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Saudi Arabia in the Crucible: A Conversation with Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Joseph Braude

In recent months, several delegations of American diplomats, elected officials, and Middle East specialists have visited the Saudi capital Riyadh, met with the country’s senior leadership, and gone on to publish articles about their findings. Among them, veteran American peace negotiator Dennis Ross wrote in the Washington Post, “There is an awakening underway in Saudi Arabia … being led from the top,” including a plan for “comprehensive educational reform.” He saw the Kingdom’s April decision to strip its notorious religious police of their authority to arrest and interrogate citizens as a potential harbinger of further changes to come. Former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, while conveying more skepticism in his article in Politico, also described a “new and unprecedented degree of honesty” from senior officials, in that they acknowledged the country’s history of promoting extremism at home and abroad.

Hopes for positive change in the country tend to revolve around “Vision 2030,” an economic restructuring plan announced over the spring by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. It aims to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil by diversifying its economy. The Kingdom has since cut government salaries and lifted subsidies on gas, water, and health services. Future plans call for the partial privatization of oil juggernaut Saudi Aramco, a push for transparency and accountability in government, and an overall shift to the private sector as the country’s primary creator of jobs. Optimists outside the country believe the economic restructuring will inevitably be accompanied by social reforms — though traditionalists within the country want to see the former achieved without the latter.

Special insights as to the likelihood of sweeping change can be gleaned from Saudi Arabia’s own longtime proponents of social reform, who have seen high hopes dashed before. Prominent among them is Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, who served as General Manager of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel during its formative years, after a memorable stint as editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat and its sister news magazine, Al-Majalla. Over a four-hour discussion, we explored the relationship between the Kingdom’s planned economic overhaul and the reform of Saudi religious and educational institutions. We discussed the potential role of nascent civil society organizations in fostering change, and what Americans and others might be able to do to strengthen their hand. Finally, we touched on what changes Saudi reformists hope to see in American policy toward Saudi Arabia under the Trump Administration, and how Saudi relations with Israel and Jews generally might be encouraged to improve.

He stressed that he was expressing his own personal views.

Q: What hopes do proponents of social change in Saudi Arabia place in the kingdom’s economic restructuring plan?

A: Well-informed Saudis, whatever their social or religious orientation, understand the shocking truth that oil prices might not return to $140 per barrel, and as a result, the “welfare state” is unsustainable. My hope, shared by some elites, is that the austerity measures necessary for an economic overhaul, which have already begun, will fix Saudi Arabia socially. I believe the reforms will entail a confrontation with conservative ideas, not necessarily by design, but as the natural consequence of three central points: First, women must join the workplace in massive numbers to improve family income — a trend that would in some ways parallel the rise in female employment in the U.S. in 1916 during the First World War. Second, the nature and degree of the government’s responsibility toward Saudi religious institutions must be evaluated practically. Third, while grand scale political reform is not expected, it seems possible that through an organic outgrowth of the reforms process and the waning of the welfare state, as the people share more of the country’s economic burden, the government will begin to vest a measure of political responsibility in the population. Many Saudis tend to share the feeling that it is realistic to achieve these goals over time through a process of incremental, systemic reform.

Q: Some Americans observers have compared the Saudi “Vision 2030” with Chinese economic reforms over the past 20 years, and raised the concern that no political reform resulted in China as had once been expected. What about Saudis who do want to see more expansive political reforms in their country?

A: The Chinese example should offer encouragement with respect to Saudi Arabia, inasmuch as there has been considerable social, though not political, change in the country in recent decades. I’ve visited China, both before and after the wave of reforms. At the beginning, it was a closed society in which everyone was wearing the same short-sleeve shirts and riding bicycles, an outward manifestation of reigning communist ideology. The reforms brought consumerism — once regarded as a sin against Maoism — and the range of social change and openness to the world that consumerism inevitably leads to.

