The Magazine

Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia

Portents of change from the desert kingdom.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Close observers of Saudi Arabia detect what may be the first faint signs of movement away from tyranny. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who ascended the throne two years ago and is now at least 83, is the apparent instigator of this change. The Saudis are polarizing, some say, between the supporters of King Abdullah and his enemies, the fundamentalist clerics.

Saudi Arabia was founded on a totalitarian ideology, Wahhabism, that claims to be an Islamic religious doctrine, but is really a radical system of social control. Riyadh has long financed Wahhabi global expansionism and adventurism, and this has now come home to roost. Saudi Arabia has entered a crisis, and resembles the former Soviet Union as it was poised to fall apart--a gerontocracy in which neither power nor policy is transparent or, until lately, susceptible to pressure for change from below.

As a result, the interpretation of Saudi politics is a lot like the old craft of Sovietology, in which the seemingly most trivial developments in the Kremlin were subjected to minute examination. But there are differences. Sovietologists were handicapped by their attachment to the global status quo--since Russia was a nuclear power given to provocative and intimidating behavior--and by their own failure to comprehend the internal contradictions of the Communist order. Few saw the brittleness and fragility of the system, and nearly all were taken by surprise when it brusquely imploded.

Saudiology can be as convoluted as Sovietology, but the study of potential change in the desert kingdom offers some advantages absent in the Soviet instance. Belief in the status quo dominated Western thinking about Communist Russia, so nobody in the West theorized about how to dismantle Soviet governance. Not a single book proposing guidelines for a transition from Communist statism was ever published in the West, as far as we can tell; nor have we seen a useful summation of the lessons learned from the various, improvised transitions that occurred across the former Soviet bloc.

By contrast, Saudiologists may already contemplate the end of Wahhabi domination and imagine rational pathways toward normality. Nobody responsible wants the Saudi monarchy to collapse altogether; a violent disintegration would have negative consequences far beyond the oil markets, undermining what stability remains in the Sunni Muslim world. Instead, a plausible scheme would envisage the House of Saud as heads of state along the lines of the British royal family, even keeping a share of oil revenues, but with a written constitution that guarantees an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, religious liberty--and the complete and total disestablishment of Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia in crisis has resources for a managed transition that were absent in the Soviet case. The large traffic of foreign Muslims to the kingdom for religious pilgrimages every year provides observers and critics with a window into Saudi reality that did not exist in the Soviet empire. And Saudi Arabia has a growing, responsible, entrepreneurial business elite, as well as the largest middle class in the Arab world, pressing up against the absurd restrictions of the Saudi-Wahhabi order.

Against this complicated backdrop, Saudiologists attempt to read the coffee grounds, talking to Saudis at home and abroad, scrutinizing the Saudi media. Are the hairline cracks now appearing in the old Saudi-Wahhabi united front the barely perceptible beginnings of something big? We should hope for nothing less than a smooth and peaceful progression--like those in formerly authoritarian Spain, Taiwan, and Indonesia and formerly Communist Poland, the Czech Republic, and similar countries in the past 30 years--all the way to an open society and political freedom.

Valentine's Day is a touchy subject in Saudi Arabia. Introduced by Saudis who had lived in the West, the custom of exchanging romantic gifts became popular, but met with official disapproval. This year, the annual Valentine's Day "debate" began on Monday, February 12. The Riyadh newspaper al-Jazeera (unrelated to the television network of the same name, which means "the peninsula") reported in blazing red headlines that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Wahhabi institution better known as the religious militia or mutawwa, would systematically inspect hotels, restaurants, coffeehouses, and gift shops to prevent Muslim couples from giving each other Valentines or other presents. Such items would be confiscated, and those selling them would be subject to prosecution. The mutawwa condemned Valentine's Day as a "pagan feast."