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The road to 9-11 began in Saudi Arabia. GlobalPost set out to understand how the kingdom has changed — and how it hasn't — on this 10th anniversary. In this seven-part series, "Saudi Arabia: The Road Beyond 9-11," GlobalPost hit the streets of Riyadh where some women now dare to get behind the wheel and travelled Highway 15 where Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 9/11 hijackers. The series goes inside the House of Saud's struggle against extremism — and its balancing act between a desire for reform and resistance to the revolutionary spirit of the 'Arab Spring.'
Still barred from driving automobiles — and obliged to defer to men in most life decisions — progress is slow.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Our car slipped into the fast-moving traffic on a three-lane causeway slicing through the capital city. It picked up speed as we passed glinting corporate towers and upscale shopping malls reflecting Saudi Arabia’s affluence and its aspirations for modernity.
But we were heading directly into a clash with the reality behind this glassy image of modern life, which is the puritanical religious establishment and its hold over the House of Saud.
A woman was behind the wheel.
Here in Saudi Arabia, that’s forbidden. Women are banned from driving by a government-enforced religious decree. Saudi women also cannot vote. And under the kingdom’s “guardianship” system, they cannot go to university, work or leave the country without the permission of their father or husband.
Our defiant female driver at the wheel of the family Mercedes is a university lecturer in her 30s. Her husband rode shotgun in the front passenger seat. And I was in the back, with notebook and camera.
“The main problem in Saudi Arabia is that on the one hand, it wants to modernize...But on the other hand, it has this ideological basis that is adamantly opposed to such a foreign policy.”~Joas Wagemakers, Radboud University Nijmegen
The couple was doing their part, they said, for the ongoing campaign to scrub Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers, flouting the ban to make a point: Women can and should be allowed to drive.
The woman, who requested anonymity to avoid harassment from officials and opponents of female drivers, said police were only doing their job if they spotted her and issued a ticket for not having a license.
“But if they try to take me to the police station, they have no right,” she added. “They also make some women sign a pledge not to drive again. I would never sign that. Never. They don’t have a right to make you sign a pledge. And there’s no law against me driving.”
The 20-minute expedition drew three reactions. A foreign woman smiled and gave a thumbs up. Two young Saudi men in a compact car pumped their arms approvingly out their windows then slowed down to let my friend overtake them. But two other young Saudi males in a Ford were not happy. The passenger hung out his window yelling “Hey! Hey!” and made a rude hand gesture as his friend feinted a swerve in front of our vehicle.
Back home, the couple’s 6-year-old son was asked about women driving in the kingdom and had this to say: “The people who own Saudi say ‘no’ but I want it to be ‘yes.’”
The encounter with a Saudi family captures Saudi Arabia’s two fundamental challenges in the post-9/11 era ahead: Modernizing its society so that women have equal rights with men. And modernizing its political structure so that when the 6-year-old is grown he feels that he — not an unelected, unaccountable royal family — ”owns” his country.
THEOLOGY AND MODERNITY
These overarching challenges are critical because they will likely require revisions in the House of Saud’s underlying theological doctrine that has given it legitimacy for decades in the eyes of the kingdom’s socially and religiously conservative population of 21 million.
There is an inherent contradiction between the officially sanctioned interpretation of Islam, commonly known as Wahhabism, and the state’s self-declared goal of transforming itself into a globally integrated, diversified knowledge-based economy. The rigid theological concepts promoted by the state, so integral to Saudi religious and cultural identity, also discourage close contact with non-Muslims, demand blind obedience to political rulers and foster inward, tribalistic tendencies, including the male guardianship system that deprives women of full, personal autonomy.
“The main problem in Saudi Arabia is that on the one hand, it wants to modernize, it wants to have good relations with the rest of the world, wants to engage in trade relations, wants to be part of the United Nations. But on the other hand, it has this ideological basis that is adamantly opposed to such a foreign policy, and to such an economic policy,” observed Joas Wagemakers of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, a scholar of modern Islamist groups.
“And as long as Saudi Arabia does not solve that dilemma, either through completely ditching Wahhabism or by completely ditching foreign relations, then it’s going to be confronted by radicals or extremists who are going to use the state’s own rhetoric against it.”
Mohsen Al Awajy, an Islamist dissident once jailed for his opposition activities, described the absolute monarchy’s dilemma in a 2010 interview. “The old guards in our religious organization are still calling to stick firmly with the teachings of [the 18th century Saudi religious reformer Mohammed] Abdulwahhab,” he said. “In reality, the royal family is no longer interested in that. But they could not say it publicly.
“As long as we have no constitution for the government, no national assembly elected by the people, no political parties, the royal family has no choice but to pretend, at least, that they are in good relations with the religious establishment,” he added. “They are in a critical situation by the way. They could not release their hands from the religious organization because their legitimacy is dependent on it … Everybody is saying that once this link is cut, they will find themselves kicked out — unless they establish a constitution for the country and this constitution is approved by the people.”
The task is not immediate in the sense of ‘must do tomorrow.’ And the Arab Spring’s rupture of the region’s status quo is not a clear and present danger to Saudi Arabia’s rulers. That is largely because the levels of economic discontent and political consciousness in the kingdom are nowhere near what they are in Egypt, Syria and Bahrain.
Rather, the Arab Spring has turned the hourglass of history upside down for the House of Saud, illuminating more vividly the nature of the challenges waiting down the road for the world’s largest oil producer. Ones that it still has time to address.
The question is: Will it face these challenges in time? History suggests that the Saudi monarchy, which has a keen and pragmatic sense of its own survival, has a steady eye on the hourglass. But history has a way of surprising, especially in these heady days of revolution and resistance in the Arab world.
REFORM NOT REVOLUTION
Most Saudis say they support the monarchy, especially King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who is widely liked. They believe the monarchy preserves national unity and keeps separatist tendencies in check.
Instead, what most reformists are asking for is partnership between ruler and ruled, expressed as a constitutional monarchy with separation of powers.
As Riyadh businessman Turki F. Al Rasheed, whose pro-reform website is optimistically entitled "Saudi Elections," says, the current system “just doesn’t work any more.”
“Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states should start to move more towards public participation. They cannot continue with a handful of family members running all the nodes of the entire country: the politics, the commerce, the security, the legal system ... running every branch of the government,” he explained.