SAUDI ARABIA: REFLECTIONS ON THE MAGIC KINGDOM By Tom Macdonald (Article)
“I know the monster. I have lived in its entrails”. So said Cuban revolutionary and Guantanamero poet, Jose Marti, about the United States in the late nineteenth century. Marti was an outspoken critic of America’s imperialism, racism and rapacious capitalism. But his long-time residency there also leavened his views and afforded him greater perspective on both America’s virtues and its vices. Saudi Arabia is often depicted in monstrous terms by Western media, including Canada’s own Globe and Mail. And while there is undoubtedly a great deal to criticize about the country, much of the Western media coverage is woefully lacking in balance or nuance and is often penned by journalists who have never even visited the Kingdom. Some perspective from one who has “lived in the entrails of the monster” may therefore be of interest.
I vividly recall my arrival in the Kingdom in April, 2012 for what became a three-and-a-half-year Ambassadorial assignment. It was my first-ever visit there and I had no idea what to expect. On the drive from the airport to the Official Residence in the Diplomatic Quarter, my curiosity gushed out questions as I drank in my new surroundings: “What is that magnificent building complex?”; “Princess Noura University for women –40,000 female students there”; “Hmmm”. - “And that area with so many skyscrapers under construction?” “King Abdullah Financial City; 40 towers being built simultaneously; like downtown Toronto going up before your eyes” - “And why so many Light Armoured Vehicles at the entrance to the Diplomatic Quarter”; “Be thankful; Saudi Arabia is still Al Qaeda’s number one target; not long ago Western compounds were being hit by a spate of bombings and attacks by terrorists wielding machine-guns and grenades”. I could see that I had come to an interesting place.
By the time I landed in Saudi Arabia, I had already had postings on six continents, voyaged to the seventh (Antarctica), and visited more than 90 countries. I did not think that much could surprise me. But Saudi Arabia proved to be a country of endless contrasts and frequent contradictions – women barred from driving but outnumbering men in universities; movie theatres non-existent but the world’s second highest per capita usage of You-Tube; a modern and highly commercialized society but one where everything, including shopping and official meetings, stops several times a day for prayer. Of course we at the Embassy spent much of our time in the “diplomatic bubble”, where even a cold beer could be found in this driest of countries, tasting all the better for its illicit nature and the sometimes 50-degree heat. But it was always clear that the culture around us was alien to our own, and it was fascinating to try to imagine how differently one’s mind might view things if it had developed in this environment and sat underneath a Saudi gutra or hijab.
Having done a fair amount of preparatory reading about Saudi Arabia, I came with many pre-conceptions. After all, Saudi Arabia has been a target of widespread international criticism long before the Globe and Mail decided to go on crusade. So I arrived with the impression that this was a country stuck in the sand in more ways than one, a place with an oppressive monarchy holding back the aspirations of the people, where time had been made to stand still, and where any forces for change were strongly resisted by the powers that be. Over time, however, I learned the inaccuracy of that image. I came to understand that Saudi Arabia is in fact experiencing a pace of change far beyond anything the West has known in recent decades, and that the Saudi monarchy is actually considerably more liberal than the majority of the population that it governs. I came to recognize that King Abdallah, under whose reign I spent most of my posting, was not some hopeless Canute trying to hold back the waves but rather an agent of change, trying delicately to nudge his country forward in a more modern and progressive direction, but always facing strong headwinds from deeply entrenched conservative elements.
Far be it from me to be an apologist for the Kingdom or to diminish its serious human rights issues. But I also know that these are often over-described in Western media. For instance, when we read about the infamous Saudi “lashings”, it conjures up a mental image based on our own historical Western practices –bringing to mind the atrocities of Southern slave-holders or British sea captains. If one actually views the “Raif Badawi lashings” on YouTube, however, it is evident that these are aimed more at public humiliation than physical damage. The lengthy jail sentence is another issue but the “lashings” were a series of rapidly-administered flicks of a thin cane on a fully-clothed seat of the pants, closer to what I experienced in a 1960s Jesuit boarding school than to Jack London’s Sea Wolf. And while discrimination against Shia in Saudi Arabia remains a significant issue, a real effort is being made to improve their educational and economic opportunities and to integrate Shia communities into the mainstream. That is not to say that the Saudis don’t deal harshly with Shia political violence and those who promote it; they definitely do, especially as they consider much of it to be Iranian-inspired. But on balance, I would much rather be a Shia in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province than a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories (not to mention Gaza). And as for freedom of religion, it is true that Saudi Arabia allows no churches (the Saudis always point to their special role as “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques” and retort that there are no mosques in the Vatican, conveniently ignoring the vast difference in geography and population). But I actually went to more Catholic masses in Saudi Arabia than I had attended in Canada for some time -perhaps because attendance at Mass was more of a statement there. Christian ceremonies are known about and tolerated in various locations below the radar as long as they do not become too public and as long as no proselytization is involved.
