The “dark side” of Saudi Arabia is widely known: “exporter” of global terrorism, source of Islamic fanaticism and militancy linked to Wahhabi teachings, lack of protection for religious minorities, anti-Shiite campaigns, zero women empowerment, undemocratic rule, etcetera. But this is not the only story of the world’s largest producer of crude oil and its 26 million people. Since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (b. 1924) assumed power following the death of his half-brother King Fahd in 2005, Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and home to two of the Muslim world’s holiest places (Mecca and Medina), has undergone major change and progress in terms of domestic and global affairs.
Over the past seven years, King Abdullah, the tenth son of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz, has transformed his palace with a wide range of vital reform initiatives ranging from policies on education and women to interfaith gatherings and peacebuilding. Rob Sobhani, author of “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence,” wrote in Forbes magazine that the king’s domestic policies, coupled with his active involvement in religious peacemaking and interfaith meetings, has contributed to the creation of a “new climate of dialogue and openness, challenged the obscurantist clerical establishment, created openings for women, and liberalized the economy.”
Among numerous policy shifts made by the monarch, at least four issues deserve special mention: education, religious affairs, interfaith engagement and women’s emancipation.
In education, the ruler has applied a vast government scholarship program that enables this vibrant and rapidly developing country to send its students — of both sexes — to Western universities, particularly in Western Europe, North America and Australia, for undergraduate and graduate studies in various fields and disciplines. The program, which offered funds for tuition and living expenses for up to four years, resulted in more than 70,000 students pursuing a degree in some 25 countries. In the United States alone there are more than 22,000 Saudi students. In the future, graduates of these Western schools will certainly boost further reformation in both religious and political domains for this Islamic monarchy.
Moreover, in religious education, the ruler has allowed Muslim minorities such as Shiites, who make up roughly 3 percent of the nation’s total population, and followers of non-Wahhabi schools of law ( mazhab) to use their own religious texts in schools. The king also revised national curricula by inserting non-Wahhabi materials aiming at understanding other religions and non-Wahhabi teachings. He also permitted Shiites to celebrate publicly their religious holidays. To smoothen his educational reforms, this visionary king replaced the existing minister of education with reform-minded scholar Faisal bin Abdullah. He also assigned Nora binti Abdullah al-Fayez, a US-trained academic, as deputy education minister to lead and oversee a new division in the ministry for female students.
But the king’s restoration in religious affairs continues. Realizing there were many undemocratic judicial decisions made by judges, the sovereign initiated a review of verdicts and provided more professional training for Shariah judges. The king has repeatedly said that those who rule must be just and honest. He also issued a decree stating that only Islamic scholars allied to the Senior Council of Ulema would be permitted to issue a fatwa (a non-binding opinion by a Muslim jurist or mufti). The order also instructed the Grand Mufti to classify eligible reform-minded scholars to be included in the council.
Religious engagement is another part of King Abdullah’s great legacy. Long before he ascended the throne, the king had initiated a series of intra-religious meetings with non-Wahhabi leaders in the country, including the celebrated Shiite scholar Hasan al-Saffar. The king also engaged with non-Muslim leaders. In 2007, the king had a historic meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Palace, making him the first Saudi monarch to visit the leader of the Roman-Catholic Church.
After subsequent visits to, and encounters with, non-Muslim religious leaders, the monarch called for a “brotherly and sincere dialogue between believers of all religions.” He then appealed to Muslim clerics and Wahhabi leaders to engage with Jewish and Christian leaders. As an outcome of the king’s initiatives, a huge interfaith meeting took place in Madrid in 2008. Not only that, the king also established a King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (based in Vienna) — a collaboration between Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria.
Lastly, concerning women issues, King Abdullah again made history. Recently he issued a decree that allowed women to be members of the empire’s previously all-male Shura Council, an appointed advisory body whose main task is to compose drafts of laws and counsel for the king. The king amended the law on the Shura Council to make sure that women would make up no less than 20 percent of the 150-member council. The emperor then appointed 30 women, who “are highly qualified and experienced in various fields” according to Saudi journalist Maha Akeel. University graduates, human rights activists and two princesses joined the council.
The decree has indeed marked a critical breakthrough in the nation that applies a rigid version of Shariah law and imposes stringent restrictions on females. It is worth noting that this is not the first time for the king that made an important decision to empower women. In 2011, he granted women the right to vote and run as candidates in local elections.
In a response to this “controversial” policy, a group of Wahhabi hard-liners and conservative clerics protested on the streets outside the royal palace in Riyadh. They saw the decree as a dangerous change for the country and a violation of Islamic Shariah. Yet despite the overwhelming protests from “old-fashioned” Wahhabis, King Abdullah continues to apply the decree because, as he affirms, “we refuse to marginalize women’s role in Saudi society.”
King Abdullah’s remarkable efforts and policies sketched above might provide one important reason why the political unrest that has rocked the Arab and North African region since late 2010 has only lightly touched Saudi Arabia. This may be more important than the “bribery” of the people into obedience and loyalty by means of massive fiscal stimulus and welfare benefits, as many analysts have assumed.
Indeed, the massive changes in Saudi Arabia offer an important example for Indonesia, as many of the Saudi-influenced clerics and Muslim leaders who reside here, unfortunately, have so far failed to take notice.
Source: Jakarta Globe