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Saudi King’s Reform Step vs. Crown Prince’s Ambitious Wahhabism

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The Saudi Arabian monarchy is now led by two counterposed figures: the reforming King Abdullah and the fanatical Wahhabi crown prince Nayef. Recent incidents in the kingdom, although at first glance minor, may indicate the approach of a significant confrontation between modernizing and retrogressive tendencies in the royal family.

Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

On December 28, the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan announced that by order of King Abdullah, women wishing to run as candidates or to vote in municipal elections scheduled for 2015 will not require approval of a male relative, designated a “guardian” or mehram.

Fahad Al-Anzi, a member of the all-male Shura Council, an appointed consultative body that serves currently as Saudi Arabia’s approximation of a parliament, said the decision was a royal decree. It cannot be challenged. But as noted by the Associated Press, “Despite the historic decision by the king to allow women the right to participate in the country’s only open elections, male guardian laws in Saudi Arabia remain largely unchanged. Women cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced, or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian.”

While abolition of a requirement for male guardianship in elections removes only one impediment to Saudi women’s equality, it is an obstacle at the top of the system. Once women can vote and compete for public office without the consent of a guardian, similar restrictions on their lives presumably could be rescinded more easily.

Joined to the royal family, the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is the state sect and the second leg on which the regime stands. The House of Saud and the House of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, the 18th-century founder of Wahhabism, have intermarried through the centuries.

It is therefore unsurprising that King Abdullah’s reforms have proceeded by small steps. If Abdullah, at 87 and ill, is to use his waning years to modernize his country, he must do so against Wahhabi clerics as well as intra-royal opposition. The king has now, as it were, pushed a single pawn forward in a chess game with Nayef, the champion of the Wahhabis and Abdullah’s presumed successor. Even as crown prince, Nayef continues to direct the ministry of the interior, controlling the police and anti-terrorism activities, and supporting the morals patrols (the notorious mutawiyin).

His anti-terrorism program has been praised by Barack Obama, who commented on Nayef’s rise to the post of crown prince at the end of October, “We in the United States know and respect him for his strong commitment to combating terrorism.” But Nayef holds that as long as Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) stays quiet on Saudi territory, its adherents should be “corrected” and rehabilitated. Abdullah Al-Asiri, an AQAP member, killed himself in 2009 while attempting to murder Nayef’s son, Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, who is deputy minister of the interior and Nayef’s chief assistant in anti-terrorism. In reaction, Nayef commented benignly, “This incident will not change this policy by which we open the door for those who repent.” Nayef’s benevolence may represent a failure to perceive AQAP terrorists as determined enemies.

King Abdullah is at least nine years older than Nayef. Abdullah’s popularity with his subjects, thanks to his reforming reputation, has mainly spared the Saudi state the turmoil that has affected the rest of the Middle East for the past year. In November, a brief protest by Shia Muslims in the country’s Eastern Province led to four demonstrators being killed by police. Saudi authorities, with considerable justification, blamed agitation among the Shias on Iran. But the regime deflected any wider discontent by raising public sector minimum wages and paying a two-month bonus to state employees in 2011.

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