Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia

Portents of change from the desert kingdom.

Close observers of Saudi Arabia detect what may be the first faint signs of movement away from tyranny. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who ascended the throne two years ago and is now at least 83, is the apparent instigator of this change. The Saudis are polarizing, some say, between the supporters of King Abdullah and his enemies, the fundamentalist clerics.

Saudi Arabia was founded on a totalitarian ideology, Wahhabism, that claims to be an Islamic religious doctrine, but is really a radical system of social control. Riyadh has long financed Wahhabi global expansionism and adventurism, and this has now come home to roost. Saudi Arabia has entered a crisis, and resembles the former Soviet Union as it was poised to fall apart--a gerontocracy in which neither power nor policy is transparent or, until lately, susceptible to pressure for change from below.

As a result, the interpretation of Saudi politics is a lot like the old craft of Sovietology, in which the seemingly most trivial developments in the Kremlin were subjected to minute examination. But there are differences. Sovietologists were handicapped by their attachment to the global status quo--since Russia was a nuclear power given to provocative and intimidating behavior--and by their own failure to comprehend the internal contradictions of the Communist order. Few saw the brittleness and fragility of the system, and nearly all were taken by surprise when it brusquely imploded.

Saudiology can be as convoluted as Sovietology, but the study of potential change in the desert kingdom offers some advantages absent in the Soviet instance. Belief in the status quo dominated Western thinking about Communist Russia, so nobody in the West theorized about how to dismantle Soviet governance. Not a single book proposing guidelines for a transition from Communist statism was ever published in the West, as far as we can tell; nor have we seen a useful summation of the lessons learned from the various, improvised transitions that occurred across the former Soviet bloc.

By contrast, Saudiologists may already contemplate the end of Wahhabi domination and imagine rational pathways toward normality. Nobody responsible wants the Saudi monarchy to collapse altogether; a violent disintegration would have negative consequences far beyond the oil markets, undermining what stability remains in the Sunni Muslim world. Instead, a plausible scheme would envisage the House of Saud as heads of state along the lines of the British royal family, even keeping a share of oil revenues, but with a written constitution that guarantees an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, religious liberty--and the complete and total disestablishment of Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia in crisis has resources for a managed transition that were absent in the Soviet case. The large traffic of foreign Muslims to the kingdom for religious pilgrimages every year provides observers and critics with a window into Saudi reality that did not exist in the Soviet empire. And Saudi Arabia has a growing, responsible, entrepreneurial business elite, as well as the largest middle class in the Arab world, pressing up against the absurd restrictions of the Saudi-Wahhabi order.

Against this complicated backdrop, Saudiologists attempt to read the coffee grounds, talking to Saudis at home and abroad, scrutinizing the Saudi media. Are the hairline cracks now appearing in the old Saudi-Wahhabi united front the barely perceptible beginnings of something big? We should hope for nothing less than a smooth and peaceful progression--like those in formerly authoritarian Spain, Taiwan, and Indonesia and formerly Communist Poland, the Czech Republic, and similar countries in the past 30 years--all the way to an open society and political freedom.

Valentine's Day is a touchy subject in Saudi Arabia. Introduced by Saudis who had lived in the West, the custom of exchanging romantic gifts became popular, but met with official disapproval. This year, the annual Valentine's Day "debate" began on Monday, February 12. The Riyadh newspaper al-Jazeera (unrelated to the television network of the same name, which means "the peninsula") reported in blazing red headlines that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Wahhabi institution better known as the religious militia or mutawwa, would systematically inspect hotels, restaurants, coffeehouses, and gift shops to prevent Muslim couples from giving each other Valentines or other presents. Such items would be confiscated, and those selling them would be subject to prosecution. The mutawwa condemned Valentine's Day as a "pagan feast."

Nevertheless, this year's anti-Valentine offensive by the mutawwa was less draconian than usual. It included a stipulation: Non-Muslims in the kingdom--as much as 20 percent of the population (up to 6 million people) because of the immense influx of Western technicians and mostly Christian guest workers from east Asia--would not be molested by the mutawwa if they celebrated the holiday behind closed doors, although Muslims were cautioned against joining in foreign Valentine's Day events. The mutawwa are notorious for bursting into the residences of foreigners to check whether they are consuming liquor, so this Valentine's Day concession to foreigners was more significant than outsiders might think. The privacy of one's home is, after all, foundational to civilized societies.

The next day, on February 13, the mutawwa forbade the sale of Valentine roses in the markets and malls. This seems especially perverse to Muslims, since roses have always been symbols of love, beauty, and inspiration in Islamic spirituality. The newspapers al-Jazeera and al-Watan (The Nation) stated that all red-colored items had been removed from shops.

Yet Saudi subjects report that the mutawwa harassment failed. Many ordinary Saudi Muslims favored their beloved with Valentine gifts, which were more popular than ever. The price of red roses shot up, and they were quickly sold out. What makes this significant is that it is one of several signs of waning mutawwa power.

On February 12, the same day the main warning against Valentines was issued, King Abdullah told foreign journalists that the issue of Saudi women driving cars--long banned, with the prohibition enforced by the mutawwa--is a social rather than a religious issue, to be determined as a matter of state policy instead of theology. If these words are followed up with action, and the matter of women driving is actually removed from clerical control, that will mark a turning point in the history of the kingdom. Indeed, only a day later, Abdullah announced that the King Abdullah Institute for Research and Consultative Studies, a policy think tank never connected to the Wahhabi clerics, will review the functioning of the mutawwa. Again, if this announcement proves to be the prelude to action, it can be seen as another incremental step toward normalization.

