Elitist ambitions and the reality of Saudi society
Saudi Liberals, one of the two competing factions in Saudi society, remain an understudied group. The term liberal is relatively new in Saudi parlance, although there had been earlier occurrences of secular activism in Saudi Arabia. The liberal movement was born in opposition to the Sahwa movement and, for years, it had no clear project of its own. In the early 2000s, a split occurred between what can be referred to as social liberals and political liberals. Today, although claiming to speak for a “silent majority,” these liberal voices continue to represent an elite group with no strong connections to society.
Contemporary Saudi society is usually described as torn between two competing factions—the Islamists and the Liberals. Yet, while the first group has been the subject of numerous studies, the second group remains paradoxically much more mysterious, in terms of who those Saudi “liberal” voices are, what their background is and what they want.
The term liberal is relatively new in Saudi social parlance. By all accounts, it wasn’t used before the 1990s. This doesn’t mean, however, that there was no secular activism in Saudi Arabia before that period. In the wake of World War II, some Saudi students who had traveled to Egypt, Lebanon or Iraq for their studies came back to the Kingdom under the influence of the leftist and Arab nationalist ideologies that were so popular in the region.
Unintentionally, ARAMCO also played a major role in this movement of secular politicization, because it hosted Arabs from all neighboring countries, many of whom were under the influence of those same ideologies. As a consequence, Marxist, leftist, Nasserite and Arab nationalist clandestine groups appeared in Saudi Arabia. It is true that they were confined to the elite, and never represented a mass movement—and yet, they were seen as a threat, especially after some of their members became politically active.
The government reacted strongly against those activists who had crossed the line, while limiting their potential social base by offering graduates from abroad high-profile jobs in an ever-expanding administration. They were soon found at key positions in the ministries—to the extent that some of them later, and obviously after having demonstrated their loyalty, became ministers—and in some media institutions.
As a consequence, from the mid-1970s, most secular activists maintained a distance from politics. A few of them, however, became active in a new field, which was developing quickly at the time: the literary scene. There, they started calling for the modernization of Saudi literature—a modernization that would not only involve form, but also content. Simultaneously, the critique was directed, implicitly, at Saudi social norms, which they aimed to liberalize. They were soon joined by a number of novelists, poets and literary critics, the most prominent of whom were Abdallah Al-Ghadhdhami and Sa‘id Al-Surayhi. An intellectual trend was born, known as modernism.
Again, this was a development that mainly had to do with a certain intellectual elite and remained at the surface of society. At the same time, however, a much deeper-reaching evolution was taking place in the Kingdom. From the 1960s, the Sahwa (from Al-Sahwa Al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Awakening), a grassroots Islamist movement, had been growing as a result, among other things, of the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood activists who had found shelter in Saudi Arabia.
The Sahwa’s base was the educational system, through which it had access to all layers of society. More importantly, in a conservative society, the Sahwa’s discourse was well-understood—and well-received. By the mid-1980s, the Sahwa had reached a critical mass, and it started seeing the modernists’ monopoly over certain media outlets, especially the literary supplements of the major Saudi newspapers, as a provocation. A wide-ranging campaign against the modernists was organized, and many of them were soon dismissed from their positions. The Sahwa, apparently, had won.
In August 1990, the threat of a potential invasion of Saudi Arabia by the Iraqi army, right after the latter had invaded Kuwait, convinced the Saudi rulers to request the assistance of Western troops. This prompted a wave of unprecedented debates in the Kingdom—with demands coming from all sectors of society. The first individuals to take action were a group of women’s rights advocates, who organized a spectacular event: In November 1990, 49 women drove cars in the streets of Riyadh, explicitly challenging the ban imposed on women’s driving.
From early 1991, however, the Sahwa members—who had been outraged by the women’s demonstration—became the most salient voice in Saudi society. Through a series of petitions and sermons, they called for the implementation of their social and political project, which aimed, among other things, at increasing the control of the religious establishment over Saudi society, and at giving religious figures a more prominent role in the political system.
However, both the authorities and the liberals saw the momentum gained by the Sahwa as a threat. The authorities reacted by silencing the most prominent figures of the Sahwist opposition, while secular activists of all backgrounds—leftists, communists, modernists, advocates of women’s rights, etc.—started to coalesce in a group, which, soon after, informally took the name liberals (libaraliyyun).
These liberals had a very simple program: countering the Sahwa’s project and worldview. This would remain the main weakness of the Saudi liberal trend for the years to come: It was born in opposition to the Sahwa, and had no real—and, even less so, coherent—project of its own. It is true that, in the 1990s, some brilliant thinkers such as Turki Al-Hamad attempted to inject intellectual flesh into the liberal project. But Al-Hamad’s effort was relatively isolated, and many of those claiming the liberal label didn’t even identify with it.
