On the surface, Saudi Arabia has weathered the Arab Spring with barely a scratch. There have been few reports of public protests or violence, and voices agitating for regime change are almost unheard of. While other leaders in the Gulf have struggled to maintain basic control, the Saudi royal family has managed the succession crisis that followed the death of Crown Prince Sultan Abdulaziz al Saud without breaking a sweat. Under these circumstances, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Arab Spring has simply passed Saudi Arabia by.

The Kingdom has not, however, avoided all political trouble. In fact, Saudi Arabia has seen its share of unrest, though it has avoided the sort of nation-wide populist turmoil that has rocked other Arab states. Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shi’ite eastern regions have long had a troubled relationship with the Sunni ruling family, and protests there have persisted since March 2011 despite the government’s violent response. Reformers from many parts of the country, particularly the more liberal Western Hijaz region, have also pushed for greater political freedom and government accountability. The Saudi government has answered these demands with silence, censorship and imprisonment. In March 2011, the government banned all public demonstrations and protests. More recently, the Saudi government instituted a law giving the Ministry of the Interior new and far-reaching ‘anti-terrorism’ powers, including mandatory prison time for those who insult the King.

Faced with widespread political uprisings throughout the Arab region, Saudi Arabia has attempted to subdue and discourage potential unrest through a combination of carrots and sticks, cracking down on reformers and protesters with brutal efficiency while offering financial incentives to keep the rest of the population in hand.

A Year of Social Reform

In covering Saudi Arabia, neither the international nor domestic Saudi media has focused on the country’s political unrest, or the government’s responses to it. Instead, attention has centered on social reforms, women’s rights, and the so-called ‘social revolution’ caused by the expanding use of social media in the country. Throughout 2011 and continuing into 2012, these issues have been central to most media coverage on Saudi Arabia and have inspired the most discussion and debate within the country.

A woman’s right to drive was the first issue to grab public consciousness. In May 2011, Manal al-Sharif, a young mother from the city of al-Khobar, posted a public video that showed her flouting the driving ban (a copy of which is still available on YouTube). Along with her brother, Al-Sharif was later arrested and detained for several days, and was released only after signing an agreement to refrain from driving. In the months that followed, Al-Sharif became only one of many women who drove in protest of the ban, a movement that culminated in several dozen women driving on a day of protest held on June 17, 2011. For the most part, the government ignored the protesters, and public interest in the issue waned, though it resurfaced this week with news that a group of women, including Ms. Al-Sharif, is suing Saudi Arabia’s Traffic Administration over its refusal to grant the women drivers’ licenses.

Though the issue of driving received the most media attention, similar issues attracted varying amounts of public focus and debate over the last year. An ongoing campaign aimed to force the Ministry of Labor to change regulations requiring women to obtain permission from their guardians before accepting employment. The execution of a woman for witchcraft in December 2011 sparked outrage both inside and outside of the Kingdom. And on several different occasions, public events in Riyadh became the focus of debates about appropriate interactions between the sexes.

In similar fashion, many of the government’s most-publicized reforms in the past year aimed to improve women’s social and political participation. One of the government’s most significant reforms permitted, and even required, that women staff lingerie stores in the Kingdom. Another major reform came when King Abdullah announced, in a speech to the Shura Council, that women would be eligible to serve on the council and, eventually, to vote in municipal elections (Arabic video of the speech is available here). In changes that were less publicized outside of the Kingdom, a new, more lenient leader was appointed for the Committee on the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, and a soccer stadium in Jeddah will, for the first time, accommodate the attendance of women.

Social Turbulence and the Fight for Political Reform

Why have social issues so thoroughly dominated media coverage in and on Saudi Arabia? In the international media, fascination with the strange and seemingly bizarre social norms of this conservative country surely accounts for some of the attention. However, these topics have also dominated domestic discourse.

In part, this has grown out of a pervasive belief, within Saudi society, that social change is a necessary stepping-stone to political transformation. At the same time, the Saudi government has actively encouraged and facilitated this domestic discourse. Traditionally, both the Saudi government and civil society have viewed social and political issues as two sides of the same coin. The ruling al-Saud family has been wedded for centuries to the conservative religious principles of 18th century Islamic reformer Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and its legitimacy is founded partially on the promise of creating a properly Islamic society. This reality is reflected in public discussions about the government’s role in enforcing religious norms and on the state of freedom of expression in the Kingdom. Social issues, particularly as they relate to Islam, are therefore central to the Kingdom’s self-image and public role. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that social issues would feature prominently in popular efforts for political change in the country.

However authentic this focus on social issues may be, government restrictions on the media and political activity have also played a role. The Kingdom’s domestic media is tightly controlled, and ongoing internet censorship of international media keeps some of the most potentially inflammatory stories out of the country. However, while the government cracks down mercilessly on stories regarding political protest or economic trouble – in October, a blogger was arrested for producing a video on poverty in Riyadh – it allows surprising latitude in discussions about social issues. In short, in Saudi Arabia, it is safer and easier to be a social reformer than a political one.

This atmosphere benefits the government in a variety of ways. On the one hand, it is well accepted within even the more liberal segments of Saudi society that, to be sustainable, cultural changes must come slowly. As one columnist writes, it is “an evolution, not a revolution.” Because of the ubiquity of this perspective, the Saudi government is able to appear to push for reforms while avoiding any substantive changes. Despite their limited importance, even minor reforms are greeted with optimism and gratitude by liberals. King Abdullah’s decision to allow women more political participation was met with euphoria from women across the country. While politically it certainly places women on a more equal footing with men, Saudi female blogger and journalist Eman al Nafjan points out that it does not change the fact that women continue to be treated unfairly in the country, and that substantive political power continues to be denied to both the women and men of Saudi Arabia. Similarly, allowing women to work in lingerie stores is undoubtedly an important step in broadening women’s access to employment, but it is hardly comparable to the reforms forced on other regional governments.

On the other hand, social issues remain a reliably controversial topic, pitting Saudis against one another and allowing the government, and King Abdullah in particular, to play the role of mediator and measured reformer. Blogger and journalist Ahmed al Omran has highlighted several crusades led by conservative thinkers against reformists. The announcement that women would work in lingerie stores was met with outrage from conservatives. The campaign to permit women to drive has also resulted in substantial backlash, including a September ruling sentencing one woman to 10 lashes for driving (she was later pardoned by King Abdullah), and a slightly hysterical report to the consultative Shura council in December from a well-known conservative academic who warned that permitting women to drive would, within a decade, deprive the country of virgins.

These controversies serve a further purpose for the Saudi government. Calls for political reform typically come from two major segments of Saudi society: liberals and Islamists. Recently, these groups’ political agendas have become increasingly similar, including calls for increased political participation and greater government accountability. In a recent report about Saudi Arabia for the Council on Foreign Relations, political science professor F. Gregory Gause III suggests that women’s rights and other social issues are now the major obstacle to a united reformist agenda, ensuring that liberals and Islamists remain at odds and unable to effectively challenge the ruling family.

Conclusion

While it is unclear to what extent the Saudi government actively fosters debate over social issues to deflect attention from more serious political and economic demands, the government has clearly benefitted from a divided and distracted Saudi society. At the very least, the focus on social issues has allowed King Abdullah to appear as a forward-thinking reformer, without requiring any meaningful political change. At the most, it efficiently hobbles any legitimate political or economic reform movement that might otherwise emerge in the country. And while social issues are an important part of Saudi culture, these matters must not prevent Saudi society from addressing more substantive and pressing concerns regarding the country’s political and economic future.

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