7 shocking facts about Saudi Arabia under ‘modernizing’ reign of King Abdullah
The majority of eulogies went beyond the requirements of diplomatic etiquette, while some epithets used by Western politicians made people believe they had stepped through the looking glass. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the monarch, who died at 90, “strengthened understanding between faiths,” while IMF chief Christine Lagarde called him “a strong advocate of women,” albeit a “discreet” one. And almost all political grandees seemed to agree that the scion of the House of Saud, was – in the words of Tony Blair – “a skillful modernizer,” who “led his country into the future.”
One is invited to do a reality check and examine how far the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques really brought his country into the 21st century.
1. No elections, no parties, no parliament, no dissent
Continuing its consistent decades-long record, Saudi Arabia received the lowest possible marks for civil and political freedoms in the annual Freedom House rankings in 2014. The countries placed alongside it were North Korea, Turkmenistan, and smattering of the most brutal African dictatorships.
The regime’s disregard for any accountability to its people is brazen. There are no national elections, no parties, and no parliament – only a symbolic advisory chamber, known as Majlis al-Shura. Criticism is strictly forbidden: only last year, prominent opposition activist Abd al-Kareem al-Khoder joined hundreds of the country’s political prisoners, when he was sentenced to eight years for demanding the changeover to a constitutional monarchy. Just days before King Abdullah’s death, blogger Raif Badawi was given the first 50 of his 1,000 lashes – for calling for free speech on his blog.
King Abdullah introduced municipal elections upon his official ascension to the throne – as a largely symbolic valve mechanism. At the same time, high-profile petitions demanding greater reform a decade ago landed their authors in prison.
The country's sizable and restive Shia minority in the east - which led a series of public protests from 2011 onwards - is also systematically starved of political representation, somewhat inevitably, in a country led by a single Sunni family.
2. Equality: Jobs for the Saud boys – all 7,000 of them
The grip of the House of Saud on the country’s levers of power and purse strings would be the envy of any medieval court. More than 7,000 princes bearing that family name are alive – with some experts speculating that the real number of titled family members approaches 30,000. Every single one has to be allocated a job commensurate with his lineage – creating hundreds of sinecures – while conversely, all talented candidates are shut out from key jobs if they do not bear the correct surname.
3. Power transfer: Half Brezhnev-era USSR, half Game of Thrones
Ironically, with such a large pool of descendants to choose from, the House of Saud is crippled by particularly outdated succession laws. Instead of primogeniture – where the title is inherited by the first-born son of the ruler – Saudi Arabia uses agnatic seniority, or the passing of power across to one’s brothers. This means that the 90-year-old Abdullah has been succeeded by 79-year-old half-brother Salman, while Crown Prince Muqrin turns 70 this year.
Underneath the geriatric cadre of leaders, there exists a viper’s nest of intrigue, as the exponentially bigger younger generation plans to stake its claim on the throne, with factions aplenty split among the different branches of the sprawling family. It is not obvious how such a system guarantees the increasing prosperity and stability of a 21st-century state, and King Abdullah did little to reform its basic tenets.
4. Law: Scimitars and whips
It may have become almost an online cliché to compare the legal systems of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State, but the links between the two are fundamental. Both use the same ultra-conservative Hanbali school of jurisprudence, and many of the IS “judges” are Saudis, due to their familiarity with this concept of justice.
Among the punishments distributed is anything from hands and feet being chopped off for theft, lashes for adultery and other “social” misdemeanors, to beheading, which can be handed down for crimes as varied as sedition, carjacking, sorcery and drug smuggling.
— Wolf♔H&U♔Raven (@WolfSpirit2013) September 30, 2014
Eighty-seven people are thought to have been beheaded in 2014, which is in line with the national average over the past five years, despite ever-growing external pressure on Saudi Arabia. Only this month, a video emerged online, showing an executioner repeatedly hacking away at the neck of a screaming condemned woman, as people looked on open-mouthed. Unlike solving some of Saudi Arabia’s deep-seated problems, the curtailing of such “justice” would have just required one firm intervention from King Abdullah. It is clear, this was not a priority for him.
— U.S. Dept. of Fear (@FearDept) January 16, 2015
5. Human rights: Torture and gavel
There is no legal code in Saudi Arabia, leaving it to individual judges to set the punishment for a crime in accordance with their interpretation of Islamic scriptures. This gives them unlimited power, creating arguably one of the most inconsistent justice systems in the world, in which crimes and punishments are simply made up, leaving the convicts no obvious way to appeal.
In addition, much of the legal process hinges on a “confession” from the defendant, which in turn encourages torture. In practice, the information obtained this way is even less reliable than that received from inmates at Guantanamo, as instead of trying to extract provable data, the torturers are merely demanding admissions of guilt – by all means available.
King Abdullah attempted to rationalize the system, by creating more appeal courts, and introducing a stricter selection of judges. However, he did not question the value of the legal system as a whole, and all judges that have been appointed in the past two decades have been personally approved by him.
6. Women’s rights: Female (non-)drivers
Over the past decade, the battle lines have been drawn on the symbolic issue of women drivers in Saudi Arabia. The Gulf monarchy is the last country in the world, where women are still not allowed to drive.
The issue is not near resolution, and women caught behind the wheel – whether during a symbolic protest, or an ordinary drive – can still end up sentenced to lashings. In fairness, King Abdullah did intervene in at least one case in 2011, to commute a punishment.
But of course, for the majority of Saudi women, driving is the least of their problems.
Many would prefer to be able to leave the house, make a purchase, sign any legal document – in fact perform almost any official action, from agreeing to surgery, to signing up to a class – without the consent of a guardian, either the husband or the father. Yet, even these suffocating measures give only scant impression of the status of Saudi women in a society where even their court testimony is worth half of that of a man.
King Abdullah encouraged more women to go into education, and allocated them a fifth of the seats in his advisory chamber, also allowing them to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections. As with other reform areas, these are top-down symbolic gestures that have done little to affect most Saudi women, who - outside of warzones - remain some of the most disadvantaged anywhere in the world. Still, Abdullah’s admirers can hope that his first steps will lay the foundation to profound change, not patronizing concessions.
7. Terrorism fight: Friend or foe?
A voluntary $100 million donation to the UN’s counter-terrorism center last year was a show of generosity from Riyadh, but what the Saudis give with one hand, they seem to take away with the other.
According to the diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks in 2010, the US regards Saudi Arabia as the biggest source of Sunni terrorism funding in the world, and a “crucial” piggy-bank for Al-Qaeda and other radical groups. While much of its funding comes from private individuals, their identity is unlikely to have been a secret to King Abdullah, who did nothing to rein in his family members.
In fact, one could be tempted to feel that the House of Saud is only against the “wrong” kind of terrorist – mostly Shia, but also splinter Sunni groups that threaten its hegemony over the region. When the “right” kinds of terrorist – Russia’s Chechen militants, or anti-Assad rebels – appear, then those in Riyadh palaces not only support them with funds, but see them as a legitimate tool for spreading influence and the favored Wahhabi ideology.