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MERIP Press Information Note 73

Understanding Political Dissent in Saudi Arabia

Gwenn Okruhlik October 24, 2001

(Gwenn Okruhlik has written on development and opposition in Saudi Arabia. She teaches political science at the University of Arkansas.)

The weeks following September 11 brought to the surface the tense undercurrents in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the horrific attacks in New York and Washington, word spread that many of the hijackers were from the Asir, the mountainous southwest province of Saudi Arabia, and were linked to Saudi dissident Usama bin Laden, a man who has vowed to overthrow the Saudi royal family, the Al Saud. But the two allies have postured awkwardly over the extent of Saudi Arabia's commitment to the US-led "war on terrorism." The US resents the Kingdom's reluctance to cooperate fully with investigations of the September 11 attacks and previous incidents and to allow use of airbases on its soil for operations over Afghanistan. Among other things, Saudi Arabia resents US reluctance to weigh in on the side of Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli occupation.

More important to understanding the muted Saudi support for the war are internal pressures. The September 11 hijackings followed a long line of attacks tracing backward to the USS Cole, Kenya and Tanzania, Riyadh and al-Khobar, Somalia and Beirut. These attacks do not represent a war between religions. Rather, religion is a means for voicing explicitly political grievances, as is the case with Saudi dissenters and their sympathizers in the broader population. Internally, the grievances concern authoritarianism and repression, maldistribution and inequity, and the absence of representation in the political system. The external grievances are about US bases on Saudi soil, US support for Israel, US-led sanctions on Iraq and US backing for repressive regimes in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. A strong partnership with the US in the current crisis would only fuel further domestic opposition, something which had finally begun to lessen in the period before the attacks. Due to the widespread resonance of these grievances, the royal family fears the domestic repercussions of aligning themselves with the US.

But portrayals of internal politics as contests between US-allied "moderates" and puritanical "Wahhabis" are grossly oversimplified. So too is a menu that offers two stark choices: an absolute monarchy tilting toward the West or a revolutionary Islamist regime hostile to the West. Internal contests and choices are more complex than that. They stem from three profound political crises to which the ruling family must respond: a convergence of dissent on core grievances, a multiplicity of clergies and socio-economic distress.


Resentment of abuse of state authority has long simmered just beneath the surface in Saudi Arabia, but the regime has historically been criticized only in private. Rarely did criticism erupt into public confrontation. In 1979, Juhaiman al-Utaibi forcibly took control of the sacred mosque in Mecca in an effort to topple the ruling family. He did not garner much popular support because he chose a holy venue rather than a palace, but the incident exposed the vulnerability of the regime. It led to greater surveillance over the population, more power granted to the mutawwain -- a sort of police of public virtue -- new constraints on mobility and expression and simultaneous promises of reform.

During the 1980s, an Islamic education system fostered a new generation of sheikhs, professors and students. An Islamic resurgence swept the country, but it was not directed against the regime. Several non-violent Islamist groups took root during this time. The resurgence was also propagated by the newly returned Arab Afghan mujahideen. About 12,000 young men from Saudi Arabia went to Afghanistan; perhaps 5,000 were properly trained and saw combat.


The 1990s were a difficult decade in Saudi Arabia. Festering anger suddenly exploded with the Gulf war of 1990-91. The stationing of US troops in the country transformed what was an inchoate resurgence of Islamic identity into an organized opposition movement. Political criticism was now public -- much of it written, signed and documented in petitions presented to King Fahd. The petitions called for, among other things, an independent consultative council, an independent judiciary, fair sharing of oil wealth and restrictions on corrupt officials. Friday sermons became an occasion for political criticism, and several prominent sheikhs were jailed. Demonstrations -- largely unheard of under this authoritarian regime -- erupted to demand their release, the most significant occurring in Buraydah, the very heartland of the ruling family's support.

A convergence of dissent cutting across cleavages of region, gender, class, school of Islam, ethnicity, ideology and rural-urban settings began to sound calls for redistribution of wealth, procedural social justice and regime accountability, in essence, the rule of law. People are weary of ad hoc and arbitrary personal rule. Because of this convergence, the state can no longer resort to its time-honored strategy of playing one group against another. Private businessmen and public bureaucrats, industrialists and mom-and-pop shop owners, Sunnis and Shias, men and women share core grievances.

The incremental response of King Fahd to popular dissent has satisfied no one. In 1992, he appointed a non-legislative consultative council and gave more power to provincial governments, where other family members ruled. These "reforms" disappointed some and angered others. They had the effect of consolidating the ruling family's centrality to political life, rather than broadening meaningful participation.


The Al Saud rule in an uneasy symbiosis with the clergy. This relationship dates back to the 1744 alliance between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud, a sort of merger of religious legitimacy and military might. The descendants of al-Wahhab still dominate the official religious institutions of the state. The official clergy regularly issue fatwas (religious judicial opinions) that justify the policies of the Al Saud in Islamic vocabulary, even when those policies are deplored by the people. For example, they issued a fatwa to justify the presence of US troops during the Gulf war.

Islam remains a double-edged sword for the Al Saud. It grants them legitimacy as protectors of the faith, yet it constrains their behavior to that which is compatible with religious law. When members of the family deviate from that straight path, they are open to criticism since the regime's "right to rule" rests largely on the alliance with the al-Wahhab family. Today, the "alliance" between the regime and official clergy is much contested by dissidents because the parties no longer serve as "checks" on each other.

