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Saudi Arabia Moves Against Muslim Brotherhood Amid Increased Pressure for Reform

3:07 PM, Oct 9, 2013 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Alwaleed has invested in such Western enterprises as News Corporation, Citigroup, and Twitter. He created an ambitious entertainment company, Rotana Holding, which introduced Saudi television viewers to movies previously inaccessible to them. In doing so, he defied the desert monarchy’s Wahhabi religious establishment and its opposition to depiction of living beings. Following Wahhabi strictures, Saudi Arabia has no motion picture theaters at present.

Rotana and Alwaleed scored a blow both for Saudi women and for Saudi freedom of expression with this year’s release of Wadjda, the country’s first female-directed film, co-produced with German financing. Remarkably candid about the problems of girls and women in the kingdom, Wadjda was the first Saudi feature ever submitted for an Oscar as the Best Foreign Language Film.

The best-known in a group of Saudi “media princes,” Alwaleed is the son of Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, who headed a one-time reform faction in the royal family known as the “Liberal Princes” or the “Free Princes.” Some of them were briefly appointed to the royal cabinet by King Saud Bin Abd Al-Aziz, who reigned from 1953 to 1964. Having served eight years before as Saudi minister of communications, Talal was named finance minister after 1960. Prince Talal favored a written constitution in place of the Koran, which is still Saudi Arabia’s sole “constitutional” authority, and an independent judiciary instead of religious courts run by Wahhabi bigots. He criticized the king for failing to keep promises of political and social change, lost his government post, and was exiled to Egypt. He was even nicknamed “the red prince,” suggesting absurdly that he had Communist sympathies. But Talal returned to Saudi Arabia in 1963 and since then has devoted himself to business interests.

By refusing support to the Egyptian MB administration of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, Riyadh has found itself allied with Egyptian liberals and secularists, in apparent incongruity with its fundamentalist Wahhabi legacy. In addition, Saudi Arabia is more outspoken than any other Arab country in challenging Iranian ambitions. Both postures are often characterized by Westerners as driven by raw fear—in the first instance, by worry that the rebellions of the Arab Spring would spill across Saudi borders and threaten the ruling caste, and, in the second, by Saudi Sunni rivalry with Tehran’s Shias, as claimants to global guidance for Muslims.

But in nearly three years since the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has been untouched by any significant upheaval, while King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz has proceeded with small but undeniable reforms in education and religious life, as well as in the status of women.

Alwaleed gave a televised interview, reproduced with English subtitles by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), at the time of his firing of Tareq Suwaidan in August. Alwaleed endorsed fervently King Abdullah’s reform course and commented bitterly about the negative impact of the MB and Iran on today’s Muslims. He said that the issue of women driving cars on the roads and in the cities of Saudi Arabia (now banned, although women often drive in the countryside) is “a done deal,” meaning that its inevitability as a woman’s right is settled. He decried the presence of a million foreign drivers for Saudi women as an imposition on the privacy of Saudi families and an economic hardship for them.

Calling for a guarantee that promised elections would be held, Alwaleed condemned the lack of power of the country’s Shura Council, an appointed, “consultative” legislature. He supported a demand for the Shura Council to review the national budget, and argued for a separation of powers between independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the state. While he endorsed the democratic demands of the Arab Spring, he criticized the outcome of political change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, with new leaders failing to fulfill the aspirations of their citizens.

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