As to political change in Saudi Arabia, I think the extent of the reforms that are desired will likely be mitigated by the shrinkage of government overall and increased power and responsibility that is handed over to the private sector. Americans should also be aware that many of the calls for political reform in Saudi Arabia emanate from political Islamists whose vision is a one-party Islamist system. As to those of us whose political orientation is more liberal, most were appalled by the disastrous outcomes of the “Arab Spring.” This is why they are now so broadly supportive of incremental reform.

Q: Let’s come back to the social reforms you mentioned, with respect to women and religious institutions. How are traditionalists in the Kingdom, who oppose the types of changes you would like to see, hoping to counter the trend toward reform?

A: I’d offer you an example of how the tension between the two has been manifesting. We are a country of 32 million in which the government is the largest employer. In October, the Kingdom froze all state employees’ salary increases, canceled regular bonus payments, and suspended some benefits, effectively reducing civil servants’ earnings and prospects by around 20 percent. As a result, Saudi families now face greater pressure to increase the number of wage earners — in other words, allow women to work. They also need to trim the household budget — of expenses like the salary of a male chauffeur to drive the woman to work each day because women are banned from driving. Until recently, the wages of a South Asian driver were about 1500 riyal (roughly $400) per month — but the real price today is more than twice that due to new visa tariffs and regulations which happen also to be a component of the economic reforms. Thus I assume Saudi households are likely to add unprecedented pressure on conservatives to lift the ban on women driving.

But as you point out, the sort of Saudis who want to maintain the ban on women driving are looking for a way around all this. And so they say, if more women must work, let’s contain the social repercussions by enhancing gender segregation in the work force. Let’s have new women-only malls, hotels, and hospitals, staffed exclusively by women. They argue that enhanced gender segregation is its own way of increasing the number of women in the work force. And they are probably right — but doing so won’t solve the social dilemma. Meanwhile, the more moderate among clerics will support women’s empowerment inasmuch as it becomes necessary due to austerity measures and other economic factors.

Q: But these arguments cut both ways: If economic reforms actually succeed, budgets won’t shrink; they’ll grow. Where is the strategy to change, for example, the nature of clerics’ preachings, or how Islam is taught in schools?

A: There is of course the hope that the road to economic progress will witness social changes as an organic byproduct of the process. This is my expectation — even though the text of “Vision 2030” does not address the issues you mentioned proactively. Historically, a series of efforts to reform education in the kingdom did not succeed. Several education ministers aspiring to do so came and went. I’ve seen, over the past 20 years, repeated expansions in the number of schools, and considerable spending on Saudi scholarships for study abroad, but not a lot about the content of Saudi curricula. To achieve deep educational reform requires political, as opposed to economic, capital.

The new plan does open the door to education reform by throwing new responsibilities on the private sector: “Vision 2030” calls for granting new latitude to a preexisting network of privately owned schools that enjoy partial government funding — roughly akin to charter schools in the U.S. Up until now, conservatives within the educational institutions managed to control the curricula of these “charter schools,” as they do the government schools. They educated only a small proportion of the Kingdom’s six million schoolchildren in any case. The hope and expectation is that the proportion of charter schools will grow, together with the degree of autonomy that they enjoy.

Q: Let’s say only a modest amount of political capital becomes available for reformers to push for qualitative education reform. Where and how do you spend it?

A: Among Westerners, the question of Islamic educational reform in Saudi Arabia has been largely focused on Saudi elementary schools and, in particular, their textbooks. In my opinion, they are wrong, in that the grade school textbooks have been adequately reformed. The problem that remains is more the attitude of the country’s 700,000 teachers and principals, who are a product of the ambient culture and may relay their sensibilities to children more informally. But the elementary school textbooks are no longer a source of radicalism.

If asked to prioritize change given only limited clout, I would place the emphasis on the three Saudi universities that license clerics: the Islamic University of Madinah, Umm Al-Quraa University in Mecca, and Al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. They are the real gateway to reforming societal thinking and behavior.

Q: Because tomorrow’s preachers and Shari’ah judges are being trained there?