So the Saudi human rights situation is not always quite as black as it is painted; it would be hard to meet that benchmark. But it is certainly dismal by our standards whether one looks at women’s rights, religious freedoms, treatment of minorities, corporal and capital punishment, judicial transparency, or media and political freedoms. The Saudi human rights transgressions are constantly chronicled by international media and NGOs, so require no repetition here. But much less ink or air-time is devoted to the context of Saudi society and its rapid pace of change. This is perhaps not surprising since the country remains opaque and closed for most of us, partly because its leaders care little about Western viewpoints. They focus their political and public relations efforts almost exclusively toward a domestic audience, one whose views and values differ markedly from our own.
For me, the most prominent differentiating trait of Saudi society is its religiosity. In our Western society, religious belief has, over the centuries, been pushed to the margin – something one holds (or not) individually but which no longer governs our collective daily activities, societal norms or political life. There are of course religious elements to our politics, such as the first commandment of the Republican Party – that women shall not have choice. But generally, religion does not determine how we structure our societies nor what we permit individuals to do within them. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, religion permeates everything, almost as it must have been in medieval Europe. The mosques are full; the call to prayer goes out five times a day and people stop what they are doing to respond; courts follow Sharia law based on the Koran; Ramadan fasting is a national activity and a period when the country effectively shuts down; Eid is the greatest annual celebration; the King’s responsibility as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is taken at least as seriously as his role as monarch; the Muslims of the world flock in their millions to Mecca (a city which non-Muslims are not even permitted to enter).
For those who may be tempted to stray from the path, the religious police (mutawa) and the Orwellian-sounding Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are there to monitor behaviour. Even Western women normally have to cover their hair (not their faces) and wear long black abeyas when outside the Diplomatic Quarter - otherwise, they risked a mutawa scolding. The power of the mutawa was visibly waning during my time in the Kingdom and has subsequently decreased further. But in any event, Saudi religiosity is not generally something reliant on policing. It is deeply felt by most Saudis and deeply embedded in society, with all the peer pressure which that entails. This is especially true in rural areas and it is important to bear in mind that, unlike most of the other Gulf Petro-monarchies, Saudi Arabia is not a tiny city-state but a country with a geographic expanse almost equivalent to Western Europe. Even with the heavy urbanization of recent decades, the rural population of Saudi Arabia is greater than the entire population of the UAE. And a surprising amount of it is still semi-nomadic – there are about 100 camels a day still sold in Riyadh’s camel market, the world’s largest.
Many in the West lament that the Saudi version of Islam, Wahhabism, is an ultra-conservative one and thus the source of many Saudi practices which we decry. Some also wrongly blame Wahhabism for fomenting radical Islamic violence. In fact, Wahhabism preaches non-engagement in political activism of any kind and total deference to leaders (not surprisingly as the state religion of Saudi Arabia). The issue of Saudi links to Al Qaeda does derive from religion. Rather it is an unfortunate legacy of having been drawn by the US into joint support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda as combatants against Russian forces in Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson’s War (CIA Operation Cyclone) involved frequent trips to Riyadh to collect funds for channeling to Al Qaeda, as well as recruitment of young Saudis to join the mujahedeen and the routing of US stinger missiles and other weapons through Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan.
Like the US, Saudi Arabia sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind in Afghanistan. Many Saudi foreign fighters returned radicalized and on a mission to overthrow the Al Saud monarchy for having become too Westernized. There are still Saudis involved privately in financing jihadist groups. But the Saudi monarchy itself could not take a firmer stand against Islamic terrorism – not surprisingly since it is a prime target of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The former Crown Prince and Minister of Interior Mohamed bin Naif was himself the target of 4 assassination attempts and has always been regarded by the US and the other Five Eyes as a staunch ally, known as the “Prince of Counter-terrorism”.
