Saudi Arabia's Pleasant Surprises

Article Summary
After ten years of absence, renowned Egyptian political analyst Fahmi Howeidi visits Saudi Arabia and is pleased by the extent of its recent changes. While progress toward women’s rights and civil liberties has been slow, there are discernible and significant improvements that bode well for the future, he believes.

I haven’t visited Saudi Arabia in nearly ten years, but when I returned there last week, surprises abounded everywhere I went, and I realized that only the surface of things is visible, and we know nothing of what lies below the façade.

The first surprise met me on the plane where I got the opportunity to read through Saudi newspapers published on March 12 [2012]. I discovered that they all contained articles dealing with events we had never heard of, that occurred at King Khalid University in the southern Asir province of the Kingdom. The articles covered a three-hour meeting that the province’s Emir had with 500 male and female students to discuss the problems they were facing at the university. During the meeting, the students summarized their demands in 23 items, the first of which was the sacking of the university administration in the city of Abha. The province’s Emir, Prince Faysal bin Khalid, told the attendees “these demands are part of your just rights, for you are merely asking that your university education be improved and further developed.” The meeting resulted in the Emir endorsing the formation of a committee representing the students that would follow up on finding solutions to the problems they faced, and another academic committee tasked with reviewing the curricula, with both committees scheduled to hold monthly meetings.

That was not the only surprise, for I learned through what I read, and later heard, that the female students of the School of Arts were the instigators of the protest and rebellion, the primary reason for their anger being the declining level of services and the administrative hurdles that they faced. Social networking sites helped mobilize the students, pushing them to express their anger and get their voices heard by the people in charge.

Al-Watan newspaper commented on the events at the university by saying:

Since the lighting of the spark by the female students of the Schools of Education and Arts, the administration at King Khalid University has striven to paint their movement as one which everyone must put an end to, because its aim was to create chaos and insecurity at the behest of unknown instigators, ignoring the fact that the students had rights of which they had been deprived. [Al-Watan, March 12, 2012]

The subject matter and the language used in describing the events and the authorities’ response to them were all things I had never seen before. I had to carefully read through all the details to realize that the media had actually covered an outspoken and angry protest movement, while before, it had been the norm for these types of things to be dealt with in secret; and that female students now had a voice that they made heard in a country where religious radicals considered them mere sexual beings that must be covered from head to toe. The Emir of Asir personally met with 500 male and female students to listen to their grievances for three hours, and an agreement was reached to elect a student and an academic committee that would cooperate to find solutions to the problems. This realization drove me to ask myself: Since when has this been occurring in the Kingdom?

The students of King Khalid University in Abha became fodder for daily commentary in all Saudi newspapers. I noticed that the female students’ initiative to rebel and protest had occupied a noticeable portion of commentary, for it had opened the door to discussing the situation of women and their rights inside the Kingdom. In this regard, researcher Maram Makkawi wrote:

Women are the sisters of men, constitute half of society, and are partners in their country; they have the same rights that men do in all the state’s institutions, its wealth and future plans. In this era of digital openness and freedom, this era of reform, they will accept nothing less than to be given their rights in full. [Al-Watan, March 14, 2012]

A few days after the events in Abha, another protest occurred at the female School of Education in Balqrn province. On March 15, newspapers published reports of complaints on the part of female students “who tried to emulate the female students of King Khalid University. They protested, demanding the dean’s removal and an improvement of services at the school, in addition to complaining about supervisors’ heavy-handedness." According to Al-Watan, the public affairs director at the school stated that the students had tampered with fire extinguishers inside the building, in addition to tampering with the cafeteria’s door. It was obvious that a confrontation had occurred inside the school because the newspaper’s report mentioned medical assistance having been administered to thirteen students on site, with six female students taken to hospital for treatment, in addition to one female professor being hurt. Other reports mentioned that their injuries were the result of fainting, with still other newspapers reporting of police cars rushing to the school to contain the situation and provide security.

In the midst of this atmosphere, three articles in newspapers published on March 14 caught my attention:

In a statement by the Deputy Education Minister, Doctor Ahmad Al-Seif, he declared that female students would no longer be searched and mobile-phone use would be permitted inside the faculties, warning of “severe penalties” for those who misused mobile phones. Al-Watan, which published the story on its front page, claimed that this step was taken “as a result of the events that took place recently at King Khalid University.”

A recommendation was issued to Saudi universities’ directors of academic affairs to allow student participation in the making of decisions that affected them and fulfilled their aspirations.

In a statement by State Minister and Commander of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah (the King’s son), he declared that rectifying wrongs and demanding solutions must not be made through means that would negatively affect security and stability, noting “the presence of foreign factions whose aim is to destabilize our country." The prince went on to mention the “troubles” in many Arab countries that negatively affected their stability.

