Elections into 178 regional assemblies took place in the year 2005 in Saudi Arabia between February 10 and April 21. Despite the fact that these elections were only communal and for various reasons non-democratic and illegitimate (e.g. half of the assembly is decreed by the government, women could not participate in the elections) their importance is multiplied by the fact that it was the first time in over 30 years that there were elections in the ultra-conservative monarchy. And even though this event happened more than a year ago, in case of Saudi Arabia it is the most current apparent moment of democratization. The question is whether this partial success can bring in the near future democracy into the Saudi Arabian society. There are many obstacles and some of them seem impossible to overcome.
Saudi Arabia – modern absolutism
Saudi Arabia is also unique because its system of relations between religion and political power is as the only in nowadays world characterized as „sacralized political establishment”, without existing borders between the sacral and secular. Saudi endorsing Wahhabism, according to some orientalists – a radical branch of Sunni Muslim, believe (and this is also included in the Saudi constitution) that sovereignty comes from Allah. And thus the right is exclusively Islamic. The dynasty also supports various Islamic foundations and fundamentalist movements abroad, despite the opposition from its political allies, by which it only confirms its serious relation to religion.
But there are more reasons why it is so difficult to implement democracy in Saudi Arabia. We can divide these reasons into social, economic, cultural, and political. Their combination is literally anti-democratic. The Saud Family reigns in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since its foundation in 1932 when due to king Abd Al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud the kingdom of Hejaz was connected to the kingdom of Nejd. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. The country does not follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – in 1948 Saudi Arabia abstained from voting for its adoption supposedly because some articles of the declaration could not be implemented by Muslims. Political and civil rights are unknown to us – prohibitions of public gatherings and association in political parties apply, the freedom of speech is inadmissible. Demonstrations and open disapproval with the official policy are classified as „ imperilment of kingdom’s unity”and are punished. Also discrimination based on religion or sex is an every day reality. Women cannot drive, cannot hold important offices in administration or business. Judges have to be Sunni – wahhabbists – Shia cannot hold such posts even though in some provinces, mainly in the eastern part of the country, they have dominant religious position. The very jurisdiction opposes the international standards. Capital punishment performed (by beheading the prisoner) in front of an enthusiastic audience is not something tolerated by the democratic world. The fact is that the criminal law of Saudi Arabia originates from the Islamic law hadd, which punishes delinquencies such as alcoholism by flogging.
Social and economic conditions
Many transitologists who examine democratizations in the world claim that the richer the country (measured by GDP), the higher its chances to become and stay democratic. According to this statement democracy would have been a daily routine in Saudi Arabia for the past decennia.
Although Saudi Arabia with regard of its GDP per capita (11 800 USD according to CIA World Factbook) really ranks among the richest countries in the world, it is only the result of the country’s mineral riches, not a result of combined positive economic indicators. And thus it is impossible to explain the possibility of democratization in a simplified manner based on GDP numbers. Huntington, a well-known politologist, thinks in a similar way. He has even set limits of when the countries are too rich to be democrized (so called transit zone). Huntington did not specify the precise borders of this zone, but in his opinion Saudi Arabia does not belong in the economic transit zone.
But the problem is even more complex, namely because there is a correlation between the country’s riches and tax collecting. According to Marcus Noland this correlation does not really mean that the richer the country, the less money it collects from its tax-payers. That leads to a situation that Ross named „the effect of responsibility”. If the country does not collect taxes, it does not feel responsible for its inhabitants and vice-versa, citizens do not feel they have a right to influence the running of the country. This is a serious point in explaining why the Saud Dynasty by means of its oil riches still hinders democratization and participation of citizens in the political power.
Another shortcoming of vast country’s richness in democratization in Saudi Arabia is the financial support of chosen cliques by which the country paralyses the functioning of independent and democratic groups or more precisely the functioning of civil society. At last the rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can effectively develop its internal security of annihilating all attempts for democratization in its beginnings – a proof of this is the non-existence of demonstrations or the relative inability of Muslim and other opposition parties to stir anti-government oriented distempers. Similarly „successful”is the government’s treatment of the 2 million Shia minority living in the East of the country.
Of course we could argue that (despite the mentioned shortcomings) with the growth of economics also education and middle class grow, and these are generally considered to be positive democratization factors (e.g. Huntington, Fukuyama). But the Saudi society suffers by economic inequality, undiversified economy, poverty, high unemployment and a too steep population growth. These circumstances significantly complicate democratization in the country despite its riches.