If one wants to find the roots of Islamic terrorist ideology, one should not dig in the political passivity of Wahhabism but rather in the jihadist teachings of Sayyid Qutib - an Egyptian who came to despise Western “decadence” during his time as a student in the US, who returned to Egypt to become a major force in the Muslim Brotherhood and to preach violent revolution against Nasser, and who was eventually hung in 1966 for an assassination attempt against the Egyptian President. Qutibism came to Saudi Arabia with the wave of political refugees that fled the Nasser regime in the 1960s. It influenced numerous young Saudis and helped to inspire the bloody 1979 seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque (an existential crisis for the House of Saud, often referred to as Saudi Arabia’s 9/11). Al Qaeda leader Al Zawahiri was a disciple of Sayyid Qutib in Egypt while Osama bin Laden had Qutib’s brother as a mentor during his formative years in Jeddah.
Even if Wahhabism itself does not preach jihad, one can argue that individuals steeped in its ultra-conservative religious extremism are psychologically more susceptible to drifting into violent extremism. There is almost certainly some truth in this, just as one can find links between Christian fundamentalism and the Klu Klux Klan or ultra-orthodox Judaism and West Bank atrocities. One might argue therefore that the Saudis have chosen the wrong religious beliefs and interpretations, that they should adopt a more liberal, more tolerant and less Puritanical version of Islam. But there is more than a tinge of arrogance in that argument and, in any event, it holds no water with the Saudis. Lawrence of Arabia, who knew something of the Middle East, commented on how the West had merely “ploughed the sands” in trying to sow nation-states in a place “full of the certainty of God”. We have learned through the long march of human history that what one person sees as religion, another may see as oppression. We have also learned that those full of “the certainty of God”, whether in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States or elsewhere, are usually deaf to the clamour of public opinion when they believe that higher voices are calling.
The religiosity of Saudi Arabia may erode over time, as ours has done. But I would not bet on that; it would be like religion leaving the Vatican. What is more likely is that it will be increasingly influenced by more modern thinking and will incorporate new interpretations more compatible with our Western norms and human rights standards. This would not be dissimilar to our own evolution away from some of the egregious practices (and human rights abuses) once justified in the name of Christianity. This will take time but change is very much in the air in Saudi Arabia.
Let’s consider the issue of women’s rights. These are still woefully inadequate in Saudi Arabia, but the pace of change is remarkable. In the 1960s, there was virtually no education for women; now they outnumber men in Saudi universities and colleges. During my brief time in the Kingdom, the signs of progress were everywhere. King Abdullah appointed women for the first time to the Shoura Council (allocating 20 percent of the seats and even deciding on mixed gender meetings - a key signal in a society where gender separation remains prevalent). Women voted and ran for office for the first time during the Saudi municipal elections in 2015. Saudis celebrated their first women Olympic athletes, Saudi women climbing Mount Everest and exhibiting at the Venice Biennale. Women still form only a small part of the Saudi workforce (about 15%), but this is growing rapidly. I witnessed this first-hand at my outreach meetings; each year there were more women involved, usually better prepared and more efficient than the men - and not shy to speak their views. Saudi women are also taking a more prominent role as business leaders (the Saudi Stock Exchange is now headed by a woman and thee CEO of KSA’s Olyayn Group was recently named by Forbes as the most powerful businesswoman in the Arab world). Now if only they had the power to drive – but that will come.
Speaking of driving, let’s reflect on Henry Ford. He was born in the same month as the battle of Gettysburg. Blacks were still enslaved in the southern U.S., the violence and inhumanity of the civil war was beyond imagination, and women’s rights were almost non-existent. He passed away in an entirely different world in 1947, just into the nuclear age –but even then, segregation remained the norm throughout the South and blacks could still be lynched there with impunity. De-segregation would take nearly two more decades to achieve. The point is that enormous social transformation can take place in the course of one lifetime but also that progress on human rights is a trans-generational endeavour. This is all the more true in conservative, religious societies. Just consider pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec where women did not get the provincial vote until 1940, 22 years after federal enfranchisement.
