What are the Prospects for Real Reform in Saudi Arabia?

What are the Prospects for Real Reform in Saudi Arabia?
(Mansour Al-Hadj, July 11, 2018)

Transcript available below

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Mansour Al-Hadj is the director of the Middle East Media Research Institute‘s (MEMRI) Reform Project. Before joining MEMRI, Al-Hadj was the senior reporter for AAFAQ Magazine, an Arabic news website that focuses on Reform and Human Rights in the Middle East.

Al-Hadj has participated in multiple briefings on Capitol Hill, including on the topic of “Movement of Extremism in the Muslim World: Struggle between States and Citizens.” He grew up in Saudi Arabia, an experience he wrote about in a dispatch on MEMRI’s website. He obtained his B.A. in law from the International University of Africa in Khartoum, Sudan in 2003.

For more on reform in the Arab world, see Progressive Arab Voices on Islamic Reform.


Robert R. Reilly:

Our speaker tonight, as you know from the announcement, is Mansour Al-Hadj, who is the director of the Reform Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute.

A year or two ago we had the President of MEMRI, Yigal Carmon, here. A couple of years ago while he was still Vice-President of MEMRI, [we had] Alberto Fernandez. So, it’s a tremendous pleasure to welcome Mansour here this evening, who has also done me an especially good turn when I was very concerned about the quality of the Arabic translation of the Closing of the Muslim Mind. I was able to take it to him and receive assurances that indeed the translators, who were basically a Sudanese team, had done a wonderful job and I certainly appreciated his help with that.

Before joining MEMRI, Mansour was a senior reporter for AAFAQ magazine, an Arabic news website focusing on reform and human rights in the Middle East. He’s well known on Capitol Hill where he’s given many briefings, including the topic of movement of extremism in the Muslim world.

He grew up in Saudi Arabia, the subject in which he will be talking tonight, and he’s written about that in a number of articles as well as some on the MEMRI website, which I invite your attention to, most particularly, one of the more recent and extensive ones, “It is Impossible to Defeat Islamic Terrorism Without Reforming Islam.” An earlier one that you can find on MEMRI, though it wasn’t first published there, “In my youth I was taught to love Death.”

He obtained his BA in law from the International University of Africa and Khartoum Sudan in 2003. Please join me in welcoming Mansour al Hadj.

Mansour Al-Hadj:

Thank you very much, Mr. Reilly. Thank you everybody for coming. My name is Mansour Al-Hadj. I was born and grew up in Saudi Arabia as he said. My family is originally from Chad and Sudan, the third generation in Saudi Arabia, so my grandma moved there a long time ago. My mom grew up there. I was born there, and I have nephews and nieces in Saudi Arabia, yet I don’t have the Saudi citizenship, so I leave it to your imagination.

Today, are we speaking about the prospects of real reform in Saudi Arabia? I know it’s a topic that a lot of people, a lot of you, are interested in, but before doing that I would like to say that I have written so many articles and papers about Saudi Arabia. One that I’m really very proud of was for the EHLS Program, which is English for Heritage Language Speakers program that is a government program with Georgetown University.

And the simplest idea of this program is to train U.S. citizens who are speakers of heritage languages such as Arabic, Persian, and some African languages, and Pashtun and Urdu, train them to work for the U.S. government, especially the Intel agencies. And it’s a very useful program and I’m very proud to have been selected to that program. So my paper on that program was supervised by the National Defense Agency, which is one of our intelligence agencies and the title of my paper was, “Saudi Arabia’s Shia Opposition.”

Talking about reform, I would like to start with a story. So it’s a- this story is an old traditional [story] in the Arabic culture. The story goes that in this city the river, there was a river, and that river is contaminated with insanity virus. Let’s say this way. So whoever swims or drink[s] from the river turns insane, becomes insane and loses his or her mind. So within a few months everybody in the- this little town becomes- became insane and the king, you know, was trying to talk to them to regain their sanity but it was a helpless case so his assistant and- and the people who advised him, consulted him told him to either drink from the river or swim in it so he would be on the same page with his people. That king was so smart and wise to do so.

In Saudi Arabia today, I think we have a similar situation. I’m not calling the Saudi people insane. In fact, I think the people of Saudi Arabia are contaminated with the love of freedom, with the love of liberty, and with the love of their country. The problem is the leadership is not on the same page with them and that would leave us with, in my opinion, to a catastrophic result, unless- unless the younger leadership in Saudi Arabia, whom I believe have a historical opportunity to reform the country and to respond to the aspirations of the Saudi people.

