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Editor's Notes

An occasional column by Skeptic's Dictionary editor John Renish

The King Who Could, Maybe--Saudi Arabia's Abdullah

13 December 2010

At the risk, but with no intent, of sounding racist, I take Lord Robert Baden-Powell's word that "Speak softly, softly, softly, catchee monkey," is an authentic Ashanti proverb rendered in the pidgin beloved of Victorian British adventurers who couldn't be bothered to learn the local language. This point of view holds that an actor can, given great patience, persuade even entrenched political powers to further a goal where direct or hurried action must fail. The actor, or more properly the monarch, in this case is Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, a man of some 86 years. He is surprisingly the most active king on social advancement the country has had since its consolidation during the three decades preceding 1932.

At an age when most people in the world are either long-dead or suffering significant cognitive decline, Abdullah keeps vexing the religious authorities and giving the lie to some Western perceptions of his country. Just a few of his achievements in the five years of his reign constitute quite a laundry list:

Simplified the process of starting a business and of foreign investment. The company I worked for was staffed and funded by an American firm but by law the majority was owned by a small Saudi umbrella company whose function was to provide a legally acceptable structure and a modicum of marketing.

Regulated the capital markets.

Appointed a reformer, admittedly a relative, as Minister of Education, and greatly expanded the educational budget, sending thousands of Saudis of both sexes to mostly Western universities.

Launched a major crackdown on terrorism. Saudi Arabia was the home of the 9/11 attackers, who were funded by private citizens with a religion-driven political agenda against what they perceive as Western interference in the Muslim world. That the West is seen as decadent is more a symptom than a problem to these groups.

Instituted a program to pacify terrorists and would-be terrorists. Among the methods used to "turn" terrorists is making them live with their families, rather than residing in camps where they are isolated from the society at large. Saudi social control depends on shame, rather than on guilt as in Western cultures. One's family is therefore essentially one's definition of self.

But all this is nothing compared to the two big ones:
Fostered and partially endowed a coeducational science and technical research university that draws staff and scholars from around the world. Not incidentally, he has forbidden the formerly powerful religious police from entering the university's grounds.
and . . .

Prevented implementation of outrageous legal opinions and rulings and reduced media access to their authors. Abdullah's goal is to reform the organization of the courts and to codify the law so that the World Trade Organization and generally accepted human rights standards encourage foreign investment, reform legal practice, and empower the courts to enforce the law. The kingdom's top religious body, the Ulema, agreed to his reform and codification proposals. Abdullah limited the authority to issue fatwas to members of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars because some rulings have embarrassed the kingdom.

The most recent such ruling ordered a criminal to be injured at the same place on his spinal cord that caused the victim's paralysis. Al Riyadh newspaper quoted the judge as saying that "the proceedings in this case are still pending and no verdict had been issued in that regard."

Abdullah and many ordinary Saudis recognize that the kingdom's puritan Wahhabisim prevents the state from meeting people's needs and hampers international competition in the modern world. The developments outlined in these paragraphs may actually strengthen the religious establishment, but its recalcitrance could result in the crown's authority to become less dependent on the centuries-old bonds of the mosque-state relationship.

reader comments

7 Jan 2011
The column by John Renish on King Abdullah must be some kind of joke. Yes, the king is allowing some more women to be educated, reigning in some of the most hard-core religious elements, and cracking down on terrorism. A bit of research (ok, looking at Wikipedia) provides the following bits of information on the king's country: 

  • It ranks 129th out of 134th in gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum. Segregation, dress codes, and obedience to male relatives are the norm.
  • It has the death penalty for homosexuality 
  • It has no religious freedom 
  • It has no political freedom

Reformer, indeed.

 -Erik Jensen
Physics Instructor
Chemeketa Community College

John Renish replies:

Perhaps, Mr. Jensen, you should read the essay again: it's not intended as a joke. The first paragraph stipulates to Western criticism of the kingdom's civil rights record. In fact, the U.S. government has taken advantage of a specifically valid criticism and used Saudi Arabia for illegal rendition and torture, something I'd not mentioned before. In truth, I don't know whether the king or our own president was in on that decision: do you? Second, I note that the king and his country are two distinctly different things, as you allude to in your critique.