A: Yes, but also for a different reason no less important: Much the way that in the United States the path toward politics is typically paved by a law degree, in Saudi Arabia, you work toward an influential career in government by graduating from one of the Islamic universities. This will continue to be the case, even as alternative professional paths into government also emerge. So affecting the tenor of what is taught in Islamic universities counts doubly: It simultaneously affects how the next generation of Saudi religious elites will learn, and how the civil service and political class will behave. It follows that if, for argument’s sake, one had the ability to reform only one of the three universities, it should be Al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, because that is our political capital.

What does it mean to “reform” these institutions? The challenge of doing so goes well beyond removing incendiary paragraphs in textbooks, which are minimal. This is about supplanting a retrograde ideology with a modern, tolerant one. In my country, supporters of such a shift use the term “Al-Islam al-Wasati” (centrist Islam) to describe what they are seeking. But the term is shorthand for something that has not yet been fully articulated. In addition to the political challenge of instilling “centrist Islam” in Saudi educational institutions, there is also an intellectual project, yet to be launched in any organized way, that would establish what “centrist Islam” really is. In trying to do so, Saudis do have local traditions to draw from, inasmuch as the fabric of Islamic culture in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s — before “political Islam” moved in — was more tolerant. There are also grounds to draw lessons from moderate Islamic thinking and practice elsewhere in the Muslim world and perhaps beyond.

It is vital that the development of “Islamic centrism” succeed, for numerous reasons and on multiple levels. To begin with, it helps make our own society stronger and more resilient. Second, Saudi “Islamic centrism” has the potential to halt the descent into extremism among the world’s billion-strong population of Sunni Muslims. As home to the two holy sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina, we are the global fulcrum of Islam, in general, and Sunnism, in particular. By adopting a narrative of Islamic centrism, we can serve rightfully as leaders of the Muslim world, at a turbulent time in which so many Islamic ideologies are radical. In my opinion, though Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia are all Sunni countries with vast populations, none is in a position to serve such a leadership role today. “Islamic centrism” needs a home address. Saudi Arabia can become that address, making this narrative our main soft power export to the world and serving an urgent global policy priority.

Q: Do proponents of such an effort have allies within the three Islamic universities?

A: In approaching the clerical elites who run these institutions, Saudis find it useful to think in terms of three related but distinctive trends: conservatism, radicalism, and terrorism. By “conservatism,” we mean an approach to Islam that is culturally inflected and deeply rooted in the Arabian Peninsula. It has grown more strident in modern times: Women used to ride camels and horses, but today they aren’t allowed to drive. Women used to fight in battles, but today they aren’t supposed to work alongside men. But “conservativism” doesn’t mean “radicalism” until it is forced upon other Saudis and other societies.

Among the faculty of the Islamic universities, some are “conservative” without being “radical.” They recognize the relationship between radicalism and terrorism, and are less enthusiastic about imposing cultural and religious hegemony on any society. This variety of “conservatives” are the closest reformists have to an ally among clerics within these institutions. Ironically, I might add, some professors in Saudi physics, chemistry, and biology faculties are more radical than the conservatives who teach Shari’ah.

But in sum, I do believe the answer to developing “Al-Islam al-Wasati” lies in these institutions.

Q: Is there a fourth category — clerics who themselves advocate for religious reform and are excluded from the dominant religious institutions? If so, can they achieve positions of influence?

A: Social media such as Twitter and YouTube has enabled some clerics who have not achieved high posts in the Saudi religious hierarchy to attain celebrity status on their own. Some of them are populist demagogues, whereas others have begun to show some progressive instincts. The good news is that, whatever their orientation, “social media celebrity clerics” are like movie stars or football stars, in that today’s VIP may be tomorrow’s has-been. That is good news in the sense that it is possible to influence who wins and who loses by granting the right ones actual institutional authority. We have noticed that the government, which appoints religious figures to senior positions, has begun to take an interest in how reformist “celebrity clerics” may play a helpful role in promoting “Islamic centrism.” The government is a very powerful machine in the religious sphere, perhaps underestimated by outsiders: In granting high-level appointments to some and retiring others, it can influence which religious currents gain strength. I believe it’s likely that in the next few years, some top posts within the religious hierarchy will be granted to clerics who earned their acclaim not through the traditional religious hierarchy but rather via social media. Today, the country’s senior clerics are aware that many Saudis’ religious views are shaped more by social media celebrity clerics than by appointed religious figures.

