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Saudi Window of Tolerance Shut With Islamic State’s Advance

Saudi Window of Tolerance Shut With Islamic State’s Advance

The 50 lashes administered to activist Raif Badawi this month signal that religious conservatives have the upper hand in a tug-of-war with reformists.


The Arab Spring opened a window of opportunity for activists seeking to modernise Saudi Arabia. The rise of Islamic State has slammed it shut again, leaving little expectation of progress under a new monarch.

The 50 lashes publicly administered to activist Raif Badawi this month after his conviction for insulting Islam were a signal that religious conservatives have the upper hand in a tug-of-war with reformists. His original sentence was increased by Saudi courts that have also convicted a Harvard-trained lawyer for criticising the judiciary, and are weighing terrorism charges against women for driving cars.

The world’s biggest oil exporter, a key US ally, is in clampdown mode. The succession of King Salman, crowned last week after the death of his half-brother Abdullah, is unlikely to change that. As in past times of upheaval, the Al Saud family is turning to clerics to shore up its legitimacy, and that means setting aside any agenda of social change.

“King Salman came to the throne in a very turbulent period in the region,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political sociologist, in a phone interview from Riyadh. “This could push him to gravitate to be more conservative, and more conservative about security, than before. He’s preoccupied with maintaining security and stability here.”

Salman, born in Riyadh in 1935, takes the helm after a 55 per cent drop in oil prices in the past year. He’ll also have to confront the instability in Yemen and Iraq, and the security challenges from Islamic State militants.

Space for Expression

During the Arab Spring, which saw leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen toppled, Saudis didn’t take to the streets in large numbers, but they did take to the internet. Online forums sprang up where citizens questioned the government in a way that hadn’t been widespread before.

The Saudi priority was to halt unrest at the Kingdom’s borders. Abdullah made concessions to liberal demands, opening some careers to women and appointing them to his advisory body.

Saudi authorities were granting a “slightly larger space for political expression,” said Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University.

The spread of Islamic State, whose invocation of a stripped-down religion appeals to some Saudis, has changed the calculation. The group, like al-Qaeda, seeks the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy.

Clerical Help

Saudi Arabia joined the US-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria. Even though its military involvement has been limited, it’s been enough to spur attacks inside the Kingdom. A Saudi general and two border guards were killed this month by militants who crossed from Iraq, and Western nationals have also been targeted.

Saudis have arrested hundreds of suspected Islamists in a series of nationwide sweeps. The Interior Ministry said enemies of the country will be “brought to religious judgment.”

Yet the knock-on effect is to squeeze people on the opposite end of the Kingdom’s ideological spectrum — liberals and activists like Badawi.

The Saudi government has enlisted the Kingdom’s religious establishment, known as the ulema, to undercut the appeal of Islamic State. Senior clerics have condemned the jihadist group and urged Saudis not to join it.

Quid Pro Quo

Harsh penalties on liberal activists imposed by a religious judiciary may be a quid pro quo, said Crispin Hawes, managing director of research firm Teneo Intelligence in London.

“Courts in the Kingdom have quite a lot more freedom of action — within carefully-defined bounds — than analysts and governments outside recognise,” he said. Recent sentences show “the courts doing what they would like to do, and the regime needing to keep the system onside to ensure the cooperation of the ulema hierarchy.”

Some rulings have been severe even by Saudi standards.

The country, governed under a strict form of Islamic law, is the only one in the world that bans women from driving. It was one of 10 nations awarded the lowest score for both civil liberties and political rights by Freedom House, a Washington- based group that publishes an annual index of freedoms.

Thousand Lashes

A court in Jeddah in May increased the punishment for Badawi to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes, ruling that the initial sentence of seven years and 600 lashes handed down the year before wasn’t sufficient for the offense.

Harvard-trained Bander Alnogaithan and two other lawyers were sentenced by an anti-terrorism court to up to eight years in jail in October for Twitter comments that criticised the judiciary.

The judge told the defendants that if it was up to him he’d sentence anyone saying negative things about the system on social media to one year in prison for each Twitter follower they had, according to two Saudi lawyers familiar with the case.

Loujain Hathloul, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, and Maysaa Alamoudi, a UAE-based Saudi journalist, have been in detention since late last year for driving their cars into Saudi Arabia from the UAE, and the AP said their case has been referred to a terrorism court.

Saudi lawyers and women’s activists cite concerns that such detainees are being made an example of. Some women’s rights activists who were previously willing to give interviews to international media on the issue are reluctant to do so now.

Mecca Siege

Saudi rulers have turned more conservative in the past in response to religious challenges. After the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, by militants, public entertainment was banned and clerics were given more control over schools, courts and social life.

Juhayman al-Otaybi, who led the siege, and his followers accused the Al Saud of abandoning the true path of Islam because of their relationship with the West and failure to suppress Shiite Muslims. They criticised the official clergy for supporting the ruling family and deviating from the Kingdom’s austere form of Islam, which dates to a 1744 pact between the Al Saud and Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, a religious scholar who denounced the practices of the era’s Muslims as impure.

“Almost since the founding of the Saudi state, ultra- conservative elements have opposed everything from the radio, to the car, to women’s education,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia, who has worked for the Saudi Embassy in the U.S.

The conservative ascendancy sometimes becomes a public- relations challenge. Some analysts see similarities between Saudi religious ideology and that of Islamic State.

‘Abhorrent’, ‘Unacceptable’

Moreover, Badawi received his first lashes on Jan. 9, two days after Islamists killed 12 people at the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

In the wake of the Paris attack, it became harder to defend a country that flogs bloggers and puts “women who drive in front of terrorism courts,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Authorities postponed the next installment of Badawi’s punishment on medical grounds. The flogging he’s already received was called “abhorrent,” “unacceptable” and “inhumane” by officials in Europe and the US.

Yet Saudi Arabia’s importance as a strategic and commercial partner has typically outweighed such concerns, meaning there’s little pressure from Western countries for change. And for Saudi rulers who see Islamic State and its sympathisers as the biggest threat, repression may be a logical choice.

“Clamping down on liberal dissent strengthens the hand of the government in dealing with the challenges it faces from the Islamist right,” Chas Freeman, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, said in response to e-mailed questions.


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