Hussain Abdul-Hussain

This is Saudi Arabia

A Saudi woman casts her ballot in a polling station in the coastal city of Jeddah, on 12 December 2015. Saudi women were allowed to vote in elections for the first time ever, in a tentative step towards easing widespread sex discrimination in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom. (AFP/STR)

Saudi women voted for the first time in Saudi Arabia, but it did not make history because their vote does not fit the mainstream narrative that the country is a medieval, misogynous kingdom whose government sponsors hate speech in private while befriending the US in public.


In fact, opponents of Saudi Arabia — a mishmash of Iran apologists and leftist demagogues — offer two contradictory theories for the rise of terrorism. Some argue that Riyadh sponsors an austere interpretation of Islam that promotes radicalism. Others say that Washington's alliance with Riyadh provokes anti-Saudi terrorists to attack the US. Haters of Saudi Arabia blame the kingdom for terrorism, but disagree on whether Riyadh sponsors terrorism or suppresses it, causing it to spill over into other countries.


But here in Riyadh, things look different. Political debates are open and heated.


On regional issues the Saudi capital hosted the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which coincided with meetings of the Syrian opposition and an ongoing gathering of Yemeni government officials-in-exile and their supporters. Over the past week, journalists in Riyadh had their hands full.


Domestic Saudi politics have not been far behind regional issues. The kingdom saw its third local elections on Sunday, and for the first time women were allowed to vote (they were already permitted to run in previous rounds). 


The Saudi government launched campaigns to encourage Saudis to vote, raising the slogan "more prerogatives, more choices." As a result, 1.3 million Saudis registered — 130,000 of them women. Around 7,000 candidates ran for office, 1,000 of whom were women, to be elected to 248 municipal councils.


Saudi Arabia is changing. The cabinet is primarily comprised of young, savvy and highly educated ministers. The main driver behind this change is Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Those who know him say he is a results-oriented man who has introduced the concept of benchmarks to government, with support from the king and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef. 


In Jeddah, elder royal Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the founder of the Arab Thought Foundation, inaugurated the annual book exhibition. In their opening speeches, speakers emphasized that Muslims believe that the first word in the revelation was "read." There is a group of Muslims in Jeddah that clearly highlights Islam's emphasis on learning and education, not war and death. 


Minister of Education and Information Adel al-Toraifi peppered his speech with numbers, saying that an Arab reads six minutes a day, compared to the world average of 36 minutes. He also said that the Arab world prints 27,809 books a year, which translates to 12,000 Arabs getting one book — a low average that he said the government plans to raise by supporting authors, printing and circulation.


At the opening of the Jeddah Book Exhibition, a new Saudi dynamic was evident: an older generation throwing its weight behind a younger one that is employing its talent. 


Inside the exhibition, diverse books were on display, including titles by Iran's lobbyist in Washington, Trita Parsi, and even by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, despite Trump's anti-Muslim statements. On the shelves were also books by female Saudi poets, novelists and memoir writers. Women spoke on panels. When a female poet started reciting from her new book, two men stood up to protest, and addressed the audience, saying: "Do you accept that a woman recites poetry?" The audience responded with an unequivocal 'yes' as the two men were escorted out.


Over the past 50 years, Saudi Arabia has tried various policies with mixed results. It managed to build a formidable oil production and export infrastructure, which in turn offered the kingdom vast financial resources. 


Yet it is not enough for a nation to be oil-rich to become one of the top 20 economies in the world. Iran and Iraq, with the world's third and fourth-largest oil reserves, are examples of how oil-rich nations can lag behind economically. 


Apart from its economic success, the Saudi government, like other parts of the world, has grappled with questions of social regulation. Should the US government regulate marriage, or is that an infringement on personal liberty? Should the Saudi government regulate public behavior or is that an unwelcome overreach?


By handing power over to municipalities, maybe Riyadh hopes to involve Saudis in regulating local matters, including their social code. 


Unfair propaganda has cast Saudi Arabia in an unfavorable image, often depicting it as a place that is ripe for producing Islamist radicals. But next time you see such reports, remember that studies show that in America, 40% of ISIS sympathizers and militants were born into families with no Arab or Islamic roots. Remember that Tunisia, the most secular Arab nation over the past decade, is the source of the biggest number of foreign ISIS fighters. Remember that it does not take conservative societies like those in the Gulf to breed terrorists.


Saudi Arabia is far from perfect. Like other nations, its government is a work in progress. The upside is that its rulers seem to realize that everyone needs change, and that those who don't change get left behind and eventually die.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Alrai newspaper. He tweets @hahussain

A Saudi woman casts her ballot in a polling station in the coastal city of Jeddah, on 12 December 2015. Saudi women were allowed to vote in elections for the first time ever, in a tentative step towards easing widespread sex discrimination in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom. (AFP/STR)

Here in Riyadh, things look different. Political debates are open and heated."

  • Elvis

    Lol, talk about being an apologist for Saudi Arabia. Isn't the House of Saud and its allies, the Wahhabist clerical establishment which is the source of instability throughout most of the Muslim world? Who but the Saudis are financing Salafist cable evangelists, madrassas, foundations, and so on not only in the Islamic world but in the West? Who but the Saudis are the ones who via so called "charities" finance jihadist groups around the world like Al Qaeda & ISIS. Who but the Saudis preach hatred against the West, Jews, pagans, and so on from the mosques to their people, televise it to the world, and broadcast it via You-Tube? Who but the Saudis not only dominated among the perpetrators of 9-11 but also are a significant chunk of the foreign fighters of ISIS and the biggest supporters of ISIS via Twitter? Who but the Saudis publish textbooks and Qurans filled with hatred and violence toward pagans, Jews, and so on? Who but the Saudis have been financially keeping afloat despotic regimes in the Middle East who not only oppress their own people but likewise are responsible of spreading hatred against via their media and supporting Salafist mosques and parties?

    January 20, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Mr. Abdul-Hussain.... you forgot to tell your readers about how great Saudi Arabia is for people like Raif Badawi. Maybe you should dedicate one of your precious pieces entirely to Mr. Badawi, to showcase exactly where the government of Saudi Arabia is "in progress", to use your own words in describing the Islamic cesspool you are so enamored with.

    December 16, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    If you still have men in Saudi Arabia who stand up and yell, "Do you accept that a woman recites poetry?", then yes I agree with you, Saudi Arabia is far from perfect. Very very far. Abysmally far. Your flaccid argument is that Saudi Arabia is just like any other country, and that any difference with other countries is merely one of degree of primitiveness. But we all agree on that. Democracies are not perfect either. Standards of happiness and civilization are nowhere absolute. But if one were to lay down those standards on a sliding scale, you'd have to agree that Saudi Arabia is way at the very end of the scale. For you to crow like a rooster because Saudi Arabia allowed yesterday women to vote for the first time in rather insignificant elections, while there are still Saudi men getting offended because a woman is reciting poetry, you'd have to keep crowing for many mornings before the rest of us can begin to accept Saudi Arabia in the civilized zone of the aforementioned scale. Oh, and by the way, I am neither an Iranian apologist, nor a leftist demagogue. Both Iran and leftwingers trigger the exact same gag reflex in my limbic central nervous system as does Saudi Arabia.

    December 15, 2015