In the wake of the Gulf war, the state-appointed clergy has been supplemented by a popular-level alternative clergy that is articulate and vocal. The divide between official Islamic authorities and popular Islamic leaders is great. A dissident explained, "The old clergy believe that the ruler is the vice-regent of God on earth. Advice can only be given in private and in confidence. The new clergy reject the idea of vice-regency. Rather, it is the duty of the clergy to criticize the ruler and work for change." The alternative clergy wrote fatwas during the Gulf war that contested the fatwa of the official clergy and provided reasons to prohibit the stationing of US troops on Saudi Arabian soil. The alternative fatwas drew wider public support than did the official fatwa.

History now repeats itself as competing clergy make their opinions known. Sheikh al-Shuaibi and others have disseminated new fatwas that extend the idea of jihad from fighting foreign infidels to fighting domestic regimes that are perceived to be unjust. Al-Shuaibi's serious elaboration of the idea could be interpreted to target the Al Saud regime.


Islamism taps into an already distressed social and economic environment. King Fahd has been incapacitated since his stroke in 1995 and the family wrecked by succession struggles. Since the heyday of the oil boom, per capita income has plummeted by over two thirds. The birth rate is a very high 3-3.5 percent. The majority of the population is under 15. These young adults will register their demands for education, jobs and housing at the same time. But the Kingdom's once fabulous infrastructure, constructed during the boom, is now crumbling, particularly schools and hospitals. Unemployment among recent male college graduates is around 30 percent, likely higher. Yet Saudi Arabia remains utterly dependent on foreign workers, who constitute perhaps 90 percent of the private sector and 70 percent of the public sector labor force. Social norms mitigate against the participation of local women in many economic activities. Since the Gulf war, there are reports of new social problems such as guns, drugs and crime. All this provides a fertile field for dissent.

Contentious voices also resonate because the exclusionary structure of governance does not reflect the diversity of the population. Contrary to popular images, Saudi Arabia is not a homogeneous country in ethnicity, religion or ideology. The variety of Muslim practices include Wahhabi orthodoxy, mainstream Sunni calls for reform of the state, minority Shia communities, Sufi practices throughout the Hejaz and, most importantly, a Sunni Salafi opposition movement. The Salafi movement opposes the dependence of the official clergy upon the ruling family, and their authoritarian rule. Radicals among them call for jihad today. Reformists prefer to wait until the time and the causes are right.

The Islamist movement -- both Shia and Sunni -- is represented externally by several reformist organizations in London and the US. Other radical externally based groups like al-Qaeda advocate violence as an appropriate means to achieve their ends. While there is condemnation of the September 11 atrocities inside Saudi Arabia, the grievances articulated by the external Islamist movement do resonate powerfully among most parts of society.

More important than any external organization are the loose underground networks of study groups in Saudi Arabia that can be activated at the appropriate moment. When several sheikhs were imprisoned for their sermons of opposition, popular discontent ran high. After the sheikhs were released from jail in 1999, the Islamist movement has become much quieter. Crown Prince Abdallah did begin to respond to internal and external grievances -- he released the sheikhs, limited the business interests of princes, limited the free use of telephone, planes and water by royalty, allowed a freer press and publicly objected to US Middle East policy -- but perhaps too slowly for some.


Other factors deepen the ruling family's conspicuous silence on the US-led "war on terrorism." Several high-ranking members of the ruling family and individuals from prominent families in the private sector have maintained close ties to bin Laden. Indeed, the US has been aware for several years of the transfer of funds from Saudi Arabia to al-Qaeda. Intra-familial rivalry also inhibits an unwavering stance. Though Crown Prince Abdallah effectively administers the country as the king's health fails, his succession is still contested by other powerful princes.

Saudi Arabia must, by virtue of its position as guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and host of the annual pilgrimage, contribute to Islamic charities. This leadership role mandates that the Al Saud, on behalf of the country, fund organizations throughout the international Muslim community. The Muslim duty of alms-giving suggests taking care of the less fortunate -- it is an obligation of faith, not a choice. When the US asked that the regime freeze all Islamic charities, the request put the Al Saud in an untenable position. It may have been acceptable to freeze the assets of bin Laden's private companies and investments, but a freeze on Islamic charity was unthinkable for this regime whose legitimacy is so intimately tied to Islam. Like George W. Bush, the Al Saud must respond to their domestic constituency first and foremost.


The Al Saud have long based their rule on conquest, cooptation through the distribution of oil revenues and Wahhabism. These historic sources of legitimacy are less compelling today because coercion has fostered popular resentment, oil revenues have shrunk dramatically and Wahhabism never reflected the diverse reality of Saudi Arabia. Now, Saudi Arabians are looking for more inclusive and representative governance. People want freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. They want to participate in the development of their country, particularly in meeting the needs of education, health, employment and infrastructure for a booming population. Saudi Arabians do not want to waste precious national resources on arms purchases from the US, deals over which they have no control.

The depth of royal coercion has meant that no alternative voices have been allowed to flourish. Today, there is not a viable alternative to the ruling family that could unite the disparate parts of the country, perhaps enhancing bin Laden's pull artificially. But what many Saudi Arabians are talking about constitutes neither full democracy nor absolute monarchy. Rather, it is a voice in governance, and the rule of law. The challenge before Crown Prince Abdallah is to promote domestic reform that incorporates the diversity of the population. His strong nationalist voice can be used to counter the power of the radical movement. The wide middle ground between a revolutionary bin Laden and an authoritarian ruling family cries out for cultivation.

(When quoting from this PIN, please cite MERIP Press Information Note 73, "Understanding Political Dissent in Saudi Arabia," by Gwenn Okruhlik, October 24, 2001. The author can be reached at

Fareed Mohamedi and Yahya Sadowski analyze the political economy of US-Saudi relations in their article, "The Decline (But Not Fall) of US Hegemony in the Middle East," published in Middle East Report 220 (Fall 2001).

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