There are three levels of oppressions in Saudi Arabia. People in Saudi Arabia are oppressed politically, religiously, and socially. And you can watch the news, you can follow all the human rights organizations report[s] on Saudi Arabia and you will find that currently Saudi Arabia has turned into police state. We have a huge number of mass arrests, and arresting those who are arrested these days or a few months ago are the finest people in Saudi Arabia, college professors, thinkers, people with different ideas, people who aspire to change their country, to write a new history for their own country, and unfortunately, they’re behind bars as we speak right now. In fact, women have been arrested in- in the latest wave of arrests. These women are- are one of the bravest women in Saudi Arabia, college professor like Hatoon al-Fassi, Aziza al-Yousef, a leading human rights or women right activist. Eman al-Nafjan, and Loujain [al-Hathloul] and others. So this is the political oppression part of- of the problem.

In addition to that, there is no freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia. If you look at the Saudi papers, I tweeted the other day that it is as if they were written by one person. Everything is the same. You can’t find one single voice of dissent or opposition. I think this is extremely unhelpful, extremely dangerous for the future of the country. Moving to the second form of oppression in Saudi Arabia, which is religious oppression, people are getting oppressed religiously, and by that, I mean minorities in Saudi Arabia do not have rights.

If we talk about the Shia minority Medina or in the Eastern Provinces, they face what we call takfir from the Wahabi sheikhs and scholars, and they are not allowed to build houses for worship, and they have been discriminated against in every aspect in Saudi Arabia. They do not get hired in higher positions in the army or in the government, and they are under constant oppression. Even the Sunni ones, talking about the Sufis in Saudi Arabia for example, and this oppression is not only in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has exported Wahhabism around the world, and the reason why they succeeded is not because that’s the purest version of Islam but because of the petrol dollars that they were able to convince people or hire people to- or bring people in to Saudi Arabia to study that version of Islam and then go spread it around- around the world. As I said, I was born and grew up in Saudi Arabia but I lived in Chad and Sudan, and I can tell you my grandma did not use to- my late grandma did not cover her hair and, you know, when I talked to her- in her- when she was growing up in Chad, covering the hair was not part of the tradition, you know. Right now, you see women in full burqa in one of the hottest countries on earth. Just imagine that, and all that because of the Saudis.

So now, some of the examples of the [misogyny] of this ideology. You see a lot of conflicts in countries like Sudan and Chad between those who are supported or educated in Saudi Arabia, and the local population, because- because locally, most African countries are Malikis and they tend to be Sufis, which is a sect that Wahhabism consider outsider or consider not real Muslims.

So from Saudi Arabia this ideology that the ruling family in Saudi Arabia exported the problem abroad, and that teaching, as we all know, resulted in the creation of Jihadi groups, starting from Al-Qaeda to ISIS and, you know, the Taliban and all these. All of these groups teach what the current Saudi Arabia is teaching in- in- in Saudi school[s]. Also, within the religious oppression we had until recently, according to the government, women were not allowed to drive cars. And they used to tell people, you know, it is haram, or it is not for the best interests if women drive cars. Yet, thankfully, now they are allowed to drive cars, but, however, there is something called the male guardianship system, which is a system that put all women under the control of their male relatives. It’s from- I don’t know if it- if that system even was existed in the Stone Ages, but it still- it still existed in Saudi Arabia as we speak right now.

The women who were arrested recently, this brave and fine women- The only reason they were arrested was because they wanted to establish a human rights organization to defend the women, to defend the women who are being oppressed by their own fathers and brothers and family members. Under the current Saudi system, when these women get abused and go to the government police station, they are told to contact their abusers to come pick them up. So the general rule and all these women, they wanted to create an organization where women who are have- being abused by their own family member, can find a safe house where they can live and stay until, you know, they can find something to do, a safe place for safety reasons.

Moving to the- my third point, which is social oppression in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, I think, are the only nation on earth who are- who faces social oppression, meaning interaction between men and women are prohibited. Creation of organization or groups- People don’t have rights to establish even a small organization where they can, you know, mingle and get together. Other form of social oppression is the fact that, you know, the male guardianship system where for the woman to travel she has to get a permission from a father or brother or even sometimes a son to get a passport or to get a ticket to travel.

