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Mordechai Kedar: What’s Next for Saudi Arabia?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
Photo Credit: Omar Rashidi/Flash90

The Shi’ites

In Eastern Saudi Arabia, in the oil-rich region of Hasah, live the members of the Shia minority. The Sunni rulers, members of the Hanbali-Wahabbi population, view Shi’ism as a kind of heresy against Islam, and place many limitations upon them. The Shi’ites are forbidden to call the “adhan”, the call to prayer, from the minarets of the mosques, and they are forbidden to publicly mark the day of the “Ashura”, the day on which, in 680 CE, al-Hussein bin Ali, the Shi’ite leader, was murdered by the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. The Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia, in spite of being Arabs, are routinely accused of loyalty to Iran and treason against the homeland. In recent months the Alawites in Syria have been added to the list of targets for Saudi media, because – ultimately – they are also heretics…

The Issue of Identity

This issue is apparently the most severe of all the issues exerting their influence on the society in the kingdom. National identity is defined by a group of values, ideals and principles which together, constitute an identity of individuals as well as groups among the people, and these are expressed in its art, culture, literary creations, philosophy and history. Some of these components are fixed and stable, but others integrate changes that are occurring within the cultural environment of the people.

In Saudi Arabia, the youth, who constitute the majority of the population, can be divided into three groups according to their cultural identity: the first group has a traditional nature, characterized by customs and social traditions specific to them, mainly the adherence to tribal culture, which has lately increased among the public and the media. The increasing awareness of the tribal unit among those tribes who are not part of the coalition of the Saudi family, results in increasing self-awareness and independence, isolating them from the state, which is not theirs. The second group integrates religious values with imported values which appeal mainly to the younger generation. One can see many young people coming to prayers in the mosques wearing jeans and western hair styles, and in their pockets are cell phones that contain material inconsistent with the values of Islam. These young people do not represent a stable element of society, and their conduct can change within short periods of time. The third group comprises youths who are increasingly attracted to the radical side of religion, which they feel is the proper compass to guide the individual, the society and the state. This group views tribal culture, and especially the tribal ruler, negatively, mainly because of rumors of the immoral behavior of some members of the royal family.

To all of these groups we must add the millions of foreign workers who reside permanently in the kingdom, most of whom – whether from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Arab world – work under difficult conditions and for very low wages, and many times must cope with with humiliating and degrading treatment from their Saudi employers. Foreign women who work as housekeepers in Saudi Arabia are treated with a double portion of humiliation and exploitation. The identity of the foreign workers with the state is no greater than the salary that they receive for their services.

The ruling family is well aware of the various trends among the population, and tries to buy the public and the their loyalty with “charity” money that it distributes to whomever it pleases. A caricature making the rounds on the Internet expresses the situation well.

In light of the situation in which the kingdom must stand up to external challenges – principally an Iranian threat to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia – it is not clear whether the population of the kingdom will indeed lend strong support to the leadership of the ruling family. It is not clear how dear this family is to the hearts of the public, or how much the public identifies with it and with the aging, shabby governmental system that runs the state. Will the citizens of Saudi Arabia agree to pay the price of war with Iran only to leave the sons and the grandsons of the House of Saud with exclusive in power? Does Iranian self confidence in relation to the Gulf states stem from a sense of weakness emanating from Saudi Arabia? Does the tense atmosphere that reigns recently between the royal family and the White House in Washington stem from some doubt in the hearts of Americans about the value of investing in the “State of the Saud Family”? The future holds the answers.

About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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