The weakening of the Sahwa, however, gave the liberal trend a first impulse: Liberals soon reclaimed the positions that some of them had earlier occupied in the media, and they re-established their influence at the elite level. The emergence of salafi-jihadi terrorism, and the events of September 11 gave liberals a second impulse: The fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi and the media campaign against the Kingdom in the West opened a phase of self-introspection in Saudi Arabia. Presenting themselves as an alternative to the Islamists—while explicitly assimilating Sahwis and jihadists—the liberals undoubtedly took advantage of the situation. Another factor played in favor of the liberals; the emergence of a group of mutahawwilun (literally “those who have changed”), former Islamists who had become extremely critical of the Sahwa and other forms of Islamic activism.
For the liberals, these mutahawwilun were a key asset, first because they spoke out of personal experience, and second because they had a mastery of the language of Islam that was sorely lacking among the liberals. In the 1990s, most of the liberals had no discourse on Islam. They claimed to represent universal values, and outwardly presumed that those values were compatible with Islam.
In the wake of 9/11, and with the help of some of the mutahawwilun such as Mansur Al-Nuqaidan or Muhammad Al-Mahmud, the liberals would increasingly attempt to justify their positions through Islam. This intrusion in a sphere considered alien to them reinforced the Sahwa’s hostility towards the liberals. This was especially so when, for instance, Al-Nuqaidan went so far as to call for a revival of irja’, a medieval group known for its tolerance of all religious opinions but considered deviant by the Sahwis, who had spent considerable efforts refuting their ideas.
This gave the liberals an increasing visibility, especially on the Internet where they established a significant presence. Liberal forums were created: first, Tuwaa, until 2004, then Dar Al-Nadwa, until 2006, and finally, and since then, Minbar Al-Ibda’ wal-Hiwar and Muntadayatuna (Al-Shabaka Al-Libaraliyya). This is a remarkable development: for the first time, the term liberal is used here in a formal way, marking the increasing assertiveness of its proponents. This development coincided with the increasing use of the same term by the liberals’ foes, as in the 2009 book published by the Sahwis of Al-Bayan magazine under the name Naqd Al-Libaraliyya (“critique of liberalism”).
However, the increasing visibility of the liberals also exposed their contradictions. The liberal trend grew out of its opposition to the Sahwa, but lacked a coherence of its own. Liberals wanted reform, but they disagreed on what should be reformed, and how. This produced an important split in the early 2000s, which led to the emergence of two groups, representing two radically distinct options—those who may be referred to as social liberals and those that I would refer to as political liberals. For the first group, the main problem in Saudi Arabia is social and cultural, and what is needed primarily, then, is social and cultural reform.
Many of those liberals even oppose the idea of democratization, because, according to them, any opening in this direction while society isn’t ready would only benefit their Islamist foes. They are very loyal to the regime, which they see as an ally and protector against the influence of the Sahwa. The political liberals, on the contrary, believe that no change can be achieved without an all-encompassing effort at political reform. For them, social and cultural reform is also deeply needed, but it will not happen if the political issue is not addressed first. To make this happen, some of those “political liberals” have proven ready to collaborate with any other social group, including Islamists, as long as they agree on common goals.
The resulting Islamo-liberal alliance prompted heated debates between the different groups of liberals: While the political liberals insisted on the fruitfulness of their approach, others, especially the social liberals, reproached them for becoming tools in the hands of the Islamists. As Turki Al-Hamad, who may be considered as part of the social liberal group, once put it in an interview he gave me, “Those ‘liberals’ are being fooled by the Islamists the same way Iranian liberals were fooled by Khomeini. The Islamists claim to be democrats, but if they get to power, they’ll establish a regime of the kind of what is found in Iran.”
The debate between the different groups of liberals about what liberalism truly means continues today—as does the debate between Islamists and liberals on what social and political project to implement. The latter, however, remains an uneven debate: Despite the visibility that the media boom and the post-9/11 context have provided to the liberals, these activists continue to represent an elite group, with no strong connections to society. They do claim to represent the “silent majority”; but, even if this were true, the main characteristic of the silent majority is precisely that it remains… silent. In contrast, the Islamists control a considerable number of institutions and associations, and are found in every sphere of Saudi society. In the debate, they are—and will without a doubt continue to be in the years to come—the strong side.
Stéphane Lacroix - Assistant professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris. His work focuses on Islam and politics in the contemporary Middle East, with a particular focus on the Gulf region.