While the literature on Saudi Arabia is extensive, relatively little has been written on Saudi opposition figures and groups. Helping to fill the gap is this well-researched, intelligent and readable book by Mamoun Fandy, professor of politics at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
The book's focus is on Islamic rather than secular opposition groups. As the author points out, the debate between the Islamists and liberals in Saudi society has been underway since 1987, but in the wake of the Gulf War, it has been the Islamist groups that have been the most numerous and the most sustained in their criticism of the government. Fandy analyzes six opposition figures and movements: Sheikh Safar al-Hawaii and Salman al-Auda, two preachers whose sermons criticizing the Saudi regime have become widely known through distribution of cassette tapes; Muhammed al-Masaari and the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), based in London, which pioneered the use of "post-modem" communications (the fax machine and Internet) to get its message across to followers in the kingdom; Saad al-Faqih and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), a split-off from the CDLR that is also based in London; Usama Bin Laden and the Advice and Reform Committee, the one opposition movement that is activist in nature; and Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, spiritual leader of the Shia Reform Movement.
The author spent two years in Saudi Arabia researching the book. He has listened to numerous tapes of al-Hawaii's and al-Auda's sermons, has read the published books, pamphlets and public statements of the opposition leaders, and visited the websites of the London-based groups. He has supplemented this material with personal interviews with both opposition figures and Saudi officials. Through his detailed research Fandy tracks the themes espoused by each of the opposition figures, delineating the areas of commonality as well as the considerable differences among them. The author's understanding of conditions in Saudi Arabia as well as the broader international Islamic environment to which these groups also relate adds to the breadth of his analysis.
Although Islamic dissent existed prior to the Gulf War, it was that traumatic event for Saudi society that created a far more favorable climate for the spread of Islamist opposition themes. The war's impact was not only to throw Saudi citizenry into contact with hundreds of thousands of American and European soldiers, but also to dramatize the kingdom's inability to defend itself against an Arab neighbor without foreign (i.e., non-Muslim) military assistance, in spite of the billions spent on military equipment. For the Islamist critic the explanation had to be that the House of Saud had turned away from Islam, bringing about the intrusion of Western values at the expense of Islamic principles, corruption on the part of Saudi princes and officials, and dependence on the United States, even to the point of supporting the American-led Arab-Israeli peace process, in the eyes of these critics a sell-out of Palestinian rights.
These became the central themes of Islamist critics, first embodied in two well-known documents that emerged from discussions among Islamist critics soon after the Gulf War - the "Letter of Demands" and the "Memorandum of Advice," the latter a comprehensive program for reform. Both were cast as an appeal to the king and call for reform rather than more radical change, and both were sent through Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, the kingdom's (recently deceased) grand mufti, in the hopes of bringing him and the other state ulama aboard. The two documents gained wide support among Islamist opposition figures (the Memorandum of Advice had over a hundred signatures) including either the direct participation or support of the individuals and movements that are the centerpiece of Fandy's study.
But while these figures and movements all sprang out of the shared experience of preparing these documents, they have subsequently gone their separate ways with little apparent interest in joining forces organizationally or even working together toward a common program. Rather, they seem more interested in preserving the identity of their separate voices as critics of the regime. One reason inhibiting more far-reaching goals, the author believes, is political tactics: dissident leaders recognize the popularity of many of the Saudi princes and the extent to which they have developed sizable followings of "dependents," frequently among influential professionals and technocrats, through the majis patronage system. Thus, calling for the wholesale removal of the Saudi regime could alienate many. But the more fundamental reason is that, having been born as a reform movement, these groups now find it difficult to move beyond the call for reform, even though they would all agree that the government's response to their demands has been inadequate (the king did in fact adopt two of the important proposals in the Letter of Demands: creation of a consultative council and written codification of Sharia law).
As the author makes clear, all of these groups are strong on criticism but weak on proposing a strategy for change. None of the dissidents, for example, suggests that a theocratic state on the model of the Islamic Republic of Iran would be desirable. Is this because they do not find it an attractive model of government or because it would not be politic to be heard recommending a "Shia" system to an audience that is overwhelmingly Sunni? The author suggests that it may be a bit of both. With the exception of Saad al Faqih, who believes that true reform cannot take place without removal of the present ruling house, most of the other Islamist opposition figures seem to accept the political marriage that took place in the eighteenth century between religious reformer Sheikh Muhammed bin Adbul Wahhab and the al-Saud as the foundation stone of the modem state and heart of Saudi nationalism. There is, they imply, nothing wrong with this set-up if latter day princely descendants would just see the light and return to the principles of Islam. Even Usama bin Laden, the most activist and radical of the group, while bitterly critical of Saudi leadership as a whole, refrains from including Crown Prince Abdullah in the indictment, the implication being that Abdullah could be deemed a good ruler if he reversed the trend away from Islam. The ire of the opposition groups appears to be focused mainly on the seven Sudairi brothers headed by the king, who, in addition to occupying many of the most powerful positions in the kingdom, are seen as the most corrupt and un-Islamic of the royal family.
