With the succession of Salman to the Saudi crown at the loss of King Abdullah, there is a strong discussion on the future progression of human rights in Saudi Arabia. While Abdullah stood out as a reformer compared to his predecessors, the road towards greater rights was moving at an extremely slow speed.
Saudi Arabia is not a friendly state for the LGBTQ community, women seeking to drive, religious freedoms, and criticism of the government among other things. The Saudi government has taken very strict actions in the face of opposition despite the small concessions to various people. There was movement, but not enough to constitute substantial change.
The cause of such a sluggish response to growing cries can be attributed to several key factors. Salman and other Saudi reformers have highlighted society as the biggest roadblock. Rather than address and introduce so many reforms at one point, it is better to gradually adapt society to changes. Of course, there are segments of Saudi Arabia’s society than stand opposed to change, much so from the conservative community.
The Ulema, the religious body in Saudi Arabia, has a strong say in the development and rulings in the country. With Wahhabism (a conservative interpretation of Islam) as the state religion, the laws regarding human rights are nearly devoid of basic protections and liberties we in the West typically associate with human rights. The King has the final authority, but the Ulema’s power and legitimacy in Saudi politics places it in the forefront of law and human rights progression.
Going back to the factor of society itself as a roadblock, there is the thought that an extension of human rights could cause an uproar from the conservative community. King Salman had been noted in a cable (released by WikiLeaks) saying that “the pace and extent of reforms depend on social and cultural factors. He claimed that for social reasons — not religious reasons — reforms cannot be imposed by the SAG or there will be negative reactions.”
Saudi Arabia is a major state in regards to Islam. It houses the Ka’ba in Mecca and hosts Medina, a city with rich Islamic history and significance. For Muslims, this is often a rallying point, where people come together and express their faith and devotion. For more conservative and radical minded individuals, any tampering with the area or society is a major offense.
Back during the Gulf War, American troops were stationed inside of Saudi Arabia to set up bases and launching points into Iraq. Some radically minded individuals, among them Osama bin Laden, saw this as infidels trespassing on the holy land. There was no direct threat towards them or to major sites in Saudi Arabia, but the encroachment of Western powers within the vicinity set off alarms. It served as a drive for bin Laden, and later on radical Islamic groups, to mount attacks against not only Western powers but upon various governments as well.
Especially now with so much turmoil in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is stuck in a very awkward spot. Islamist parties are taking charge in nations like Egypt and Tunisia, militant groups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen threaten stability and regional hegemony, and continued protests have put the Saudi government to the test. There is a threat of hard-line Islamist parties forming inside of Saudi Arabia and freely operating should freedoms be extended. It may not be a reality, but it is a concern of the Saudi government.
The extension of rights and freedoms not only allow for Islamist parties to move and speak freely, but strengthen conservative groups’ retaliation and anger. Moderate or major alterations and additions in terms of human rights risks an avalanche of violence and distrust of the government from multiple sides. Saudi Arabia appears stable, but only because it is precariously balancing itself in the midst of chaos.
As much as I would love to see human rights expedited in Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East, the reality is that progress will take a great deal of time. It is less of an acceptance of this fact, but more of an understanding. When looking out inwards, there always seems a definitive answer. Looking inwards out, the picture is complicated and foggy. Hopefully, a path will make itself visible and progression will continue at a quicker speed.