A commentary by Essam Alzamel in Al-Sharq newspaper also caught my eye, in which he stated that Taiba University's dean had kicked out a student who had criticized him, prompting the author to ask: "Professor, haven’t you heard of Twitter?," hinting that the door to criticism was wide open through that website. When I asked young people that I met about the incident, they all confirmed its veracity, adding that these types of occurrences were now widespread on social networking sites, which had been transformed, along with Twitter, into news outlets for all manner of stories. They shared that the incident at King Saud University in Riyadh was now well-known to all with the help of Twitter. I asked them to elaborate and they said that the preparatory year students (during which high-school graduates are assessed and divided among the various universities) had had an altercation with the dean two months ago, during which a student threw his shoe at the man, which encouraged the rest to further attack him. This resulted in the Dean’s removal from office and a substitute being appointed in his place.

I was invited to Saudi Arabia to attend the book fair held in Riyadh. I did not know that the fair, which was meant to symbolize openness and reduce intellectual stagnation through the inclusion of books without restrictions or censorship, would hold even more surprises, but I continued to find at the fair books barred from Saudi libraries. The other new development in the Kingdom was that the fair remained open to both men and women at all times. Traditionally, men and women would have been allowed in on alternating days. Three women took the podium at a conference on the issue of rights  two from Saudi Arabia, and one from Morocco — all this in addition to the great margin of freedom made available during the evenings at the fair.

This atmosphere drew the ire of the Salafis, and 40 Saudi publishing houses with close ties to the Salafists boycotted the fair. One evening, five of the latter stormed the convention hall where cultural events were held and tried to put an end to a conference that saw men and women sitting at the same table. But security personnel and the organizers dealt with them firmly and escorted them out of the hall; when they tried to roam through the fair and inspect the books on display, they were hauled off to the police station and asked to file a written complaint and leave peacefully. Nevertheless, a group of them had succeeded, on a previous day, in preventing women from attending the symposium on electronic book publishing being held on the sidelines of the fair, on the grounds of them intermingling with men.

Another aspect worthy of attention was that three of the previously mentioned detainees were asked to speak at the fair, and one of them, Fouad al-Farhan, openly said that it was not acceptable for an important and great country such as Saudi Arabia not to have an elected parliament. I was also told that a person in attendance had greeted one of the detained activists during a public conference, only to disappear from the hall later on.

The impression that I got was that the country is undergoing a tug-of-war, on all levels, between hardliners and moderates, which can be considered a step forward because it signifies a relative decline in the dominance of hardliners, while also reflecting the gradual increased presence of moderates inclined to openness and public freedom. Granted, this change is slow, but it reflects progress in the right direction. One notices this struggle for dominance in the presence of some cultural figures in the public domain, such as Doctor Salman al-Odeh and Professor Mohammad Said Al-Taib, at a time when some authorities have their names on the "barred from travel" list.

The subject of my conference at the fair was the Arab Islamic discourse in light of current international changes. The issue that I raised was that the greatest change to have occurred in the Arab world was the unprecedented advancement in the communications revolution, because it had allowed the whole world to enter what I called the phase of a great breakthrough that overcame all boundaries and obstacles, transforming the small global village into an open book that anyone could read or participate in. This development weakened the governments’ grip on the people, gave the citizens a weapon that empowered them against oppressive regimes, and redressed the imbalances of power that existed between them. The regimes were no longer as strong as they claimed to be, and the people were no longer as weak as they imagined themselves to be.

I added that the most important problem in the Arab world was that its body had grown and its ambitions had increased, while its head remained unchanged. I gave the events in Syria as an example of a people rebelling in 2011 and a regime adopting a 1980s mentality to deal with them, similar to the one espoused by the current president’s father, to crush the rebellion in Hama in 1981, killing more than fifteen thousand people and destroying the city, with everyone later forgetting what had occurred.

Currently, on the other hand, the campaigns to oppress and crush are transmitted for all the world to see a few minutes after, and perhaps even as they occur. This serves to expose the crime and allowed the revolution to endure throughout the past year.

I also said that what was required of the Arab world now was for the body to reconcile with its head, so that it could become a natural part of it and not a foe with which it fights. Thus, the only way to resolve the dispute between head and body is to allow public freedom, promote democracy and spread peace and harmony between them so that the people may live in safety, stability and prosperity.

I spoke my piece in 20 minutes but the discussion about the relationship between head and body continued at the hotel until after midnight, where I replied to many both innocent and malicious questions posed by a generation of young people endowed with a great deal of awareness and courage, who desired that the reality they live in embody the vitality and dreams they long for.

Found in: women’s rights, saudi society, saudi, salafists, human rights, censorship

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