The title of my essay says, inter alia, "Maybe." Further, the first two sentences suggest that the king has been fighting an uphill battle of proportions you lack the means to understand, and the last paragraph suggests that the religious establishment's intransigence may result in its further marginalization, which has already been significant. As somebody who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, I have first-hand knowledge that social conditions there have improved dramatically over the past 15 years. While progress has been slower than you and I might prefer, it has been much faster and further-reaching than anybody familiar with the kingdom might have expected.

I initially wrote a rather lengthy response to all your objections about the character other countries ascribe to Saudi Arabia—perceptions that are partially correct but wildly wrong in detail and social significance in my own experience, not something I read in Wikipedia hoping to find out how evil the Saudis are. In the event, that response proved unnecessary: if you’d like to read it, I will happily forward it to you. But the king is not the country. The point of my essay was that his achievements are remarkable, particularly in light of the formidable resistance he gets from the still-powerful religious establishment: I’m truly sorry you missed it.

John Renish

11 Jan 2011
Dear Dr. Carroll:

I'd like to throw in a few words concerning Mr. Renish's essay on King Abdullah.

The Saudi royal family behaves in a manner that even Western liberals find shocking:  Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud, a grandson of the current king, was recently convicted of beating his aide to death; the aide appears to have been his male sex slave.  The prince was drunk on champagne at the time.  Although this behavior is the most outrageous known case, the family's general behavior is hardly that of sincere Muslims.  It has encompassed not only drinking, drug use, and consorting with prostitutes, but also at least one other private murder.

It should be clear enough from this that the House of Saud's support for Wahhabi-ist mullahs is grounded on something other than sincere religious faith.

In fact, if Saudi Arabia throws out the mullahs, the Saudi royal family will follow right behind them.  The Saudi royal family is perfectly well aware of that.  Cosmetic changes aside, once that is taken into account, it becomes clear that any real confrontation between the House of Saud and the mullahs will be started by the mullahs.


Dan Sullivan

John Renish replies:

Mr. Sullivan’s second paragraph doesn’t surprise me: there is no reason to question the British court’s findings. Similar behavior reported of other royals is the cause of constant rumor within the kingdom, such as tales about the alcoholic consumption of Abdullah’s predecessor, Fahd. Nevertheless, the idea that “even Western liberals” find some of the royals’ behavior shocking surprises me, a Western liberal who is well aware of some of the bad apples out of literally thousands of princes, who are no better or worse than many historic European royals. It’s true that the royal family has many members who are not very religious. The crown’s two and a half centuries-old partnership with the religious establishment, the senior scholars known as the ulema, was and is a major part of each group’s legitimacy: that is the single most remarkable thing about Abdullah’s success in reforming law, the judiciary, and education.

In referring to the ulema as mullahs, Mr. Sullivan seems to be conflating Shi’a and Sunni, South Asian and Arab, traditions. A mullah (from the Urdu) is a Shi’a scholar or more likely a mischaracterized Sunni scholar or a prayer leader (imam)—“mullah” is not much used in Arabic. A religious scholar in Saudi Arabia is known as a sheikh, although “ya sheikh” (O sheikh) is not uncommon as a term of respect—one that has been used for even me, a tartar.

The house of Saud’s dependence on the ulema and vice versa have been challenged many times. The oldest modern case I know about was the ulema’s attempt to outlaw tobacco, I believe in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Then-king Abdul Aziz said that he would comply, but tobacco import duties that had been funding the ulema would unfortunately be lost: the ulema blinked. 

If the ulema lost most of its power, the royal family would of course be in trouble, not least because the most fundamentalist Muslims believe government should return to the rough democracy that characterized early Sunni Islam. The incremental shifting of power to other players, which seems to be in fits and starts, rather than retrograde movements, would likely continue. The crown is intentionally providing better education, including the all-important technical education necessary to an energy and chemicals economy, and the recipients of that education are more and more likely to demand a seat at the table–they have long successfully lobbied powerful princes such as Riyadh’s governor, Salman. It is no accident that the best-known commoners are concentrated in shipping, trade, and construction. 

Pace Mr. Sullivan, should the ulema’s power wax enough to create instability, the crown may be forced to extend the authority of the incipient parliament, the Majlis ash-Shura. Abdullah has already permitted democratic elections for local officials, who would presumably be qualified candidates for parliament. So, likely, would be members of the ulema. It is doubtful that the ulema will confront the crown, rather than the reverse—the trend over the past 70-80 years has been of a crown stronger over time, while well-placed commoners get greater political power, if not authority. 

John Renish

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