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The Saudi Way: Wahabi Shari'a law and tribal customs combine to keep Saudi Arabia as the most-conservative society


By Dr. Tahir Rauf

23rd May, 2013

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is so reclusive and closed to the outside world that it is considered one of the world’s most forbidden countries. As a reclusive country, its economy greatly depends on foreign workers (which is about 36 percent of the country’s population).

The Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 from internecine conflicts among many tribes and local rulers of the Arabian Peninsula. The tribal group, the House of Sa’ud, established full control by defeated its rivals Rashidis in the Najd and the Hashemite’s in Hijaz. Ibn Sa’ud returned from exile in Kuwait to restore his family power. He made a strategic decision to reinvigorate the alliance with religious reformer Muhammad Ibn Abs al Wahhab in an effort to purify Islam, what he believed were the original principles of the religion. It was a dynastic alliance and power-sharing arrangement between their families, which still exists to the present day (M’enoret 2005).

The United States recognized the government of King Ibn Saud in 1931. The two years later in 1933, Ibn Saud granted a concession to the US oil company, allowing them to explore for oil in the country. Significant oil revenues began to flowing in 1950s. The Kingdom is still linked to U.S and West through dozens of political and economic channels. Oil revenue is the only lubricant of the Kingdom’s ambition to become a major industrial nation. In parallel, House of Saud preserved the religious and social mores in the Kingdom. The Saudi way of life is based on interpretation of Islam based on Wahabism offering every justification for their actions (M’enoret 2005).

Saudi Arabia is rich and vulnerable but continues to shows a unique combination of modernization and antiquity. The Kingdom’s industrial ambition exceeds its management capabilities. Its aspirations are to enter into the modern world of knowledge science and technology. The House of Sa’ud wishes to remain under protection of the U.S. while social and political systems negate for intrusion of American values within the Saudi life.

All citizens are considers to be Muslim under the Kingdom law but public worship of other faith in public is strictly forbidden. However, followers of other faiths practice in private not permitted by the government. For example, Eastern province has 55 percent Shīʿah population, even some cities – Qatif, Shhat, Tarout and Safwa have 100 percent Shīʿah population. Shīʿah are comprise of about half of the labour force in Saudi Aramco. Beautiful historic city of Najran hold seat of seventh Ismaelis Shīʿah imam. Shīʿah both Saudis and expatriates are restricted to their religious practices. Shīʿah Muslims have fear of arrest, persecution or deportation of expatriates. Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Najran propagates Wahhabi doctrines and police petrol prevents Ismaelis to perform even Eid prayers in public (Lippmann, 2012; Bradley, 2005).

Saudi women are not permitted to marry with non-Saudis, except with special permission from higher authorities. Permission is also required before a Saudi woman is able to marry an Arab, who is not a citizen of the Gulf Cooperation Council. There are rapid changes happening in recent decades that Saudi women who are increasingly opting to marry foreigners (Alosaimi, September 2007). A recent change in law allowed Saudi women married to expatriate to pass on citizenship rights for their children, and will have all citizen rights of education, medical care and Saudisation program.

Islam was revealed over 1400 years ago, Women were given the right in 7th century Arabia to vote allowed to voice their opinions, right to inheritance, and to choose whom to marry. All women in Saudi Arabia, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian. A woman cannot travel, cannot attend university, cannot work, and cannot marry without her guardian’s permission. In some cases, the law doesn’t support the woman to receive major medical treatment without the permission of her guardian (Human Rights watch report, 2013).

It is notable that 57% of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, however, women account for only 15% of the workforce. Women could not vote or to be elected to high political positions. However, the King Abdullah recently pushing reforms in the Kingdom to allow women to run in local municipal election in the 2015(USA Today, September 2011). Whole society denies most basic rights that it is impossible to socialize a married couple in public.

Nevertheless, women are still struggling for 'right to drive'. The kingdom has long history of women punished for driving in Saudi Arabia. There is no written law prohibiting women from driving but Saudi Arabia does not issue drivers licenses to women, and the law says all drivers must have locally issued licenses. Many Saudi Princess are vocal about situation for women in the country (Kerry, October 2012).

Wahabi Shari'a law and tribal customs combine to keep Saudi Arabia as the most-conservative society. The cultural norms present to narrowly defined standards of ethics. Men and women are not permitted to attend public events together (M’enoret 2005).Saudi Arabia hosts one of the pillars of Islam, which obliges all Muslims to make the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Many Saudi Wahhabi Imams criticize the Islamic history in which men and women were never segregated in great mosque of Ka’ba in Mecca and during annual Hajj or Umrah.

The custom in Saudi Arabia is for an arranged marriage within or between tribes. Divorce is always easy for men but edgy for women. In many recent instances, women have been notified divorce by text message, social media networks, and Twitter. In a case in 2012, a Saudi man divorced his wife on loudspeaker, as he could not tolerate that she enjoyed watching a Turkish soap opera. In another occasion, a Saudi man divorced his wife along three children at shopping mall after seeing her take a note from another man consider receiving his phone number (Tainted love, Albawaba, 2012).On the other hand, if the Saudi wife wanted to divorce her husband, she must go to the courts to attending judge. If the judge does not believe there is sufficient cause for a divorce, he can order her to remain with her husband.

However, the Saudi Ministries of Justice and Social Affairs reports also indicate that the total number of all divorces in the Kingdom in 2011 was 34,622 and that 66 percent of divorces took place in the first year of marriage. Forty percent of divorces were mainly due to the husband’s refusal to let his wife continue to work and forcing her to quit her job, while 60 percent were due to issues related to the husband’s control over wife’s issues.