Economic inequality copies social inequalities. The Saudi Dynasty and its allied tribes have wealth which through the shares in oil companies stays in the hands of the ruling elite. Common citizens have no opportunity to participate in this wealth and the rate of people living bellow the range poverty is growing, which is not a positive indicator for democratization. This is the reason why we can not anticipate that the middle class will grow with the growing economy. The middle class is according to Huntington in later phases of transition needed because it is not suitable for democracy to have a small wealthy group ruling over poor masses. Fukuyama argues similarly and he also adds that the middle class has an interest in preserving its possessions and thus participates in political system.
Similarly problematic for improving the overall economic circumstances and thus starting the democratization efforts is the population boom which is occurring since the 80s of 20th century. Since then the number of inhabitants of Saudi Arabia has increased by 14 millions – from 7 to 21 millions. This situation has produced 50% of people younger 15 years of age, which is non-producing population unable to participate in creating GDP by economic activity (and thus diversify economy).
Not even the flow of investments, foreign workers or financing of the third sector from the West has ensured a gradual liberalization of society. And there is according to Ian Bremmer 6 millions of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. But those from the West are often isolated in their neighborhoods and come to contact with the domestic inhabitants only minimally. In addition to this the government has decided to substitute 350 000 educated foreign workers (mostly from the West) with Saudi Arabian citizens as a result of the more than 25% unemployment rate (the program of Saudization).
Despite of that there is no growth in education and so the rank of society able to perform more qualified jobs performed so far by workers from the West is still not being reformed and so the patronage of the government policy in the field of employment causes more economic losses than gains. As the latest analyses show, the Saudi education system is often influenced by fundamentalist Wahhabism, does not teach students practical knowledge and does not at all give young Arabians a chance to form free and democratic thinking. In the same way is the higher education oriented towards the study of Islam and many students graduate with a diploma in Islamic Studies. Most threatening seems the data that as many as 30% of men and 50 % of women are completely illiterate. And because literacy is one of the positive factors influencing democratization, the situation in Saudi Arabia shows that the country does not incline towards democratization.
Cultural obstacles for democratization are often mentioned in popular literature or in media in connection with Arabic countries and Islam as their religion. Unfortunately, often it is only a purposeful simplification or black and white perception that needs deeper analysis. It is the same in the case of Saudi Arabia.
Undoubtedly, the cultural factor significantly influences the reality that in the majority of Arabic and Muslim countries (as well as in Saudi Arabia) it is impossible to install democracy. But the question is whether religion often mentioned in connection with this problem is the sole reason for it. Samuel Huntington claims (his statement is supported by statistical research of Barr and Fish), Islam is unfavorable to democracy. Although he says that this statement has its limits, generally it applies.
Graham E Fuller has a different opinion – he claims that the problem is not what Islam says, but what the Muslims want. And he adds that democratization gradually came to work even in Europe, despite the fact that “non-democratic” religions had a strong influence on society and the ruling elite. As Inglehart and Norris pointed out, the surveys have shown that Muslims want democracy just like the people in the West, they only differ in attitudes to abortion, divorce or the question of equality of sexes. Similarly critical of Huntington’s attitude are also the researches participating in examining factors influencing democratization in the Middle East. More specifically the research done by Pew Global Attitudes Project 2003 has shown that Muslims are not in general hostile to democracy. Empirical evidence also confirm Huntington’s mistake. There is a certain level of democratization in Turkey where as many as 99% of inhabitants are Muslims. Also, the most numerous Muslim country Indonesia is a country where the Muslim majority follows democratic principles. According to researches 40-60% of all Muslims live in largely democratic countries.
According to some analytics (e.g. Zorgby) the primary factor is ethnicity and after that religion. In other words Islam is not the primarily responsible for the fact that Saudi Arabia is not a democratic country, but responsible is the fact that it is an Arabic country or country with its own traditions.
So we can presume that the fact that women in Saudi Arabia cannot vote is a result of the traditional Saudi society (and maybe not so much Arabic) more than a result of the religion because in other Muslim countries women can vote (e.g. Qatar, Bahrain, Morocco, Turkey etc.).
But the religion stays an important factor – and in Saudi Arabia twice as much. Maybe it is because two out of three most holy places (Mecca and Medina) are situated there or because the Saud Dynasty belongs to the radical branch of Sunni Islam – Wahhabism. They derive their sovereignty from God (Allah) and not from the people as it is in democracies. This is according to a number of scientists the fundamental problem of why Islam and democracy can never live in symbiosis. But as Hudec argues in some Muslim countries the sovereignty comes from people, although this mainly does not occur on the Arabian Peninsula. This only confirms the fact that Saudi Arabia draws its legitimacy from religious construction. According to some experts on Islam people can express their disapproval with rulers only if rulers break Islamic laws and stand against Islam. And thus it is impossible to have democratic changes in power or regular elections.
