April 8th, 2014
12:58 PM ET

The internal debate Saudi Arabia needs to have

By Fahad Nazer, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Fahad Nazer is an analyst at JTG, Inc. and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy and Al Monitor, among others. You can follow him @fanazer. The views expressed are his own.

The uproar surrounding a recent Human Rights Watch statement on Saudi Arabia’s new terrorism laws is just the latest example of the tensions that have emerged in the country between liberalism and religious moderation on the one hand, and social conservatism and religious extremism on the other.

In the statement, issued late last month, the group warned that Interior Ministry regulations include “sweeping provisions” that “authorities can use to criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam.” Specifically, it noted Article 1, which covers “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”

Unfortunately, such measures simply serve to highlight the disconnect between the conciliatory policies the government has adopted towards religion in its relations with the outside world, and the still strict policies implemented within the kingdom. And, with the tug of war between ultra conservatives and those who understand the dangers of doctrinal rigidity showing no signs of abating, one thing is clear – Saudi Arabia is being pulled in two quite different directions.

The question now is whether any of this is likely to produce a much needed public debate about religious tolerance in the country.

Back in February, the rumor that Saudi Arabia had agreed to allow the country’s first Coptic Church spread quickly around social media. Of course, the notion that the decades-old policy of not allowing non-Islamic houses of worship on Saudi soil would suddenly be reversed struck many as dubious. So it was not surprising that the Coptic Orthodox Church quickly released a statement denying the report.

Yet while the press release confirmed my suspicions, it did not douse my hopes that even an inaccurate story such as this one might spark discussion among ordinary Saudis about the eventual possibility of such a shift in policy, even if the mainstream media in the country appears averse to covering the subject.

Such a debate – especially if it were followed by some loosening of restrictions on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia – could have far reaching implications, not just for relations between Saudis and the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim expatriates in the kingdom, but also for relations between majority Sunnis and minority Shia Muslims. Indeed, as a leading voice in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia could send a powerful international message if it would only take some concrete measures to institutionalize religious toleration inside the kingdom.

The question now is whether Saudi Arabia is ready to take the next steps.

The September 11 attacks on the United States, and the targeting of housing compounds in Riyadh in May 2003 by al Qaeda affiliates, compelled Saudi officials to try to understand why their young people are too often over-represented among the perpetrators of violent jihadi campaigns inside the kingdom. This soul searching appeared to lend support to those who believed that the country would be better served by embracing tolerance towards not just other religions, but different strands of thought and practice within Islam.

At the same time, the Saudis have cracked down on imams and teachers espousing militant views, imprisoning those affiliated with terrorist groups like al Qaeda – during an eight-month period in 2010, for example, the government announced that almost 150 alleged al Qaeda members had been arrested. More recently, King Abdullah issued a decree declaring it a crime to participate in or to support military conflicts abroad, a move clearly aimed at stemming the flow of Saudis joining the “Jihad” in Syria.

But this tough approach has been coupled with some softer outreach. For example, Saudi Arabia has funded the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, while back in 2007, King Abdullah held an historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, the first such meeting between a Saudi monarch and a pope.

Meanwhile, there are also indications that the controversial Committee for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (dubbed the religious police in the West) is coming under increasing scrutiny, with some Saudis now publicly criticizing its aggressive tactics. Back in January 2012, King Abdullah dismissed the head of the organization, replacing him with the reportedly more moderate Sheikh Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh.

But while these developments suggest progress, ultra conservatives still pose a barrier to the advancement of women’s rights, including their desire for education and the right to drive, and they have dismissed proponents of such change as “agents” of the West. In addition, there are also those that view the beliefs and rites of Shia Muslims as heretical, and something that should not be expressed publicly.

Such restrictions will need to be re-examined if Saudi Arabia wishes to foster a culture of respect for diversity within Islam, and Saudis should ask themselves whether allowing non-Sunnis or even non-Muslims to observe their respective religion truly constitutes an affront to their own.

It is a much needed discussion, and one that the government should encourage to be held in public because the reality is that refusing to allow freedom of religion is not a sign of strength, but of insecurity. The sooner the country’s conservatives realize that the better.


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Topics: Religion • Saudi Arabia

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Matthew Slater

    Time to bomb the Saudis the real perpetrators of 9/11
    They're running out of oil anyway we can frack FOREVER!!!

    April 8, 2014 at 3:25 pm |
    • Unga Ramires

      Mabey a designated section for the "other" relegions may be a good start. But let us not hate or throw angression uppon other countries views. For who are we to throw stones.

      April 15, 2014 at 3:36 pm |
  2. mmquamar

    Nice to see somebody raising the question about religious freedom in the kingdom, and more importantly the need for internal debate. I think the Saudi people, mainly the intelligentsia, will have to debate these issues and argue for possibility of existence for varied opinions. Thanks!

    April 9, 2014 at 12:41 am |
  3. Peter Matay

    It is a very complicated issue. While most people outside and inside the kingdom agree that these issues need to be discussed the end result remain obscure. Greater religious tolerance and backfire with the fundamentalists turning against the regime, at the same time if less tolerance and freedom is granted the youth (60% of population is below 30 and 70% is below 37) and the unemployed and moderates will become dissatisfied threatening the regime. I think the only way for the Al-Saud and the preservation of the status quo is to give very small incremental concessions to the fundamentals and the moderates.