Q: Let’s move from long-term religious education and inculcation to the more immediate question of present-day Saudi government policies toward non-Muslim religious communities. Surprise me with a goal outsiders consider far-fetched that you believe to be realistic.

A: Sure. Let’s assume we have one million Christians or Hindus working in Saudi Arabia today. Historically, the issue of their right to communal worship has been ignored by Saudis — on the pretext that the absence of such rights was merely a minor encumbrance to workers whose status was only temporary. In my opinion, we face a choice in Saudi Arabia: Maintain the guest worker population and grant them these rights, or do without guest workers by doing their jobs ourselves. If we maintain them, we need to foster greater openness toward them, including tolerance of their faith.

Q: Would the same logic apply to Saudi relations with Jews?

A: To begin with, without resolving the Palestinian-Israeli issue, it’s not possible to address this problem substantively. I see the brunt of the issue as political and not religious: Before Jews and Israelis were our obsession, there was anti-Portuguese sentiment in the eighteenth century, anti-Turkish sentiment in the nineteenth century, and anti-British sentiment in the twentieth century. As the underlying conflicts were resolved politically, the cultural clashes subsided. My point about Christians and Hindus is that, at a time of fluidity in economic governance, when international buy-in is essential, the case for their rights can be made within the framework of a practical, on-the-ground concern.

Q: With respect to Jews generally, some outsiders pinned hopes on the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue when it was established in Vienna in 2011. It seemed significant at the time that an intergovernmental initiative from Riyadh had brought together an advisory board that included leaders from the major Muslim and Christian denominations, a prominent rabbi based in Jerusalem, and luminaries of non-monotheistic faiths. But even some of the board members wondered whether an organization so distant from Saudi territory would influence Saudi attitudes toward non-Muslims — if that was even a priority for the organization to begin with. Five years later, the question is still being asked, with considerably more skepticism.

A: It fell short in this respect, and needs to be revived.

Q: Is there a different institutional framework that is truly active within the kingdom?

A: The one that I think is more serious — an intellectual project within the Kingdom — and does its work without international fanfare, is the King Abdelaziz Centre for National Dialogue. Its founding goes back a decade earlier than the organization in Vienna — to the period between September 11, 2001 and the 2003 residential compound bombings in Riyadh, when Saudi authorities were waking up to the damage wrought by sectarian animosity within the Kingdom. Let’s bear in mind that just as all politics is local, the problem of intolerance often begins with internal, internecine conflict, and intolerance toward outsiders may be largely a projection of domestic schisms onto a distant other.

Thus, the real challenge for the country — as for others in the region — is to change the way locals of differing sects, ethnic backgrounds, and ideological currents perceive and engage each other. Call me ignorant, but I don’t see Saudi religious figures participating in international interfaith dialogues and coming home to bring change on the ground. If there are any, their ability to win over an audience at Harvard, Yale, or Cambridge would not be an indication of their influence within the kingdom. The Centre for National Dialogue, by contrast, is working the grassroots. It hosts public conferences and private gatherings that have brought Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Ismailis to sit and talk together. They have debated religious figures, raising the fact that their attitude toward the rival Muslim sect, and indeed Jews, is damaging the country on the international stage. Women have also been provided with a controlled environment in which to make their voices heard among clerics. There are talented people running the Centre who study the impact of a given initiative and adjust based on lessons learned.


Animated video promoting tolerance among Saudi youth on social media, produced by the King Abdelaziz Centre for National Dialogue.

The “Vision 2030” reforms package includes a commitment to triple the number of NGOs in Saudi Arabia in a very short time. I’ve been told that the laws will be eased to expedite the process of winning a license to create one. In some other Arab countries, we have seen the rapid proliferation of NGOs lead to a cottage industry of groups run by profit seekers who do not connect to the society’s grass roots. In hopes that Saudi NGOs do not develop in this way, I’d suggest that the Centre for National Dialogue provides an example of a functioning civil society organization which others can learn from.

