I hope you are enjoying your stay in the United States and that you are receiving a good education. I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the problems of our kingdom and the possible alternatives to the rule of the House of Saud. I have so few opportunities and liberties here that I feel that moderate Islamists may do a better job of governing our country than the princes. Let me try to explain how I feel.
Like many of our generation, I have had trouble finding work. During the oil boom of the 1970’s, employment was more secure and the government was able to grant extensive welfare benefits to citizens of the kingdom. More recently, however, the economy has stagnated. In 1998, for example, we had 27% unemployment!
I feel that the economy is suffering due to our reliance on oil. Despite the fabulous wealth it brings to the country, the oil industry can only employ a certain number of people. Since oil is essentially the only thing that our country produces, it is the only sector that provides large-scale employment other than the government itself, which is dominated by the royal family and its network of friends and cronies.
Despite all the wealth gained from oil, the royal family
Has not invested the wealth into other sectors of society; instead, it has used the oil wealth to enrich itself, purchase vast quantities of weapons from the Americans, and buy loyalty from the population by providing free social services. Despite all this wealth, however, our country has not given greater freedoms to its citizens.
Our kingdom has always relied on an alliance between the al-Saud family and the radical Wahabi clerics. One of the king’s central roles is the custodian of the two holy places (Mecca and Medina). The clerics give the king legitimacy, and in return the kings lavishly fund the clerics’ mosques, schools, and charity organizations.
I feel that this alliance is bad for our country. Our country needs to be freer. Both the royal family and the Wahabi clerics are opposed to greater freedoms for us, the average citizens. Both groups benefit by denying power to other people. I have come to feel that the Saudi-Wahabi alliance is bad for us as Saudi citizens, because it denies us basic freedoms. It is also bad for the world as a whole, because it leads to terrorism.
Many Wahabis have turned against the Saudi royal family, declaring that it is not sufficiently Islamic. They feel that the government is too corrupt, too decadent, and too friendly with America. Osama bin Laden is the most infamous Saudi who has taken this position. Even though he attacked America, bin Laden’s primary enemy has always been the Saudi royal family, who he feels are bad Muslims who do not deserve to be the custodians of Mecca and Medina.
The threat to the Saudis from its radical citizens became clear shortly after I was born. This was a major turning point in the history of our country. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August of 1990, many feared that he would turn on Saudi Arabia next. Osama bin Laden told King Fahd that he would battle Saddam Hussein’s forces with the fighters he had trained and fought with in Afghanistan during the 1980’s during the war with the Soviet Union.
King Fahd rejected bin Laden’s offer, which probably wasn’t very realistic any way. Instead, the king turned to the Americans for protection. Huge American armies came to Saudi Arabia and used our country as a base from which to attack Iraq and liberate Kuwait. Even though Saddam Hussein could no longer threaten Saudi Arabia, the decision to allow the American military into the kingdom infuriated many radical Islamists.
I must say that, as a proud and independent man, I would like to defend my own country rather than have the Americans do it. I don’t wish the Americans any harm, it’s just that I don’t want to rely on them and ideally I would like their military to leave our land. Many people, however, feel much more strongly about this than I do, and they began attack the house of Saud for allowing Americans into Arabia.
As my generation grew, we saw the government come under attack from radicals who wished to overthrow the regime. Throughout the 1990’s these radicals, including al-Qaeda, attacked sights in Saudi Arabia that were associated with the government or the American military. We now have a confrontation between the House of Saud and the radical Islamists, but I don’t feel that either group is able to govern our country effectively.
Although I disapprove of the Saudi royal family, just as Osama bin Laden does, I also totally disapprove of bin Laden’s goals and tactics. Basically I feel that the Saudis are far too conservative. Bin Laden feels that they are not conservative enough! The most amazing thing about the Saudis is that their allies, the Wahabis, are the people they have to fear most.
For years, the royal princes funded Wahabi mosques and schools and charities around the world. They knew that some of these groups used the money for terrorist activities, but there was a sort of unspoken agreement that the Islamist terrorists would not target Saudi Arabia itself. I don’t know why our government ever trusted these people, but the terrorists broke the agreement and began to attack the royal family.
So, my friend, our government has failed to diversify the economy beyond oil, it has failed to give more rights and liberties to its citizens, and it has used oil wealth to try to buy off radical groups, but this strategy has predictably backfired. These are very serious grievances to have, wouldn’t you say?
Perhaps an example of the royal family’s idea of “reform” will illustrate my grievances. In 1992, King Fahd enacted the Basic Law of Government by decree. The law spelled out the nature of the government. The government was a hereditary monarchy, a model that was popular centuries ago in Europe. The king would serve as head of state, head of the council of ministers, and commander in chief of the armed forces. In addition, the king appoints all ministers as well as all members of a new body, the consultative council.