Even though the above mentioned model is for sure the result of relations between the Saud Dynasty and religion (which is not in accord with democratic values), the legal traditions in Muslim families also play a significant role in it. Culture as an obstacle of democratization is also a result of the legal and value frame of the ruling elite and society. This originates from the strictest Hanbali school of Islam (mazhab) whose representative was the founder of Sunni Islam – Muhammad Ibn Abd Al- Wahhab. It proclaims strict return to Islam and differs from more liberal schools which are typical for other Muslim countries.
The last condition that influences democratization in Saudi Arabia is the missing or cracked national unity that could also be transformed into peace among various ethnical and religious groups.
The missing national unity may stop any kind of democratization process in its beginning – because it is highly probable that after the moderation of authoritative form of governance there would be fights between individual clans for which clan interests are superior to the country’s interests. This argument is supported by the fact that the boarders of the country were laid out artificially and the country has not originated as a result of national powers creating their own national country. The boarders with neighboring countries were still shaped in the 21st century. Hudec states that Bedouins lived in the Arabian Peninsula without boarders which they did not need. So it is an exaggeration to talk about some national identity or unity of the Saudi. More over just like in Iraq there is a numerous Shia minority in Saudi Arabia (2 millions) which could in case of launched democratization also pursue its own goals rather than attempt to maintain a united Saudi Arabia whose political system is tightly connected with Sunni Islam.
Political obstacles of democratization represent in the case of Saudi Arabia probably the most important role, which is a positive sign because the political conditions are the most easiest to change. We have to emphasize right in the beginning that in the case of Saudi Arabia the behavior of political elites is most important. The already mentioned Saud Dynasty, whose unity is apparently problematic, rules in Saudi Arabia. But as one of the princes said: “they have never debated directions but only approaches, speed, style, emphasis, and colors.” In other words political elites realize that the greatest priority for them is to preserve their influece and power and they adapt their behavior accordingly. Saudi elites have survived the attacks of Western imperialism, Arabic nationalism and socialism, and they are quite successful in fighting Islamic extremism. The old age of the current ruling elite (in average 80 years) could also have positive results in the form of experience with the administration of the country and a guarantee of political stability. That is why we cannot expect that the change in regime will happen as a result of “family matters” or political crisis.
Moreover, after the long-ruling Fahd his half-brother Abdullah has come to power last year. Abdullah inclines less to the values of democracy – he is more conservative, more religious, a greater strategist, and he is sensitive in perceiving the moods in the society (a proof of this could be e.g. the attitude of government during the Iraqi war when Abdullah to a certain measure accepted the opinions of masses). But what is the most important, he has better relations with the Islamic opposition, which is his only real opposition.
The small influence of the opposition is another political obstacle for the democratization of Saudi Arabia. Some of he reasons are the ban of political parties, no freedom of speech in the kingdom and the persecution of the opposition leaders and their forced station abroad. Another reason is also the conservatism of the inhabitants of Saudi Arabia, who are not interested in the liberal values of the Western type (e.g. disesteblishment) and so the calls for change are not so loud. There is slso the fact that the ruling elite is represented by the official clergy, which gives the regime the needed legitimity and lessens the opposition. At last, an obstacle of empowering the opposition is also its disunity – an agreement between the democratic and Islamic opposition is impossible. Democratic opposition, represented mainly by the Saudi Institute for Democracy (the leading personality is Ali Al Ahmad) or National Allience for Democracy in Saudi Arabia, is within the opposition in minority.
More influencial opposition (because of the already mentioned conservatism of inhabitants) is the Islamic opposition, which is best characterized by its objections agains the alliance of Sauds and USA (which is according to them against Islam) as well as its fight against corruption, economic inequality and dependency of clergy on the ruling elite. A part of the opposition also has certain democratic goals (e.g. independent judiciary, guarantee of poltical freedoms, democratic elections). This points to the disagreements within the Islamic opposition – the opposition is thus to a certain measure split – either according to the Islamic schools of thought (Shias, “mainstream” Sunnis, or orthodox Wahhabists) or according to the goals and forms of fighting against the ruling elite, where we can divide the Islamic opposition into a reformistic part (wants gradual changes in appropriate time) and radical, which calls after Jihad against the Dynasty. It is appropriate to mention that some analytics classify Al-Qaeda as a part of the Saudi radical Islamic opposition. Another more known opposition group is the exile Islamic Movement for Reforms, whose highest representative is Dr. Saad al-Faqih, accused by USA of providing financial support to Al-Qaeda. Dominant Islamic opposition placed directly in Saudi Arabia (non/exile) is aware of its small power and it attempts to change the conditions in the kingdom (mainly corruption and clientelism) rather in a form of agreement with the ruling elite than some kind of an open political conflict.
