The Blog

Saudi Arabia Under the Lash

King Abdullah, tear off those veils!

12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2009 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As most of the world has come to know, Saudi Arabia has many unique characteristics. These are not mere tourist attractions associated with date palms and camels. Rather, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world named after its "owners," the Al-Saud family. It is the only country in the world that bars women from driving on its public roads. It is also unique in its policies of cultural vandalism, dictated by the ultrafundamentalist state interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, and which have led to the concealment of its pre-Islamic architectural legacy as well as demolition of monuments from the early period of Islam.

But the Saudi realm is also unique in its system of crimes and punishments, which produces numerous unique mysteries. In the latest such example, a Saudi female journalist, Rosana Alyami, 22, was sentenced on Saturday, October 24, to be flogged 60 times by a sharia court in the commercial capital of Jeddah. Her alleged crime was extremely obscure: she was charged with nothing more than employment by the satellite-TV Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC). Although it also has Lebanese Christian backing, the biggest share in LBC is owned by Saudi prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who is justifiably viewed with repugnance by most Americans--he was the Saudi to whom Rudy Giuliani publically returned a $10 million dollar relief donation after 9/11, and is a donor to the radical Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). But Alwaleed has also publicly aligned himself with the makeshift campaign for reform launched by Saudi King Abdullah.

Two days after her penalty was announced, on Monday, October 26, Rosana Alyami was "pardoned," and the sentence of 60 lashes nullified, by King Abdullah. Yet other, no less curious events lurk behind this case. Alyami was threatened with corporal punishment, according to foreign media, because LBC, although Saudi-owned, allegedly lacked a license to broadcast inside the country. In September, LBC had to close its studios in Jeddah and Riyadh during a less-mysterious, if equally absurd case of Saudi "justice." In that affair, 32-year old Mazen Abdul Jawad, a divorced father from Jeddah and Royal Saudi Airlines sales employee, had discussed his prolific sex life in a July interview by the LBC talk show "Bold Red Line." Jawad was ordered early in October to undergo 1,000 lashes and five years' imprisonment for his candor. In addition, three of his friends were to be punished with two years in jail and 300 strokes of the lash. King Abdullah has left their case untouched.

The LBC cameraman who filmed the interview with Jawad was given two months behind bars. This suggests that the trial of Rosana Alyami, an LBC program producer who was not directly involved in the "sex braggart" episode of the program, as it came to be known in Arab media, was a further reprisal against LBC. Alyami had faced the prospect of 60 lashes stoically, declaring that she would not appeal the decision but adding that she was afraid a second trial would produce a harsher punishment.

All of which indicates to Saudi dissidents that the action against the woman journalist had more to do with steps towards reform of Saudi society than with the spectacle, shocking to the Wahhabi clerics who run the sharia courts, of a middle-aged man bragging about picking up women. LBC is affiliated with Alwaleed's media conglomerate, Rotana, which has tested the repressive "morals" regulations enforced by King Abdullah's half-brother, Crown Prince Nayef, Saudi deputy prime minister and interior minister, and the first Saudi royal to blame 9/11 on Israel. Rotana produced a comedy film, Manahi, which was shown to enthusiastic audiences in Jeddah, also in July, but the so-called Saudi "morals patrols" or mutawiyin, under the authority of Nayef, descended on the city, banned the film, and cancelled the Jeddah Film Festival. Cinema is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, in line with Wahhabi doctrine.

The Saudi kingdom increasingly reveals its internal contradictions, but they seldom have the public impact, or worldwide media coverage, of the opposition protests in Iran. As noted more than two years ago in THE WEEKLY STANDARD here, King Abdullah has tried to hold the "morals patrols" accountable for their wild, vigilante-like assaults on members of the public, and Saudi media have repeatedly proclaimed that the mutawiyin would receive training intended to ameliorate their tendencies toward sadism. Each time such measures are announced, Crown Prince Nayef pushes back, and the mutawiyin seem to emerge with more power and impunity than before.

