabia, we don’t hear a lot about them here in the West. The journalists, who are actually brave to report on these small-scale demonstrations, are warned by the Saudi authorities. And some, two over the last two, three months, were asked to leave Saudi Arabia. One of them is the Reuters correspondent there, and the other one was a BBC journalist who went to the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia to report on demonstrations taking place there in support of Bahrain. If you remember, quite a lot of the population in the oil-rich east province is inhabited by Shiites who have quite a lot of affinities with the Shia of Bahrain. And these kind of almost small-scale protests are taking place, but not many people are allowed to go there to report on them.
JAY: And when President Obama spoke about the Middle East recently, I don’t think the words Saudi Arabia were in the speech, never mind Saudi repression, which is amongst or even maybe is the worst in the region. He mentioned Bahrain, but he didn’t mention Saudi intervention into Bahrain and he didn’t mention anything about what’s going on inside Saudi Arabia.
AL-RASHEED: Well, I’ve been convinced for a long time that there is a high degree of hypocrisy in liberal democracies. And this is actually a good example of that hypocrisy, that we can support in the West human rights, democracy in different countries, from Egypt, Tunisia, even Libya. But when it comes to the oil well that is called Saudi Arabia–Saudi Arabia sits on, apparently, 25 percent of oil reserves–then we have to maintain silence over their excesses. Whether that is in the human right domain or in lack of democracy, lack of civil society, there is a complete silence. But what is interesting outside is–just looking at how the Western governments have been dealing with the uprising, with the revolt in the Arab world, is that we have a new discourse emerging in think tanks in Washington and London and Paris and almost all those kind of places where there is a serious economic interest in Saudi oil. Obviously, Saudi oil is important for the whole world, but also military contracts, weapon purchases. These are real sort of, you know, economic concerns. The discourse is trying to sort of tell the world that we have in the Arab world these bad republics, such as, you know, the 30-year rule of Mubarak or Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen or Gaddafi in Libya, but we have these sort of evolving monarchies that are islands of understanding, and they are endowed with very, very perceptive kings and leadership that keeps in touch with its own people, unlike these horrible dictators in the republics. And this kind of discourse–you know, there are quite a lot of apologetics for the Saudi regime in Washington and London and Paris, in those places, who would try to convince policymakers–and they happen to be scholars and analysts–that these monarchies are evolving and we shouldn’t pressurize them, and who are we to dictate to them and teach them lessons in democracy.
JAY: These are essentially the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which are all these kingdoms sitting on natural gas and oil.
AL-RASHEED: That’s right. I mean, these–.
JAY: And there’s a lot of talk in Washington about the influence of the Israeli lobby and AIPAC and how much money they throw around, but it never gets talked about how much money Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other places throw around in Washington.
AL-RASHEED: Well, they do, they do. I think there are mutual interests that go beyond concerns over democracy and human rights. And this–the interest is mutual. Saudi Arabia and the US may fall out over certain policies, but I think in the long term even somebody like Obama, who has actually disappointed quite a lot of people in the Arab world, specifically over the double standards of looking at Egypt and Libya in a particular way and then not seeing the same problem, the same concerns elsewhere, such as, for example, in Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain and the rest of the Gulf, to a certain [incompr.] I think, you know, Saudi Arabia is an oil corporation, and that is a private family business that subcontracts certain jobs to outsiders. For example, its security is guaranteed by the US, the security of the regime and the oil fields. And although the Saudis may object every now and then and try to sort of flex their muscles, I simply can’t see that they have secured an autonomous sort of position. They are very much dependent on outside military support. And even recently we hear reports about the British training the Saudi National Guard, and it is exactly the same force that just crossed the bridge to go to suppress the revolt in Bahrain. So the military side of this so-called special relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US that started almost 60 years ago is unfolding every day. There are moments when the relationship is troubled, but I think there is an agreement among the partners that there is mutual interest, and neither is ready to rock the boat.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Madawi. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.