Now, some people talk about that- what Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, currently doing is not reform. It’s not political reform. It’s- He is just modernizing Saudi Arabia. Well, I disagree. I think if he is trying to modernize Saudi Arabia so that people need- modernize- so that people need a modern system, a modern ruling system, a constitution of Parliament, elections, they want to have freedom of expression, freedom of gatherings. All these elements are part of modernity and- and if he is not modernizing the political system in Saudi Arabia, I don’t think he is modernizing anything.

I really do not like talking too much and missing a lot of points, so I would really encourage everyone here to ask a lot of questions. To close, I would like to say, go back to the initial story. Saudi people are yearning for freedom, yearning to take part in the future of their country, and I strongly believe that MBS has a historical opportunity to reform the country by listening to who? To his people.

And I have an point that I would like to go quickly on about the prospect of real reform in Saudi Arabia. So number one, I would like to say freeing. If we want to have a real reform in Saudi Arabia, free all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia. This is my number one.

Second, calling for a national dialogue. Open a new page. Call all the opposition, the one inside, the one outside in exile. Call them and start a national dialogue where, you know, should be- where [they] should discuss- should discuss a constitution for the country.

Number three, drafting a constitution, so drafting- drafting a constitution for them, for the country, a constitution that respects all human rights, and protects all minorities, and push[es] the country and put[s] the country on the right track.

Also, one of the prospect[s], number four, of real reform is investigate- or create a body that investigates all corruption, all corruption charges against anybody. Right now, Mohammed bin Salman is accusing everybody else of corruption, but nobody can accuse him. There is no body in Saudi Arabia or no organization can point a finger to him and talk about the way he’s spending the country’s resources. Real reform require[s] establishing a body that has all the authorities to investigate and try everyone. No one should be above the law.

My fifth point of prospect for real reform is empowering Saudi women and by empowering Saudi women is- empowering Saudi women means putting them in leadership positions and elevating the male guardianship system, and including them in government. They have been suffering for decades in Saudi Arabia and they’re still suffering and they really need to have a say in the future of their country.

Number six, part of the prospect of real reform in Saudi Arabia is end export- its exportation of Wahhabism overseas. Saudi Arabia and other countries have suffered from Wahhabism. The entire world is currently suffering from this lethal ideology. I would like to propose in reform Saudi Arabia, religion and state should be completely separate, but to have and also to promote in tolerance and interfaith dialogue among or between Saudi- I mean between different Islamic sects and groups.

I think the only way we can promote tolerance and understanding is by letting different groups interact and try to either settle their differences or just live and let other[s] live. Part of that can be done in the Holy Mosque in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where there used to be- there used to be corners for the Maliki madhab, for the Shafi’i madhab, all the madhabs. Right now, only Wahhabism is there, so in a reformed Saudi Arabia I would like to see all the Muslim sects have, you know, have a place to practice or to teach their own ideology. This is how Muslim[s] can learn that if- if their leaders can live together and can interact and can settle their differences, they can do so too.

Number eight was allowing establishment of political parties in Saudi Arabia. I would like- I would like to say that this is one of the things that people are looking forward to in a new Saudi Arabia. Right now, they don’t have any part- they don’t- are- they are not included, excuse me, and in- in participating in the making of their countries and the decision-making, so when they are included by taking part in political- political debate or in the political system in Saudi Arabia, I think they would feel that they have a stake in the future of their countries and it would be helpful.

Number nine is regulating the budget. The budget that is allocated to the royal family. The royal family in Saudi Arabia nobody knows how much money they spend. It is not listed in the budget. When the annual budget get[s] revised, there is no- nothing says this is- this- this much is allocated to the royal family, so in a new Saudi Arabia, you know, the royal family should- should have a limited- should have a regulated budget that people know, that this is going to the royal family. They are in the thousands now and I think they spent, or they have, more money than most of the Saudi people and this is extremely unfair.

My last point is empowering minority groups in Saudi Arabia. Let them have a say, let that them practice their religion or their belief in whatever they believe, and when I say minorities I also mean people who don’t believe in anything. There is a huge number of people leaving Islam in Saudi Arabia and they cannot be public about it, so you can only see them on Facebook or Twitter, using, you know, unreal names to hide their identity because if their family found out, they will be in a lot of trouble. Thank you.