Muslim Economies: Saudi Arabia’s schizophrenia

Muslim Economies: Saudi Arabia’s schizophrenia April 10, 2007
Selling coffee to the Arabs at Abraj al Bait

The year 2006 was not a bad one for everyone in the Middle East. According to a 2006 earnings report by the McKinsey Quarterly, Saudi Arabia boasted a surplus of 71 billion dollars in oil revenues. Following OPEC’s 2003 decision to boost oil production to 9 million barrels a day, it is estimated that Saudi Arabia’s oil revenues have topped an extra 1 billion dollars a week.

This scenario is starkly different from a mere fifty-five years ago when the Saudis did not even have a central bank or paper currency. Early records from ARAMCO, the Arab American oil company, show the logistical nightmare of ordering trucks of silver riyals to pay workers every week. Today, Saudis can check stock portfolios at any ATM, and can make international transactions for millions of dollars from their cell-phones. From glitzy malls selling Coach purses and Chanel sunglasses to the cavalcades of sports cars on the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah, signs of unprecedented economic prosperity abound across Saudi Arabia.

But while economic prosperity and its attendant manifestations have come to the kingdom relatively easily, financed by the oil wealth, religious, socio-cultural and political reform continues to be rejected. Even as countries around the kingdom open up, giving political and social freedoms to their citizens, the Saudi society continues to writhe under the weight of anachronistic laws and medieval social ethos. The discrepancy between the modern and the medieval, evidenced everywhere in Saudi Arabia, has split the country down the middle and created a schizophrenic society.

These internal factors combined with external pressures post-9/11 for restructuring and opening up have thrown Saudi Arabia in a tailspin.

On the one hand is a tribal-patriarchal society which also manifests itself in the way the state is configured; on the other is the austere literalism of Wahhabism. Between these two poles lie the technological trappings of modernity without the culture of free inquiry that produced them. Indeed, Saudi Arabia today seems to be an experiment in whether the tangible aspects of modernity can be embraced while shunning the intangible ideas that sustain them in modernised societies.

While Wahhabi austerity never touched the Saudi elite at any time, it was always a useful device to configure the state. Over the years, however, two things have happened. The Salafis produced by Wahhabism have come to challenge the monarchy’s lax ways and its pro-western bent; and the advent of technology has begun to change societal attitudes. The two strands are diametrically opposed to each other but agree on one thing: the current order must change.

The state (tribal-patriarchal monarchy) has to deal at one end with the Salafis; and on the other with new social voices (women, media, rights groups etc). One strategy to deal with the Salafis would be to dilute the literalism of Wahhabi Islam but that would come with the risk of de-legitimising a royal family whose own power stems from the co-optation of Wahhabi Islam. The obvious strategic turn would be to enlist the support of pro-reform elements and embark on a modernisation campaign; however, this route risks empowering the very groups that are already expressing their discontent through demands for reform and shares in governance.

The state’s response so far has been haphazard and ham-fisted. Using piecemeal tactics, it has attempted to deal with the problem by combining patronage (bribes etc) with the simplistic moral tools derived through the tribal-religious ethos. This approach has met with limited success and the apparition of its failure is most visible in the increasingly garish juxtaposition of capitalism and oil wealth. One visible example is the new Abraj Al Bait housing and hotel complex being planned in Mecca. The towering mall that opened its doors last December will soon make it possible for pilgrims to get a Starbucks and even buy lingerie while enjoying a view of the Ka’aba.

This points towards a larger attitude: the moral crisis between a pre-oil ideology and a post-oil consumer culture has been reconciled by Saudis through the tragic reduction of Saudi morality to only those acts that are publicly culpable. Reaping the benefits of a collectivist society where family and tribal identity still holds immense clout, Saudis have embraced mass-consumption and acquisition but rejected the individual conscience that would be a check on them. Morality exists only as a fa�ade: Saudi women don austere abayas over their haute couture gowns; government-owned TV channels show religious programmes that are never watched; alcohol is banned in public places but flows in private parties; and while men and women cannot socialise in public, female servants are regularly used for prostitution.

Stubbornly denying the existence of these private sins, Saudis refuse to embrace any changes in religious and cultural mores that would acknowledge the necessity of moral innovation in the wake of progress. Undaunted by the appeals of human rights organisations and Muslim reformers, they continue to chop off the hands of thieves, inflict public punishment on adulterers and refuse women any place in the public sphere.

A closer look at the religious ‘devotion’ of Saudi authorities reveals a reprehensible hollowness. Take the example of seven Somali migrant labourers who were executed without trial in 2006, their heads and hands chopped off to illustrate the Saudi commitment to Sharia. Sadly, most chopped hands and heads belong to the most disenfranchised and powerless within Saudi society.

Beneath a carefully cultivated fa�ade of piety and devotion to Islam lies a nation in deep crisis regarding its own moral identity. While the chopped off hands of migrant labourers and the black abayas may allow Saudis to deny that they are affected by their oil wealth, it does not eliminate the reality of a troubled state and society.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and member of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women.  She teaches courses on constitutional law and political philosophy. This article previously appeared in Daily Times (Pakistan).

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