On Monday, September 13, the Associated Press and other media outlets reported that the Obama administration will ask Congress for approval to sell Saudi Arabia up to $60 billion worth of high-tech fighter aircraft and helicopters, with an option of $30 billion in naval armaments to follow. Because of the Iranian threat, the deal is expected to be approved, since it will give the Saudis military striking capacity across the Gulf region.
If consummated, the sale comes at a moment when Saudi society is in flux, facing heightened contradictions. Saudi king Abdullah, who has made various attempts at social and political reform, remains isolated and opposed by many of his retrogressive family members and the official Wahhabi clerics. Many of the young are turning away visibly from the authority of the monarchy and the clerics. The majority of Saudi citizens are fearful that the 86-year-old king will die soon. Abdullah could be replaced by his designated successor and half-brother Crown Prince Sultan, who is also in his 80s and ill, and then by Prince Nayef, the most rigid and anti-Western of the heirs to Ibn Sa’ud, founder of the modern Saudi state.
Nayef, who is in his late 70s, is the protector of the Wahhabi clerics and was the first Saudi leader to declare that 9/11 was a Zionist conspiracy. In such hands, American-provided arms could, by the law of unintended consequences, end up turned in a more dangerous direction.
Given its internal strains, it is unsurprising that good news and bad have both come from Saudi territory in recent months. In a promising development, the authorities have begun closing down “fatwa websites” that disseminate radical views, following an order by King Abdullah in August that fatwas – which include religious opinions on a wide variety of topics, and are not limited to death sentences as in the Iranian condemnation of Salman Rushdie – could only be issued by the official High Authority of Religious Scholars. The royal decree was motivated by the proliferation of internet fatwa sites inciting opposition to Abdullah’s program for modernization. Daily televised fatwa shows run by two clerics formerly considered influential in court and state circles, Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obaikan and Sheikh Abdullah Al-Rukban, were halted. Early this month, the radical cleric Salman Al-Oudah, once well known as a backer of Osama bin Laden, closed the fatwa section of his religious website, IslamToday, in a somewhat sullen obedience to the king. Comprising half a million fatwas on political and ideological issues, IslamToday drew widespread Internet attention from extremists.
Under the new royal rules, fatwas on issues of worship, personal dealings, and other individual matters may still be solicited by individuals and issued by clerics in response to them. But “there should be a total ban on any topics involving strange or obsolete views,” according to the directive from King Abdullah – meaning, presumably, no more jihadist agitation or weird opinions about gender relations. In one of the strangest such cases, the aforementioned Sheikh Al-Obaikan was one of two clerics who opined in June that restrictions on gender mixing by unrelated men and women could be eased if the men were to drink the breast milk of the (presumably-lactating) females. Ordinary Saudis, and observers in other Muslim countries, were stunned by the obtuse suggestion.
Thus, Saudi Arabia continues to harbor an alternate reality in addition to its opposition to Iranian belligerence, of which fatwas comprising such bizarre recommendations are but one aspect. Because of the same restrictions on mixed-gender relations outside families, the kingdom has encouraged foreign workers to immigrate for service as drivers and servants, many of them Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus from the Philippines, South Korea, and India. Yet these non-Muslim residents are still barred from public practice of their religions, although they may do so in their homes.
Foreign immigrants make up almost a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s total population of 28 million. Among their poorest of them, living conditions are abominable. Saudi journalist Khaled Al-Maeena reported at the end of August that five Ethiopians who were held for deportation as illegal entrants, in a location at Jazan on the country’s southwest coast, died of asphyxiation because of the crowded conditions there. An official committee has been appointed to investigate the case.
And so, tiny step by tiny step, with Abdullah alive, Saudi Arabia may prove worthy of the trust symbolized by the proposed arms sale, which could be the largest in American history. And the contract may prove more than another gambit by President Obama to improve America’s image in the Muslim lands. Hope for progress in Saudi Arabia is eternal – notwithstanding the many previous chapters of deception in the history of the two-faced monarchy.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor. Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, based in the UK.