“Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, ruler of one of the most restrictive countries in the world for women, appointed the first female members Friday to a top advisory body that is the closest thing the kingdom has to a parliament. The 30 women named to the 150-member body will be required to wear proper hijab, or covering, and will have a separate entrance and section within the council’s main chambers, the royal decree announcing the appointments said. “It’s a big, big step forward,” said Thuraya Obaid, a former United Nations undersecretary-general from Saudi Arabia who was appointed to the council. In terms of women in Saudi Arabia, she said, “we will not be able to achieve everything at once … but this will give strength to the voice of women in the country……..”……”
Actually not only women members will be required to cover their heads. There is some equality here: both sexes, men and women, are required to wear a head cover. When they show a photo of the appointed advisory council, you’ll see that all members, both males and females, are wearing head covers, but with different names. It is called hijab for women and something else for the men. What separates the two sexes is probably the goatee, the royal fuzz on the royal chin, the (saksooka) which may become a requirement, but only for the men. As for separate entrances, I can’t imagine what will happen if some confused male member takes the wrong turn.
This appointment of women to this advisory council
is a positive departure from past policy. But it is a tiny symbolic step
that is meaningless in terms of any move toward freedom and democracy
and, as important, accountability. The Saudi regime has become masterful at creating diversions, at public relations stunts. It is good at making meaningless moves that attract headlines, especially in the West, even as the regime is tightening its controls. Even as it is cracking down at growing dissent and protests against repression across the Arabian Peninsula, from Qatif to Najd to Hijaz.
This council is appointed by the king, and last year his majesty arbitrarily decided to renew the appointment of all current members. Just like that. The late prince Nayef once famously remarked something to the effect that “I look at these members of the council, and I know that no electoral system can come up with better people than these”.
For decades some Gulf ruling oligarchs encouraged Islamist movements as one way to counter their main opposition of the time: the secular liberals, be they leftists or just Pan-Arabists or both. That was the era that started in the 1950’s and began to wane in the 1970s. It weakened further in the 1980s when some Arab countries and movements split about the Iran-Iraq war and the Islamist tide was rising. The final nail in the coffin of that era of secular liberal Arab movement came when Saddam Hussein’s tanks rolled into Kuwait in 1990. This is simplifying the story, but roughly it is correct. A brief review:
- The Al Saud had already established their own theocratic kingdom in partnership with the Wahhabi clerics. It has been a convenient partnership: (a) the princes get complete control of the wealth and the weapons and the politics and the livelihood of the people and, (b) the clerics get control of the soul of the people under the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Both (a) and (b) share the keys to the chains that shackle the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula. With the explosion of oil prices and the weakening of Arab secularism after 1970, the Al Saud and their Wahhabi clerics expanded beyond their borders, using the potent powers of money and previously-dormant sectarianism. The results have been spectacular, from their point of view. Wahhabism has spread into places as far as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, even Chechnya and the Caucasus. As well as many Arab states, both on the Persian-American Gulf and in places like Egypt under Mubarak, and now Syria. This dual (Al Saud-Wahhabi) control continues in the Arabian Peninsula, but the pressures are rising. The fear is receding and multiple opposition is rising from places like Hijaz and Najd and Qatif. In other Gulf GCC states Islamism has taken different paths.
- The recent Gulf Islamist rise has been strongest and most threatening in Kuwait. That occurred mainly because the ruling political “elites” encouraged it as a counterweight to the old secular leftist forces. These (once-strong) secular forces often tended to focus on corruption and reform politics while the potentates thought that these issues were not worth the trouble (surprise, surprise). The Islamists in Kuwait (both Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood) grabbed the opportunity to expand and typically did not seem to care about issues of corruption or political freedom. The “elites” were quite comfortable with the seemingly non-threatening Islamist approach. It was a marriage made in heaven for both sides, but it has had terrible effects on the country both in terms of development and social divisiveness. Besides, the Islamists, as supreme opportunists, were biding their time. A massive crop of clerics and teachers, many of them Salafis educated in Saudi Wahhabi institutions, eventually managed to take effective control of the social agenda and dominate the educational system of the country. In recent years, and in alliance with some tribal elements, they came to dominate the political system as well. The country became dangerously divided. These Islamist fundamentalists (Salafis and Muslim Brothers) now lead the opposition. Ironically they are allied with some aging remnants of the secular liberal forces they had vehemently opposed in the past. What I call the pro-Saudi Wahhabi liberals are also eager allies of the Islamists now, as are some among the sincere reformist youth who are frustrated by corruption. All these current allies had lost out during the decades when the Islamists sided with the ruling “elites” against reform and accountability. Until recent years the (Sunni) Islamist groups of both stripes had claimed that “leftists and liberals and secularists” were the greatest danger to Islam and society. Well, they probably meant the ‘second’ greatest danger (after you know who). The Islamist opportunism and hypocrisy continues. But, as far as their relationship with the ruling “elites”, as B.B. King says in the great old song: the thrill is gone. For now.
In Bahrain many (but not all) of the Sunni Islamists bought into the sectarian fear-mongering narrative of the ruling Al Khalifa family. Many now see the Shi’a majority and their demand as a threat to their own influence in historically tolerant and secular Bahrain. The phony legislature is empty of any representative of the the opposition, both Shi’a and Sunni, even though the opposition parties won well over 65% of the vote in the last elections. Yet Bahrainis of all sects are now beginning to notice the danger of foreign mercenaries (Jordanians, Pakistanis, Syrians, etc.) imported by the Al Khalifa in increasing numbers to help keep their absolute power. Meanwhile the ruling family, arguably one of the most corrupt among the Gulf GCC potentates, has continued to systematically loot the country.
Qatar, nominally Wahhabi, has found its own “accommodation” with Arab Islamists. It is now the Best Forever Friend of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf, just as a couple of years ago it was the BFF (+F) of both Syria and Iran. It is now as close to the MB as the Saudis are suspicious of it.
The UAE has started a surprisingly fierce media war against the Muslim Brotherhood (M. Not just a media war: it is also cracking down on suspected MB inside its territory be they citizens or foreigners. It is now treating the Muslim Brothers as fiercely as it treated Lebanese Shi’as a year or two ago. My funny source tells me that some of the potentates in the UAE had formed close ties with the MB over the years. She tells me that the ruling Al-Nahayan brothers of Abu Dhabi have finally decided to crack down on them. UAE authorities claim they have uncovered a plot against the state, but oddly these plots were uncovered as soon as some academics suggested that the country reform its politics and become more democratic. The arrests are continuing as new plots are uncovered. Relations with MB Egypt are not good, not good at all.
As for Oman, I have often opined here, correctly, that the Omanis look across the seas rather than back toward the Arabian Peninsula. Smart Omanis! I have worked with them in the past on GCC economic matters, in my other incarnation, and I know that they go through the motions without conviction. They have little serious interest in either Arab or Gulf matters, but they also realize where they are located. Oman has always been focused on relations overseas: across the Arabian Sea, the Persian-American Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. They don’t really care much about the Peninsula or the wider Arab world.They just go through the proverbial motions.