Saudi Arabia's Census (April 2010) shows population 28 million of which 18 million Saudi nationals, 9 million registered expatriates and rest illegal immigrants. The country that runs on the labour of about 18 million foreign workers while its own youth between 15-24 of age are jobless with an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent in 2012 ( Saudi Central Department of Statistics , 2013– Riyadh Bureau).

Many expatriates accept their jobs for generous financial packages offered. Nevertheless, they feel alienated from local cultural, religious restrictions, and language. Saudi government has initiated a policy of Saudisation or the reduction of foreign workers and increase Saudi nationals in the economy. In the private sector, there has been a reluctance to employ Saudis and Saudisation has generally considered being a failure. Saudis themselves may not be willing to take certain jobs, considering them to lack social value. The shortage of technicians and skilled labour is considered the most crucial problem but low percentages of Saudi youths are obtaining a technical education and a high percentage of them are getting an academic education.

The salary gap between Saudi nationals and expats is growing as a result of the government's Nitaqat policy which aims to get more Saudis working in the private sector. Nationals now receive 17 percent more than the market average while non-nationals now receive four percent below the market average. New hires national are receiving the largest pay increases in salary and performance based bonus (Arabian Business, September 2012).

The world human rights report 2013explains, over 9 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs, constituting more than half the national workforce, which suffers multiple abuses and labour exploitation. Domestic workers like driver, house maid, and cook don’t’ have employment right because they are not covered under the Saudi labour law. Saudis often have verbally and physically abused workers from developing countries like India (1.3 million), Pakistan (900,000), Egyptian (900,000), Yemeni (800,000) and Bangladesh (500,000) Filipino 500,000, Jordanian/Palestinian (260,000), Indonesian (250,000), Sri Lankan (350,000), Sudanese (250,000), Syrian (100,000) and Turkish (100,000). Foreign workers have been raped, exploited, under or unpaid, physically abused, overworked, and locked in their places of employment. In many cases, the workers are unwilling to report their employers, for fear of losing their jobs or further abuse.

There are over 100,000 westerner (mostly Caucasians) working in Saudi Arabia, often are treated fairly, and with face respect. In most cases, Saudis are very friendly in the work place and in public. The society is strange with regard to racism. However, behaviours can be very different for expatriates working from less affluent countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Philippines, and Blacks from Africa are treated low-grade citizens publically, calling them with racial slurs. These discriminatory practices are very much on social class. Most have found it difficult to bite a tongue.

Saudi Arabia faces many of the social problems. The country’s youth of the Al Saud dynasty often seems disconnected. Ministry of information media group introduced new electronic media law would require government registration for bloggers. Saudis are heavy users of Facebook and Twitter and it may be impossible to have government control. There are prohibitions on selling or wearing anything red on Valentine’s Day. Despite restrictions from religious force, Saudis still celebrate Valentine's day buying red roses and teddy bear in underground black market (Aljuma, February 2013).

In pre-Islamic time, music played in every event of man’s life. Islamic music was developed in Umayyad time (661-750). Music is legal in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s music is both Western and traditional. However, there are no formal schools to teach music. Movie theatres are prohibited and they are only located within private company compounds, such as theatres at Saudi Aramco residential compound. There are 12 million Internet users in Saudi Arabia. YouTube has as much as 90 million page views every day. The internet popularity could be explained by the ban on movie theatres. Saudi government is developing many growing instances to control media repressively but spread of globalization has its own punch. When Saudis protest against government restrictions, they often turn to social media (Social Media, 2012;, 2013).

Average middle-class households employ a driver. Though women can purchase the latest upscale Western fashions at almost any Saudi mall, they are expected to wear a black cloaking Abayas when they come in public otherwise will be harassed by the country’s religious police, if their hair or nail polish shows just outside their veils. Saudi Arabia is indeed a shopping paradise for the woman of any age, Saudi or expects who likes to shop. The latest fashions from Rome, Paris, London and New York arrive in Saudi Arabia probably faster than most other major cities in the world. There are many Gucci, Chanel and Armani clad women underneath the shrouding black Abayas (You Tube, 2013). Many middle class males are professionals having a degree from abroad, and speaking in English comfortable. They wear white Thobe and headgear within the kingdom; often meet in Starbucks in a trendy upper class Mall (Eakin, 2013; Susan 2002).

Women appear infrequently in Saudi-run advertising, mostly on Saudi-owned TV channels that show women in long dresses, scarves covering their hair and long sleeves. All imported magazines are censor and woman pictures scratched out many parts of a woman's body including arms, legs and chest. Saudi catalogue available online, looks the same as other editions of the publication, except for the absence of women (IKEA, 2012).

The Muslim world reacted in outrage and anger at the destruction of the centuries-old Indian Babri mosque by Hindu extremists in Ayodhya, India in December 1992 (The Express Tribune, December 2012). The protector of Islam’s holy places in Mecca and Medina have erased own history by the demolition of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) wife Khadijah’s1, 400-year-old home (Hume and Ayesha, 2013) including over 300 holy sites of Prophet Muhammad’s time (The Guardian, November 2010). Expansion of Mecca project is demolishing some Ottoman and Abbasid sections on the eastern side of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca (Hume and Ayesha, 2013). In addition, Saudi Government is planning to demolish shrine of Prophet Mohammad and two of his closest companions, Abu Bakr and Umar Farooq to expand Medina’s holy Mosque of Al-Nabawi (Zakaria, February 2013).However, 2.1 billion Muslim around the world remain silent on the possible act of Saudis’ cultural vandalism.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia is growing with more than 95% of oil account revenues and share of the non-oil economy has transformed an underdeveloped desert kingdom into one of the world's wealthiest nation. The Kingdom is still facing a battle between tradition and modernity rippled through religious, cultural, and political transformation.


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Dr. Tahir Rauf lived and worked in Saudi Arabia.