It has, nevertheless, been a busy season for the reformers and enemies of reform in Saudi Arabia. At the beginning of October King Abdullah dismissed Saad Nasser Bin Abdel Aziz Al-Shethri, a leading Wahhabi cleric, from the country's supreme theological body, the Senior Council of Religious Scholars. Al-Shethri had assailed the King's favorite project, the multi-billion dollar King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), which opened in September near Jeddah. The university, which was built independently of the clerical hierarchy, provoked Wahhabi condemnation because it will include mixed-gender classes; women will not be required to wear face veils (niqab) and may even drive on the 15 square-mile campus. In addition, the mutawiyin are barred from its grounds. Al-Shethri demanded that sharia commissions be introduced inside the university to examine its curriculum and practices for deviations from Wahhabi norms. But while hardline clerics and their supporters begged for Nayef to intervene and criticize the "corruption" of the new university, Nayef remained silent. Even he cannot, it seems, openly attack the university project, which is so clearly protected by the king. Some Saudis believe, however, that a counter-blow to the university will inevitably come.

The coincidental series of events involving a forbidden movie, a closed film festival, a university with new rules, and an uproar over a television talk show about sex are symptoms that the hidden struggle between King Abdullah and Crown Prince Nayef is now focused in the areas of culture and education, where Saudis may feel more confident in expressing their disgust with Wahhabism and its restrictions, as enforced by the mutawiyin. Alwaleed may be, in the end, simply gambling that he can make more money playing to popular demands for change and involvement with the world than by hewing to Nayef's hardline posture. But he also knows the limits of his field of action: LBC has decided it will no longer broadcast "Bold Red Line" outside Lebanon.

The curious case of the journalist threatened with flogging evokes other, recent mysteries in the bizarre universe of Saudi "justice." At the end of August, a Saudi subject living in Yemen and active in al Qaeda, Abdullah bin Hassan bin Taleh Asiri, allegedly hid up to a pound of high explosives in his rectal cavity and detonated it in an attack on Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, son of the Crown Prince and director of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism program. Asiri had come to Jeddah supposedly on the pretext of turning himself in to Nayef for rehabilitation, although a transcribed telephone conversation between the bomber and Nayef's son, prior to Asiri's trip, made them sound like old friends or even coconspirators, rather than a terrorist and a presumed target. Prince Muhammad was only lightly injured, according to Saudi media. Terrorism experts noted that such a method of bomb delivery had never been previously observed anywhere else. No further elucidation of this odd occurrence has taken place.

King Abdullah's wish for Saudi Arabia to become a more normal country, to put it minimally, is doubted by few people, and he remains extremely popular with ordinary Saudis because of it. Defending his university and protecting Rosana Alyami from flogging are big and small indicators of that reality. But his steps toward change, except for the KAUST project, often still appear wrong-footed. In another event at the end of September, the Saudi monarch sponsored a new international "interfaith encounter" in Geneva. An earlier such meeting, held in Madrid last year with much greater global involvement and publicity, ended inconclusively, as reported here. But the Madrid "dialogue" included the prominent participation of an American neo-Nazi, William Baker, along with that of an American rabbi, Arthur Schneier.

Baker showed up again as a major figure in the Geneva meeting, where the program was also graced with the presence of a rabbi from Los Angeles, Steven Jacobs, as well as that of Navanethem Pillay, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. King Abdullah has left the organization of these events in the hands of the Muslim World League (MWL), a semi-official body long responsible for the international Wahhabi da'wa or religious outreach, and repeatedly investigated and named as a financier of al Qaeda.

A genuine reform in Saudi Arabia could have positive results throughout the world, not least in undermining support for the advance of radical Islam in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Saudi money still supports the jihadist offensive. Yet as long as Saudi Arabia and its people remain under the shadow of the lash, the Wahhabi hierarchy, and its institutions within and astride the state, dreams of progress are destined to end in more pain, tragedy, and the continued dissemination of a hateful ideology. Protection of educated Saudi women from the imposition of the face-veil and the penalty of the lash is promising, but King Abdullah's efforts have been obstructed before. The transformation of Saudi Arabia must push beyond its beginning stages. King Abdullah, tear off those veils!

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.