While the Kingdom jealously guards its social traditions and Islamic identity, it is unmistakably undergoing change introducing reforms in all areas
By Ozma Siddiqui
Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.–Jean Jacques Rousseau
There is a certain fascination with the idea of boundless freedom; the excitement accompanying the spirit of adventure and the ultimate pleasure in the will to do anything one pleases. The feeling is strongest in one’s early years but with the passage of time, the sobering effect of experience gradually takes the edge off the wild abandonment which we have come to associate with freedom.
Sometimes it is not just time and age but one’s environment also which has a telling effect on one’s personality. By global standards, Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a very conservative country.
There is no public display of affection; alcohol is banned in public; women are tightly veiled and not allowed to drive. Striving to be a truly Islamic society, the Shariah or Islamic law is implemented strictly and some would argue, almost severely.
What are the impacts of such a rigid system, one may ask. Totalitarian governments have the dubious distinction of smothering any form of creativity, art, free thought or expression.
The elite usually have no accountability resulting in gross injustice as a natural outcome of such a regime. The public has no say in political matters which has a direct effect on their social lives. The press is usually the arm of the government and news is heavily censored to project only a positive image of the regime.
For many years now, Saudi Arabia has been in the spotlight for its ostensibly poor record of human rights. The Saudi government has been criticized for its treatment of religious minorities, homosexuals and even women. In response, Saudi Arabia has ratified its laws in several areas which had invited such strong censure from the world community at large. Human rights in Saudi Arabia are enshrined in the Article 26 of the ‘Basic Law of Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia has acceded to the UN Human Rights Charter in several areas, it strongly adheres to Islamic principles which are strongly rooted in its traditions and deeply embedded in its culture.
At the United Nations’ Third Millennium Summit in New York City, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz defended Saudi Arabia’s stand on human rights saying, “It is absurd to impose on an individual or a society rights that are alien to its beliefs or principles.”
More recently, it rejected its non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council considered a bold move by some, citing the poor role of the UN in the Iraq war, the Syrian conflict and the six-decade unresolved hostility between Israel and Palestine.
The decision reflects Saudi Arabia’s confidence in its position in the Middle East and on the global map. Moreover, it sends out a clear message that it will not be fazed by world opinion but do what it thinks is right and best for it.
Perhaps, the best measure of a regime is from the people living under it. By all accounts, the general populace in Saudi Arabia is fairly happy with their lives and what the government is offering them in terms of comfort, amenities, health and education.
In any case, the outcome of the much touted Arab Spring is there for all to see. Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Egypt are still burning and trying to get up on their feet again. Saudi Arabia is right to protect itself from any such spring or upheaval which might cause security issues.
The Kingdom is the largest country in the Gulf and has vast unexplored natural resources. Its oil exports run into billions of dollars bringing precious revenue which is being poured into multi-billion infrastructural projects radically changing the face of the country forever. Not only does it have excellent roads, and a telecommunications system which can rival the best of any in the world, but it also has state-of-the art hospitals, schools and universities.
Lately, a lot of emphasis is being given to women’s education and women’s rights are a hot topic these days. The government has responded by providing employment opportunities to women in shops and malls for manning the counters, and more recently, at the passport and immigration stations at airports.
It is a pity therefore that Saudi Arabia continues to remain in the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Driving by women, or restrictions on it rather, remains a burning issue and has seriously divided the society in its opinion on whether women should do it or not. But women continue to have a strong voice and what is more, are being heard even as more than a dozen were recently detained for attempting to flout the ban on driving.
What the world at large has to understand is that Saudi Arabia is essentially a country in transition. As such issues which may not be important in other countries raise quite a storm here. People in any society are afraid of changing the status quo as it could create disruption and it is no different here. The gender differences surmount all other issues in this country and everything else follows that.
We just have to accept this fact and instead of castigating the country left, right and center, respect it for what it means to the global Muslim community at large. Being the cradle of Islam and the land of the prophets, the two Holy Mosques and the center of the world in terms of its Creation and End, the Kingdom is correct to guard itself against forces which may seek to destroy what it stands for.
One only hopes that in the end tolerance will prevail both within and without this home of Islam.