Here are my problems with this attempt at reform. Firstly, the Basic Law was enacted by decree of the king; the Saudi people had absolutely no role in devising this law. Secondly, the law simply spelled out what was already known; the Saudi family, especially the king, has all the power in Saudi Arabia.
The consultative council was supposed to represent a move towards greater representation, but I feel that it only illustrated the king’s arrogance. Firstly, the council is appointed by the king, so we can assume it is made of up people who he knows will agree with him. Secondly, the council “consults”; the king is in no way bound to follow its advice. So not only is this council not representative of the Saudi people, it doesn’t even have any authority! This is not the kind of reform we need; this is not reform at all.
My friend, our country has no constitution, no bill of rights, no independent courts or media, and no direct representation for its citizens in government. This is not the type of country I wish to live in. Here is what I feel must be done.
I do not have any illusions about how long and hard the transition to democracy can prove to be. We have seen our neighbor, Iraq, torn apart by civil war and anarchy after its repressive government was thrown from power. If the Saudi government disappeared overnight, I fear that our country could very well suffer from these same curses. For this reason, a violent overthrow of the government would not be a good idea. Iraq has shown us that dictatorship is preferable to anarchy, because at least dictators can prevent massive terrorist attacks.
The answer does not lie in violent overthrow of the Saudis, and it also does not lie in radical Islamists. We are all Muslims here, it is true. Islam was born in Arabia. The prophet lived and died here. Mecca and Medina are here. We are the very cradle of Islam. However, we cannot allow radical Muslims to take power from the Saudis.
I have simple desires, my friend. Like most people on earth of every race and religion, I want simply to live my life in freedom and dignity and be able to provide for my loved ones. We have seen that radical Islamists, even though they claim to share our religion, are merchants of death only; from everything I have seen, it seems clear that they are more interested in killing people, mostly fellow Muslims, than they are in governing.
As much as I dislike the Saudis, I know deep down that radical Islamists would be worse. They would likely be even more violent and repressive towards the people than the Saudis are. The most radical Islamists wish to return Arabia to a 7th century state of “purity”. They feel that this is the ideal environment for Muslims. They wish to recreate a world before oil, a world before mass communication and entertainment, a world before America. This is a very dark wish. We should not be naïve about what radical Islamists would do to our country should they ever gain power.
The solution, I feel, lies with moderate Islamists. Islam must be the focus of any reform, because the mosque is the only power center of any substance other than the Saud family. There is no independent civil society here because of all the restrictions on speech and political participation. The mosque is the only place that people can freely gather and organize.
As I said above, friend, we are Muslims, and any reform in our land must be Islamist to some degree; it is inevitable. The important aspect then is to ensure that reform is directed through moderate clerics rather radical Islamists. We need Muslim leaders to direct the push for reform, but not the Muslims who wish to turn back the clock by 13 centuries!
My vision of a government of moderate Islamist clerics and scholars has many components. Firstly, they would stop trying to buy off radical groups and start adopting a more moderate interpretation of Islam than the Wahabis. This new government would recognize that when you give arms and funding to radical groups, these groups will inevitably turn on you.
As we know, friend, our land is the heart of Islam, and any government we have will be responsible for maintaining the sacred places and providing for all the Muslims who make the yearly pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. We must also, however, understand that many Muslims look to Arabia for inspiration and Arabia therefore must be responsible with its influence and must not support radical and violent groups who kill in the name of our great religion.
More moderate clerics are the best candidates to lead the new Arabia for many reasons. They are educated and have experience with leadership and organization in the community. Because of this experience, we can be confident that the clerics will be competent as stewards of the state. Equally as important, they are respected by the society. One of the many lessons we have learned from Iraq is that a new government must be made up of people with deep roots in the communities they represent.
The first task of a more moderate government would be to write a constitution. This is an extremely important step, as I’m sure you have learned by visiting the United States. An Arabian constitution would be much different from the American one, of course, but the concept is the same. Laws and rights must be enshrined by a binding document rather than being up to the whims of a king.
An Arabian constitution might make more room for religion than the American one does, for example, or grant fewer individual rights to citizens, but it would serve a very important function. It would represent a power greater than the king. It would provide a list of things that the government cannot do. These would include such elementary abuses as arrest without warrant or charge, torture, and suppression of media. For the first time in Arabia, there would be a limit on the powers of the government.
This may perhaps seem like a very limited step, but imagine what a large one it would be for our country! Arabia today is ruled as the property of a single family; the country itself is named after the al-Sauds! Can you imagine if the United States was called “Bush America”? This is no way for a country to be run.
I hope the friends you are making in America understand that Arabia will never be like America. However, I believe that some American ideas, combined with moderate Arabian intellectuals, offers the best hope for our country. Be well, friend.
Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East,
second edition. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.
Hiro, Dilip. The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide.
New York: Carol & Graff Publishers, 2003.
Husain, Mir Zohair. Global Islamic Politics, second edition.
New York: Longman, 2003.
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