The most hopeful analysts see the Saudi monarch starting to remove the state from Wahhabism. Rumors have circulated for months that Abdullah wishes to outright abolish the mutawwa, a Wahhabi invention (with a parallel in the mullahs' Iran). In Jeddah, the cosmopolitan business center that, with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, dominates Hejaz, the region stretching along the Red Sea that is the heart of the Islamic world, women now refuse to wear the face covering, or niqab, declaring that it was never a Hejazi custom. In a series of incidents since Abdullah assumed power, the women of Jeddah have harassed the mutawwa off the city's streets. It is said that Prince Nayef, the sinister Wahhabi minister of the interior who was the first prominent Saudi to blame the atrocities of September 11, 2001, on Israel, has threatened King Abdullah with removal if he attempts to curb the mutawwa. But King Abdullah is popular, and such a gambit by Prince Nayef would be extremely risky.

Aside from the crucial issue of the mutawwa--and intriguing but isolated developments like the publication in mid-January of a positive volume titled The Jewish Contribution to World Civilization by Saudi author Saad al-Bazaie--the most significant issue about which King Abdullah has adopted a new course involves the Sunni terror in neighboring Iraq. Genocidal hatred of Shias is an essential Wahhabi belief. It has been clear since the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq began that the majority of "foreign fighters" serving al Qaeda in Iraq are Saudis. Iraqi Sunnis are hesitant to kill themselves in terror operations, but Saudi fanatics take pride in this. When these murderous Sunni interlopers are terminated, their photographs and biographies typically appear in Saudi media. Al-Watan has stated that 2,000 Saudis have died in Iraq since 2003--two thirds the number of American soldiers slain there. In a recent case, on February 5, for instance, the Wahhabi periodical al-Sahat (The Hour) gloated over a Saudi subject, Hudhaiban al-Dosary, who had crossed the Saudi border to blow himself up in a massacre of dozens of Iraqis during the solemn Shia commemoration of Ashura. The atrocity committed by al-Dosary, alias Abu Mehjen, was but one in a series of Ashura horrors perpetrated by foreign Sunni extremists this year.

But while the 24-year-old al-Dosary received fulsome praise from the Wahhabis, even they had to admit his previous life was less than exemplary. Al-Dosary, according to his adulators, was a mere gangster, or, perhaps better, a "gangsta," known for drag-racing and leading vagabond youths around Riyadh to watch his automotive exploits. Wahhabi media commented blandly that "despite our brother's recklessness, he had a good background and good intentions and did not ignore his fellow-Muslims." Showering the homicidal terrorist with blessings, the Wahhabis exulted that he had become bored with street racing and turned to religion, and to gain divine forgiveness had gone north to join the jihad in Iraq. For all the rhetorical trimmings, the truth was obvious: A brainless punk had used religion as a pretext to commit a colossal and heartless crime.

Faced with Saudi complicity in the Iraqi bloodshed, King Abdullah has attempted to put on the brakes. His most recent actions include reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Iraq after a 17-year break and the arrest on February 4 of 10 individuals--9 Saudis and a Moroccan--for collecting funds and seeking to recruit youths for the Sunni terror in Iraq. To be sure, the 10 were arrested only after they had been cautioned four times to desist from their extremist activities. The day before they were detained was especially bloody in Iraq, with hundreds dead.

Furthermore, on January 27, Saudi media had reported that Iraqi prison administrators in Mosul were calling on the Saudi embassy in Syria to take Saudi terror suspects home. Saudis jailed in Iraq claimed that the Baghdad authorities were calling the prisoners' relatives in the kingdom to inform them of their whereabouts. As these events played out, King Abdullah and his circle were disclaiming any support for the Iraqi Sunnis against the Shias in a series of official statements. On February 9, according to the leading daily al-Hayat (Life), the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Sudais, a noted Wahhabi bigot, surprised the population of the kingdom when he delivered a Friday sermon calling for peaceful relations between the two sects. Al-Sudais, never known for moderation, may have resented having to preach such a message, but, at least temporarily, he fell in line with the king. Of late, Abdullah personally has twice declared that Saudi Arabia will not support the Sunnis in Iraq against the Shias, or permit efforts to declare Shias unbelievers, a position twice echoed by foreign minister Saud ul-Faisal.

While Abdullah and Saud are manifestly worried that sectarian violence in Iraq could spill across their borders, the king's attempt to disengage from the Sunni terror in Iraq is immediately significant to Americans and our coalition partners in that it can help save the lives of our military personnel in Iraq.

It should be apparent that King Abdullah's reform path is, at this point, neither clear nor firm. But at the very least, these hints of the Saudi king's desire to dismantle Wahhabi power at home and disengage from Sunni radicalism in Iraq contrast sharply with the provocative behavior of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If a serious Valentine Revolution were to develop in the Saudi kingdom, its success would have incalculably beneficial effects in the Muslim world, undermining the appeal of Wahhabism and curbing the cash flow to al Qaeda, contributing to regional stability, and providing a responsible alternative to the demagogy of Ahmadinejad and others. Certainly, it is in the direct moral and practical interest of the United States that Saudi Arabia become a normal and respectable state.

Stephen Schwartz is completing a book on Sufism for Doubleday. Irfan al-Alawi is director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation in London.

Posted Februrary 26, 2007, Weekly Standard