    But, until when can the concessions be given? Saudi Arabia is at the crossroads and it seems a very divided society when it comes to fundamentalists vs moderates, rich vs poor, young vs old. These irreconcilable deepening divisions are impossible to overcome. In the future Saudi will have to decide between a rock and a hard place or the society will decide for them.

    Unfortunately, whatever the outcome, it will not be a win-win situation...

    April 9, 2014 at 4:56 am |
    • Kellan

      I couldn't have said it better. Having worked and lived in Saudi on and off for the past 15 years, I have seen rapid progression towards reforms and moderation and just as rapid shunting backward towards conservatism and verging on radicalism. There is a dichotomous situation where the modern and the traditional are pulling in opposite directions. Saudization is progressing very rapidly, yet the country does not have the infrastructure nor the work ethic to truly carry it off. Young Saudi's want to do far less than their expatriate colleagues for vastly more money. The old guard are desperately striving to keep the traditions and subsequent control but modern technology, transportation and abayas themselves allow greater freedom for the young than ever before. Young Saudi women dress in the traditional abaya, and for some (I have actually had a Saudi girl tell me this) it is very freeing as it allows her to travel incognito and meet up with her boyfriend in the shopping mall carparks with no one knowing it is her as she is veiled. The more the country tries to stem the tied of the younger generations want for freedom, the greater risk it is that the whole country will erupt in anarchy as the younger generations want to enter 2014 is hampered by the tribal traditional regime trying to keep it in 1435 (the actual Hijirian Year at the moment). The simmering animosity of the Sunni's and Shia are an ongoing concern when Bahrain is on the tipping point and Iran is just waiting in the wings to possibly help the scales go the Shia's way. Many Bahraini's did not see it a an "Us against Them" until Saudi rolled their tanks across the cause way to squash the ill fated "Arab Spring Uprising". However, many feel that that was jus a prelude for the ongoing tension in the region for many of the countries that are socially bankrupt from years of wars and turmoil. Egypt continues to simmer, Syria is a wasteland, Jordan is overflowing with refugees and is virtually bankrupt because if it, Saudi is faced with the fact that oil is not being found and taken from various other places around the world, and the years that they have had the money to burn, they have not invested this into their own people's welfare, education nor technology to find other sources of cleaner energy. The Kingdom has over 355 days of sunlight a year...with the possibility of being able to produce energy for all of its citizens easily, yet no where is there solar panels on houses or industries. The women (their greatest resource) remain limited to minor roles and as soon as married the majority are encouraged strongly to have children and stay at home. They cannot drive, so the fact that many more are entering the workplace yet expatriates are being told to leave the country sets about a very difficult situation, and one that is forcing the issue of women driving into a greater and greater importance. Not that I would want my wife to drive in this country as the driving is insane! There is not automobile club to help her change a tire. Another man can't do it as he can't be alone with her. What if a woman is involved in an accident on her own? What if she is unconscious and needs to be dragged out of the car? Who can touch her? What if she needs CPR? Can a man touch another man's wife on her chest, even if it is gong to save her life? There are so many modern issues that Saudi is just not ready to handle. But, like it or not, sooner or late all these questions will have to be asked and answered. Either Saudi will be pulled kicking and screaming into he 21st century like UAE, Bahrain and Lebanon or it will implode or explode into anarchy and tribal division like Afghanistan and Iraq. We shall just have to wait and see.

      April 13, 2014 at 3:13 pm |
  4. jigdood

    Honestly, Zakaria is the epitome of ignorance, today even toddlers talk about human rights in saudi, and Zakaria has also learnt, its fashionable, but when Bush was attacking Afghanistan, he was silent. It seems that your green card has been offered to you conditionally, that you would speak in interest of US politicians. learn from Gandhi kid, he wanted to imitate gentlemen till he realized being oneself is the best

    April 9, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
  5. abu_sultan_saudi

    matthew slater actualy 911 is C.I.A made and an illuminati event made by world order because when the world order ending the cold war between the soviet union and the world order actualy they invent 911 like a justification to face their new enemy (islam)

    April 10, 2014 at 4:08 am |
  6. BRUCE

    Israel is 10,000 square miles 30% Muslim and many have been elected to some of the highest public offices within Israel. They are surrounded by 5 million square miles of Brutal Oppressive Islamic nations that really give women the same rights as farm animals.These Islamic nations are intolerant of all other religions and even peaceful dissent can get you executed by torture. Today, the Europeans and Americans have armed these brutal disgusting Islamic oppressive nations with the most advanced military weaponry ever produced and Assad of Syria is responsible for more Arab civilian deaths and human displacement in 2 years than occurred in 60 years of Arab/Israeli wars. Now, Europe and Arabs are talking about boycotting Israel for oppression ?? Antisemitism is alive and well and the UN should be booted from our borders.

    April 12, 2014 at 9:27 am |
    • David


      "Assad of Syria is responsible for more Arab civilian deaths and human displacement in 2 years than occurred in 60 years of Arab/Israeli wars"

      You forgot Sudan (2 wars, ~2mm dead), Algeria (hundreds of thousands dead in war between islamists and govt), Taliban (killed 40,000 Hazaras in 2 days, sponsored terrorism throughout the world), Saddam in Iraq (killed hundreds of thousands of Shia, kurds, mass graves still being found today). Makes Assad look like Gandhi.

      April 13, 2014 at 8:35 am |
  7. ron

    gods do not exist.
    Saudi Arabia is ruled by crazy people.
    tolerance of insanity and other religions is not the issue.
    the issue is that any of them believe in false gods in the first place.


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