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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.'

Women’s rights key to kingdom’s future

Still barred from driving automobiles — and obliged to defer to men in most life decisions — progress is slow.

Fouad Al Farhan, 36, is a tech entrepreneur and influential blogger based in Jeddah whose Twitter motto is “democracy is the solution,” a clever play on the words of the Muslim Brotherhood slogan, “Islam is the solution.” In an interview earlier this year, he said that nobody “is calling to change the whole system here ... But we are looking for more real civil society within the current system ... which will lead someday to constitutional monarchy.”

But many Saudis are skeptical that the royal family is willing to share power.

“They will never accept this,” said Abdulaziz Al Gasim, a liberal Islamist attorney who was active in the opposition Sahwa movement of the 1990s. All the Gulf countries, he added, “think and plan for avoiding sharing power with people. This is the issue.”

But the Arab Spring has demonstrated that new forces are at work. “The people have new power, they can organize themselves, they can contact each other,” said Al Gasim. “They can share information more than the decision-makers because of social media, the internet, and the high education level they have.”

In addition, there are now more than 100,000 Saudis getting higher education in other countries — more than at any previous time in Saudi history. Almost one half, 47,000, are in the United States. “They will return with new aims, new standards, and new points of view about life, about their rights,” said Al Gasim.

Accustomed to generous financial benefits from the state, many Saudis are willing to forego political life, and civil society is weak. So even if there were a political will to share power, many reforms are needed to create a society ready to participate in its own governance, Saudis say.

Those reforms include:

*Permitting independent NGOs with greater latitude in free speech and free assembly

*Cracking down on corruption

*Reducing bureaucracy on the private sector so it can create the thousands of jobs necessary to deal with the surging youth population.

*Making the government more accountable and transparent, which will require reducing the secrecy that now surrounds its deliberations and decisions. This secrecy also is a severe impediment to the government’s goal of shifting from an oil- to a knowledge-based society

*Speeding up reform of the educational and judicial systems

*Reforming the administrative structure of government so that decisions and details are addressed at a more appropriate level, and authority is de-centralized. Right now, King Abdullah has far too much to do, causing near-paralysis at times in decision-making. For example, in July the Saudi Press Agency reported that the king had ordered a 50 percent increase in cattle feed subsidies and mandated stricter monitoring of fodder market prices.

*Adding younger blood to a government dominated by old-timers. Revealingly, one petition asking for political reforms last February demanded a new cabinet in which ministers’ average age would be 40.

Jamal Khashoggi, former newspaper editor and now head of an all-news satellite television station that is in development, said Saudis “still have hopes in King Abdullah, they see that he can make change … I think this monarchy can reform itself ... because we talk with them, they engage with us.”

That doesn’t mean that Khashoggi is happy with the pace of reform, which he feels has been impeded because “the government is doing too much appeasement and coddling to the religious establishment — for no good reason.” When it comes to government policies, he added, “the economy should be the driving force in Saudi Arabia instead of what [religious officials deem] is right and wrong.”

In the decade ahead, Khashoggi said it is possible that members of the advisory body, the Shura Council, will be elected but he does not foresee a constitutional monarchy “in which we will elect our prime minister. I don’t see that happening.”

Women work as cashiers at a Jeddah market, a pioneering step in a society where women are rarely given male permission to take active community roles.
(Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

Still, Saudi Arabia “is going through a huge transformation, and it’s not going to stop,” says Khashoggi. “Besides the effect of the Arab Spring, which is going to affect us for a long time, there is also transformation from within ... Maybe in a few years time we will have a king who is a graduate of an American school. That will have an effect.”


Women’s rights may be an even harder reform nut to crack because the role of women in Saudi society has become a litmus test for the government among religious conservatives.

The guardianship system, which allows a male relative to decide who a woman can marry, whether she can work, attend university, travel abroad and even in some instances have surgery, is deeply entrenched in the tribal customs of Saudi society. Although Saudi religious officials have given it a sacred veneer by claiming that it conforms with Islamic scriptures, the system defies mainstream Islamic interpretations, which give Muslim women a high degree of individual autonomy. 

“The new generation is very, very angry about the situation of women because we feel they are treating us as slaves,” said Khulood Al Fahad, 33, who was active in an [unsuccessful] campaign to get women the right to vote in municipal elections set to be held this month. “The government, men, they are not respecting Saudi women.”

The country’s strict gender segregation in public places and work environments is also going to be hard to change. When an official of the religious police in Mecca announced that he could not find a scriptural basis for the segregation, he was ostracized and ultimately suspended.

The campaign against the ban on female drivers, which officially began June 17 when over 60 Saudi women individually went out for a drive, was partly inspired by the uprisings in Tunis and Cairo.

King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan with Saudi women in the southwestern city of Najran.

Organizers effectively used Facebook and Twitter to announce and sustain the campaign, and they say it will continue until the ban is lifted. The government has hinted that it will do just that. In many cases, policemen have let women drivers go with a verbal warning, contrary to past practice when they were taken to police stations until their male guardians fetched them.

The campaign has caught on largely because of Saudi women’s belief that it is their right to drive. And this has grown out of female education, which began in the 1960s and led to ever larger numbers of women attending university. Today, more than half of the country’s college students are female.

Earlier this year, King Abdullah formally inaugurated Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, a 2,000-acre campus north of Riyadh with its own mosque, athletic facilities and tramway — which will be driven by women. It will be the world’s largest all-female university, eventually accommodating up to 40,000 students. A social revolution in the making.

“The future of this country will be determined by women,” said human rights activist Mohammad Al Qahtani. “They will emerge from the shadow of society to take center stage.”


The government’s ultimate stance on all these issues will depend in large part on the outcome of the succession struggle already underway within the royal family. For months now, Saudis believe, factions have been negotiating furiously behind the scenes as mortality knocks at the door of the two most senior officials, the king and the crown prince.

While nothing is certain, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the second deputy prime minister and long-standing interior minister, is widely expected to be the next Saudi king. This raises anxiety in many Saudis because of his reputation as a conservative comfortable with the religious establishment exerting strong control over social life — a role degraded in recent years under King Abdullah.

Women suffer most from the religious control of society. But they are no longer silent, as before.

It was, in fact, a woman who gave one of the most outspoken recent warnings of the need for change in Saudi Arabia.

Princess Basma, a daughter of King Saud, who ruled the kingdom in the early 1960s, said, “No one is immune from the seasonal geographical winds of change that are sweeping our Arab homeland. Those who say we are immune are wrong.”

Speaking in a June interview with BBC Arabic TV, she added: “Everyone should heed and must be aware that we must open national dialogue on the table and not wait for the challenges to grow. Let us grant freedom before it turns into challenge.”

(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion.)