King Abdullah was born in 1924, when Henry Ford was still selling his Model Ts. The transformation in Saudi Arabia during Abdullah’s lifetime was easily equal to what Ford witnessed in his. Abdullah was born into an Arabian Peninsula where Saudi Arabia did not yet exist, where most of the local population remained nomadic and led by tribal chieftains, where oil had not yet been discovered and hard cash revenues came largely from taxes assessed on pilgrims, where Abdullah’s father King Abdul Aziz was at war in the Hejaz, and where the House of Saud’s alliance with the Wahhabi clerics was the foundation for its legitimacy and its eventual unification of the country. Oil was not discovered in Saudi Arabia until Abdullah was 14. Saudi Arabia had no inter-city paved road until he was 27. There was no university until he was 33. The Saudi Arabia in which he passed away in 2015 – the country that I came to know – was a totally different world – one where all the technology and commercialism of modern society had been rapidly layered over a bedrock of tribal and religious tradition still highly visible and close to the surface.
The demographics give a sense of the breath-taking pace of change in Saudi Arabia. In 1960, Riyadh was a city of some 100,000 people. It now has between 7 and 9 million (depending on how one measures its vast expanse), a much larger population than the Greater Toronto Area, and larger than any European city except London and Moscow. Saudi Arabia’s population has increased by over 700 percent in the past fifty years compared with a 75 percent increase for Canada. The country has also urbanized at an incredible rate, moving in one generation from a predominantly nomadic people to one which is 80 percent urbanized and largely concentrated in three cities (Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam). This hectic pace of change is set to continue. About two-thirds of the country’s population is under 25 years of age, compared with less than 30 percent of Canada’s.
There are many reasons arguing for a close Canadian engagement with Saudi Arabia – our largest trading partner in the Middle East, the only Arab country in the G 20, the leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a pilgrimage destination for Canada’s one million-plus Muslims, a valued partner in counter-terrorism intelligence-sharing, a counterweight to Iranian influence, a key player on regional issues, and a force for stability in a troubled region. Canada has not, however, been very engaged. For instance, ours is the only G7 country not to have had its Head of Government visit the Kingdom in the past 2 years. Obama visited 3 times in the 3 and a half years that I was there, and Trump made it his first foreign visit. We have not had a sitting Canadian Prime Minister visit Saudi Arabia for 17 years, since Jean Chretien in 2000.
Constructive engagement by the West can hopefully help to reinforce the Kingdom’s evolution in a progressive direction. And our engagement should definitely include a robust but respectful dialogue on human rights. But perhaps the greatest long-term dividends will come through the strong educational linkages which we have established with Saudi Arabia – what I always called, as Ambassador, the “jewel in the crown” of our bilateral relationship. There are currently some 15,000 Saudis studying in Canada, most of them part of a scholarship program, established by King Abdullah, which has been sending hundreds of thousands of young Saudi men and women for study abroad. This may well prove to be the Kingdom’s most transformative initiative, and it is one in which Canada is playing a leading role (as the third most important destination for Saudi students, after the US and UK). When King Abdullah passed away in early 2015, our Governor General His Excellency David Johnston came for the condolences – a sign of Canada’s respect for the King and an acknowledgement of the global importance of Saudi Arabia. During his visit, the Governor General spoke passionately about the “diplomacy of knowledge”, a favourite theme for him and one which could not be more relevant than in our engagement with Saudi Arabia. As the Kingdom undergoes its dizzying pace of change and charts its path forward, it is reassuring to know that many of its future leaders will have benefitted from our world-class education system and experienced Canadian ways and values in doing so.
During my time in the Kingdom, one of my great joys was to experience the desert – something one must do to understand the Saudis, just as time spent in snowstorms and forests gives clues to the Canadian psyche. My wife Susan and I fell in with a group of desert travellers equipped with all the kit, and we would take some marvellous weekend trips – to ancient camel caravan roads, abandoned Ottoman forts, centuries-old rock carvings, volcanic craters where we slept beside black walls of solidified lava, fossil beds full of shark’s teeth and ammonites, the massive sand dunes of the Empty Quarter, the Nabataean tombs of Mada’in Saleh. The endless horizons, shifting sands, myriad stars, silence, timelessness and immensity of the desert make it an ideal place for contemplation – a place to reflect on eternity, infinity, humanity and theology. It is a place that lends perspective – that gives one a longer vista and a wider horizon, something we need as we contemplate the Kingdom. During my time “living in the entrails”, I witnessed Saudi Arabia’s deeply-embedded social traditions but also the remarkable winds of change sweeping the country; I saw first-hand the progressive forces at work but also the daunting challenges which they face; and I gained an appreciation of the need to look at things in generational time-scales. What Canada is doing to educate a new generation of Saudis also made me proud and optimistic about the future.
Tom Macdonald was Canadian Ambassador in Saudi Arabia from 2012-15.
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