In the case of Saudi Kingdom is also crucial the external factor, mainly the relations between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors and United States of America. The democratic process gradually takes place almost throughout the whole Arabian Penninsula. It is possible to see a certain (sometimes only illusive) shift in the democratization of society in Bahrain, Quwait, Jordan and Iraq. The pressure of surrounding world on Saudi Arabia is thus great.
But Saudi Arabia takes care of its boundaries. The realtions with Iraq after the fall of Saddam Huseijn are improving, even though the Dynasty is alarmed by the power of Shia minority in Iraq. An imperilment of stability from Shia Iran also does not represent a real threat anymore as the ruling elites of both countries improve their relations. That is why a pressure from “enemy” neighbours is not to be expected, and on the contrary, the current situation suits the regime.
Relations with USA are for the prospective democratization even more important, because apart from their trading co-operation, USA has common safety interests with the Saudi ruling elite (especially in fight against terrorism, or better to say Islamic radicals). The influence of American allience on the policy of Saudi Arabia is that great. The effect of USA politics is double-dealing, though. Although American government in a friendly manner presses Saudi Arabia towards democratization, the sincerity of long-lasting pressure of USA on Saudi Arabia is impugned by intellectual and opposition activists. Some even say that by pressing on Saudi Arabia they only want to silence those, who criticize the American double measure in enforcing the observance of human rights and democracy. According to Ali Al-Ahmed from the Saudi Institute, until the September attack on the Twin Towers USA were satisfied with the rule of the ultra-conservative 80-year-olds from the Saud Dynasty, because a change of the persons involved could endanger their interests in the country. Only after the attacks have the American political representatives moved to the needed reforms in Saudi society in order to keep the unity of Saudi Arabia. Not even the leader of Saudi Arabian Islamic opposition currently living in London, Dr. Saad al-Faqih, trusts USA in the question of political reforms in Saudi Arabia and he claims that the pressure on Sauds is only illusionary. In his opinion dictatorship in Saudi Arabia suits Americans because in case of democratic elections the interests of Saudi Arabians and Americans would with the increase in Arabic patriotism grow more and more distant.
USA until today tolerates everyday breaking of human rights, non-democratic government or the support of Islamic groups in the Middle East in exchange for an allience with a geopolitically important country in the Arabian Penninsula. And exactly the friendly relations and mutual usefulness of these two countries rule out the possibility of foreign pressure as the factor of democratization.
It is obvious from the earlier mentioned arguments that the economic growth does not lead in the case of Saudi Arabia to the wished result – democratization. There are more reasons why. The riches of raw materials seem to be one of the most important economic obstacles of democratization because they create 75% of country’s income. That results in the decrease of citizens’ participation in creating the country’s income, because they do not contribute. The richness of the country also creates more bureaucracy and empowers force divisions which serve as a control of opposition. Social and economic inequality belong to other economic or social factors which result in creating poverty and unsuitable conditions for creating middle classes which are a positive factor for democracy. Unemployment, population growth as well as ineffective educative system are also becoming economic problems. These factors are becoming an obstacle for the growth of the standards of living which is in many cases essential for democratization.
In case of Saudi Arabia it is also true that cultural conditions do not help the process of democratization. Wahhabism, a radical branch of Sunni Islam and Hanbal Law School are an important factor which does not allow democratization in this country. Another unfavourable cultural factors are the inexperience of Saudi Arabia with democracy (not even virtually), ethnic and religious heterogeneity or missing national unity.
The last – although in my opinion the most important – group of unfavourable conditions are the political conditions. The theses of transitologists about the favourable external factors do not work. On the contrary, neighbouring countries just like the most significant global participant USA have quite negative impact on the democratization of Saudi Arabia, because their policies either overlook the regime or support it. Equally unfavourable works the fragmented opposition, stabile, politically and tactically afficient ruling elite or the too authoritarian and bureaucratic regime.
Because the shift towards democracy is most easily done through the change of political circumstances (as opposed to structural – economic and cultural – factors), the expectations are not optimistic.
Current first man of the country Abdullah is even more conservative and anti-democratic than his ancestors. The regime also in various ways does not allow the Saudi opposition to gain space that could be used to change the situation in the country. It is equally not expected that USA would double its pressure on Saudi Arabia as it needs a strong ally in the form of now ruling elite in the still greater turmoil in the Middle East, even if it means ignoring the breaking of human rights. In my opinion the only possibility is the change of political elites within Saud Dynasty, so that younger and more liberal representatives would get the leading positions and they would start the needed reforms including the democratic reforms. Even this optimistic scenario represents a complicated and long-lasting process of democratization of the authoritarian regime of Saudi Arabia.