Islam finds cracks in Saudi rule: The royal family's balancing act between liberal reformers and puritans is in danger of being upset

MOHAMED Abdullah Suleiman al-Masari appeared remarkably relaxed. For someone on the run from the Saudi authorities, the professor of theoretical physics was very cheerful about his predicament.

No, he would not say how he reached Britain, only that he left Saudi Arabia last month. Too many people would be endangered if details emerged. The Saudis had taken his passport when they arrested him last year and subjected him to six months' interrogation. But there were ways to obtain another one.

In the al-Hayer jail for political prisoners south of Riyadh they questioned him daily about the organisation of academics for which he was spokesman, the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights.

'The interrogators wanted to know who were its leaders, who was behind it, how many members it had, how they contact each other - and if its aim was to undermine the regime.'

Such is the nature of the Saudi regime, and swelling resentment of its ruling family, that these were natural questions to ask. What was this movement, and how widespread was it? Was it just a clique of disaffected university academics and Islamic scholars? Or did it represent a serious threat to the existing order?

The committee is one manifestation of the religious opposition in Saudi Arabia. King Fahd has had to balance modernisers who seek liberal political reforms with Islamic puritans who think that the country is liberalising too fast and that it should revert to strict Islamic orthodoxy.

Dr Masari's group bridges the two. It seeks respect for human rights based on Islamic values, but uses the language of liberalism. 'We want freedom of speech and freedom of association.' His associate, Saad al- Faqih, who studied keyhole surgery at Liverpool, explained in general terms. 'Most people agree that Islam should be adopted as a way of life for both the state and for individuals.'

They were not opposed to a monarchy, nor hellbent on establishing an Islamic caliphate. But: 'Rulers should be acceptable to the people. The monarchy is acceptable as an alternative to chaos. We can live with the king so long as he gives us basic rights.'

They were highly critical, of the royal family. 'They believe they own the land and the people above the land. If they don't make reforms they will collapse.'

As for the much vaunted Majlis al-Shura, the consultative council appointed by the King as a belated effort to widen the participation in decision making: 'The majlis is a joke.' Even those loyal to the king were disappointed that the fact that the majlis was meeting was not disclosed - hardly a move towards open government.

Dr Masari and Dr Faqih felt that the royal family had become even more autocratic, suspending the tradition by which a subject could appeal directly to the monarch by sending a personal cable. And their own activities were hampered on the grounds that they threatened to sow discord.

The dire predictions that the Saudi regime would collapse under the weight of the corruption of the ruling family have not so far materialised. The House of Saud is still on the throne. The tribal dynasty founded by King Abdelaziz al- Saud (known in the West as Ibn Saud) has survived an uprising in Mecca by zealots in 1979, a Shia rebellion in the eastern province and the threat of invasion.

It has survived mainly by largesse. Whatever the grumbles, however much the oil wealth has been squandered by dissolute princes, the general population has benefited. All have a share, however disproportionate, in the country's riches. Saudis can look around at other states which have enjoyed huge oil revenues, such as Iraq and Libya, and count their blessings. Better an arrogant and feudal autocracy, based on family and tribe, than a dictatorship justified by a spurious ideology and propped up by a brutal security apparatus.

For, Dr Masari's experience notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia is a place more of moral oppression than political repression. The bans on alcohol, on women driving or working, on places of entertainment, on Christian worship, are all restrictive. But arbitrary arrest and torture are rare, and the mass executions of political opponents are not a feature of Saudi life. Saudis seeking the pleasures of the West are free to leave as they choose. Governors have their tribal majlis, where plaintiffs can air their grievances.

Yet the Saudi royal family remains paranoid. It allows no criticism in its tightly controlled media. Western journalists are rarely admitted. Outside, it has been busy buying up the Arabic press in London and elsewhere, less as a mouthpiece of Saudi policy - there is none - than to gag criticism of the kingdom.

Saudi hands have been seen in the spread of militant Islam. Ten days ago, the Saudi news agency carried a brief item stating that Osama bin Laden had been stripped of his citizenship. This extraordinary measure, comparable to the treatment meted out to dissidents by the Soviet Union in the old days, was taken by the Prime Minister, who happens to be King Fahd. The object of the stricture had already been disowned by his family, the largest contractors in the realm.

Bin Laden had been identified in the Egyptian press in past months as the leading sponsor of Islamist extremists. He had previously been active in Peshawar, helping Arab fighters with the Afghan mujahedin. Over two years ago he moved to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where he has a construction company and enjoys the company of that multinational band united by Islam of former fighters in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia remains one of three key Western allies in the Middle East. It was the key to the Gulf war coalition against Iraq. It has a quarter of the world's oil reserves. And it is a huge market for Western, arms and other goods.

So long as it provides a cheap and plentiful supply of oil, and a market for the West, foreign policy-makers are likely to ignore the voices warning of worrying developments on the kingdom's borders or lack of human rights, and make hay while they can.

Sunday Review, Books

(Photographs omitted)


Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
peopleLynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance moves audience to tears
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon


Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Database Administrator

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: The role could involve w...

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified secondary s...

Deputy Head of Science

£22000 - £36000 per annum + MPR / UPR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our cli...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London