While bin Laden is the most sweeping in his condemnation of the present regime and the most radical in calling for a return to the utopian days of Muhammed bin Abdul Wahhab, most of the other opposition figures recognize that it is not going to be as simple as this. In one form or another, the other figures accept that even a state based firmly on Islamic principles is going to have to make some concessions to modernity. Opinions vary considerably over the merits of such institutions prevalent in Western societies as freedom of the press and legislatures with real powers. Although the corrupting force of Western values is a central theme for all the Islamists, knowledge of Western societies also varies greatly. Not surprisingly, it is weakest in the "heartland" preachers Sheikh Safar al-Hawaii and Salman al-Auda and stronger among those like Saad al Faqih, who is a trained professional (surgeon), has traveled abroad, and is now based in London. Al-Faqih acknowledges that some things in the West work better than institutions in Saudi Arabia and sees no problem with adopting them if they do not conflict with Islam. His critique of Western societies is also the most sophisticated: the weakest aspect of life in the United States, he believes, is its worship of individualism at the expense of the collective good. In contrast, Sheikh al-Hawaii is so fixated on the United States as the root of all evil that he even believes the United States concocted the Gulf War as a stratagem to weaken the Gulf Arabs and make them more dependent on the West. Ironically, as the author points out, al-Hawaii shares the view of Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington that the world is an implacable clash of civilizations.
In his two chapters on the London-based exile groups, Fandy is particularly interested in assessing the impact of their sophisticated use of "postmodern" means of communication - the fax, e-mail and a website from which an interested viewer can download information about the movement and its message. Each week, according to Saad al-Faqih, the CDLR faxes its newsletter to 600 distribution points in the kingdom and transmits the same information through e-mail and its World Wide Web home page, a form of communication that makes it virtually impossible for the Saudi authorities to control. As the author points out, the new technology has drastically altered the nature of resistance to the state by expanding the domain of political activities beyond national territories. Both the CDLR and MIRA have made use of this advantage to broaden their audience to other Islamist dissident groups as well as Western governments and groups. But there is a downside: the complication of having to deal with multiple audiences has tended to water down and weaken the original message. This was one of the causes of the split between the CDLR and MIRA, with al-Masaari and the CDLR being drawn toward a more pan Islamist orientation, while al-Faqih wanted to keep the focus on Saudi Arabia.
In his concluding assessment, Fandy is both penetrating and balanced. He does not minimize the wide appeal of opposition themes or the weaknesses of certain aspects of Saudi rule, but he also points out the difficulties of mounting an effective opposition. First, to be taken seriously as a legitimate Islamist critic of the regime, one must have excellent religious credentials, come from a reputable if not necessarily important tribe, and have a solid family background. In this respect, three of the figures Fandy studies are at a disadvantage: Muhammed al-Masaari's grandmother was an Ethiopian, making his family khadiri, unable to marry into tribal families; Saad al-Faqih was born in Iraq; and Usama bin Laden's family, albeit enormously wealthy, originated in Yemen. There is, in addition, the very nature of the opposition movement, which defines the kind of following it is likely to attract. The emphasis on reform and criticism of existing institutions and practices, and the absence (except for Usama bin Laden) of any activist program, ensures widespread curiosity about and circulation of the opposition message, but it does not produce many dedicated adherents. As Saad al-Faqih tells Fandy in a moment of candor, "horizontally we are strong. There are thousands who support us. Support that requires sacrifice, however, is very weak."
Fandy also recognizes certain unique features of the Saudi system that tend to make it difficult for opposition groups to gain mass support. One is the strength of its network of tribal relations and the ethic of Islamic familialism. Another, perhaps the most important, is the degree to which the royal family have made themselves synonymous with the nation itself. As a Hijazi merchant puts it to the author, "the absence of al-Saud means Laa watan (no country), the end of Saudi Arabia as we know it." Fandy concludes that, despite the presence of vigorous and sometimes violent dissent, the country itself is stable. He concludes that the Saudi political order is threatened more by the new challenges of globalization than by the opposition.
Finally, in the first and last chapters of this book the reader will find as good a summary of the way the Saudi sociopolitical system works as can be found anywhere. Full of astute observations, these chapters alone are worth the price of the book.