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

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.