The Many Faces of Saudi Arabia

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a luncheon forum on Tuesday, June 19, 2007 with Mai Yamani, a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Yamani shared her insights concerning the diversity of Saudi society and the implications of this diversity for the future of the Al-Saud dynasty and the Kingdom’s place in the region.

Yamani noted that Saudi Arabia has “two faces” —a public face meticulously maintained and intended for global showcasing, and a domestic face suffering from internal divisions and schisms. She said that the Saudi leadership continues to present to the world an image of a culturally homogenous and conservative society, but that this is more mirage than reality.

Yamani explained that there are two competing views of integration in Saudi society: the homogenizing vision and the pluralist vision. In the former, Sunni Wahhabi ideology serves to erase or mask the differences between tribes, cultures, and other local identities. In the latter, the diversity of the Kingdom is acknowledged in creating a true and accurate form of Saudi national identity.

Yamani said that King Abdallah appears to have embraced the pluralist vision of integrating Saudi society, but that he faces many domestic obstacles. She said that he is not “the master of his own house” and that, as such, he must devise creative solutions to the domestic problems he faces. She said that phenomena that have been hailed as progress—like the National Dialogue and the municipal elections in 2005—are an effort to create a “pseudo-democracy,” and that the Saudi state silences reformist voices in the Kingdom with bans on travel and public denouncements of reformists by senior princes and members of the religious establishment.

Yamani identified two significant domestic challenges that the Saudi state must successfully meet in order to maintain order and control in the Kingdom – a population explosion and the high levels of unemployment. She said that these problems are exacerbated because the government cannot effectively close its borders to ideas and news of phenomena from around the region, like the parliamentary elections in Kuwait or the debates about human rights in other parts of the Gulf.

Yamani explained the enduring repression of the Saudi population by the religious establishment as the continuing legacy of Ibn Saud’s alliance with the followers of Abd al-Wahhab in the early part of the 20th century. Wahhabis continue to control important institutions within the government, like the Ministry of the Hajj and the Ministry of Education.

Yamani added that a new challenge to the Saudi rulers comes from the fact that there is a significant cultural gap between them and a large portion of the population. This stems from the fact that the leaders are octogenarians while 50% of the population is under the age of 15. She said that the secrecy that used to shroud state corruption, arms deals, and other issues has fallen apart, and that the ordinary Saudi is much better informed about the state of the Kingdom than he was in the past.

Yamani said that the U.S. led war on terror has facilitated the repression of reformers in countries like Saudi Arabia because government officials simply declare that they are suspected of supporting terrorist organizations.

Speaking specifically about the diversity of Saudi society and identity, Yamani explained that the Shi’a of the Kingdom maintain a strong sense of individual, separate identity and that they could, if pluralism fails to take hold, opt for creating their own state in the eastern part of the Kingdom.

As for Saudi policy toward Iraq, Yamani said that the Kingdom has no coherent policy, but that the government continues to hope that the United States will remain in Iraq and keep the situation there from spinning out of control.

She concluded her presentation by noting that the Saudi government essentially sees itself confronting two domestic threats. The first—that of the Wahhabi terrorists—can be confronted with severe repression. The second—that of the reformists and their liberal ideas—is more difficult and threatening, because the reformists are much more pragmatic and talk about ideas that are difficult to counter.

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