Q: So let’s talk about how American and other outside civil society groups can engage these organizations as they emerge. One can easily exaggerate the number of instances in which a group of Westerners truly improved the workings of a civic enterprise in a distant cultural and linguistic environment. But for the various problems you have described — religious intolerance, male chauvinism, institutional paralysis, corruption, and so on — there are some remedies and expertise in the U.S. and elsewhere that have proven to be exportable. Where are we in terms of Saudi openness to sustained, ground-level human engagement between reformists in the Kingdom and their sympathizers overseas?

A: We recognize the potential benefit of such collaborations. But the challenge of overcoming Saudi suspicions about foreign involvement in internal affairs is not small — particularly with respect to the United States. This applies to the Saudi grassroots as well as the senior decision makers who would need to authorize such endeavors. Part of the reason is that, in our support for systemic, incremental reform, we reject the “revolutionary option” which some Americans seem to champion. Another factor is the tendency of some American institutions, active in other Arab countries, to partner with political Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. That too would be a non-starter in Saudi Arabia. Finally, various think tanks in Washington have called for muscular interventionist policies in the Middle East which are unpalatable in the Kingdom. A few Americans, working in partnership with Saudi institutions, have devoted considerable energy to building trust among Saudi incremental reformists, and have an obvious role to play as a bridge.

But it is also hard to see substantial, granular connectivity between the two societies before the strained geopolitical relationship between the two countries is addressed. It’s no secret that Saudis were disappointed by the Obama Administration’s approach to Iran and its Arab proxies, as well as policies toward the “Arab Spring,” and felt that the U.S. did not adequately value the Kingdom’s historic and continuing contribution to regional security. We look to the new U.S. Administration with hopes for a reset in policies toward Saudi Arabia and the broader region. One of the reasons is indeed that by rebuilding trust on a macro level, the U.S. Government can help ease suspicions about civic engagement between the two countries on a granular level. Americans need to recognize, moreover, that fostering the success of social reform efforts in Saudi Arabia is also a geopolitical imperative: As I mentioned earlier, if the Kingdom does manage to institutionalize “Islamic centrism” as we hope, it can use its formidable machinery of ideological exportation to spread it globally.

Q: Let’s return to your point about relations with Israel. Over the past two years, Israel’s supporters have been heartened to see four public encounters between a handful of Saudi and Israeli nationals, some perhaps more influential than others. Can the two countries increase and deepen human engagement, perhaps as part of an effort to encourage a political resolution?

A: Again, without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, prospects to do so are severely constrained. A resolution of that conflict, whether along the lines of the “Arab Peace Initiative” presented by the late King Abdullah or some other approach, will make it much easier to improve relations among Saudis, other Arabs, Jews generally, and Israelis. But if the question is specifically what can be done now — before the conflict is resolved — to increase connectivity, perhaps a new step would be for Saudi Arabia to formally lift its ban on work visas for Israel’s Arab citizens, and for Israel to welcome and foster Arab Israelis’ professional deployment to any Arab country. From a Saudi perspective, the case for doing so can be made openly in terms of the virtue of empowering all Palestinians, on either side of the Green Line. In seeking out the most qualified Arabs in Israel to work anywhere in the Gulf, moreover, we will inevitably find those who have achieved success in the mainstream of Israel’s economy and society — the tech sector, manufacturing, medicine, and so on. When they travel to the GCC states, their human networks and professional partnerships will effectively travel with them. Thus, they can serve as a human bridge, as Israel moves toward a political solution, gradually enabling partnerships between the broader populations of both sides.

Normalization with Arab Israelis should be initiated by the Arab League in Cairo, which historically has been the lion’s den of resistance to normalization. To them we might say that, after all, many Jewish Israelis hold dual citizenship and are free to work almost anywhere in the region with their non-Israeli passport. Meanwhile, most Arab Israelis are banned from working in Arab countries because they hold only Israeli citizenship. In a similar vein, many Israeli companies are already exporting goods to Arab markets through foreign corporate entities, while Arab farmers in Israel cannot sell their tomatoes in the Gulf market.

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