What is Saudi Liberalism? And How Liberal is the New Saudi Arabia?

Former Saudi Minster of Culture and Information, Abdulaziz Khoja, confronted by religious figures during the Riyadh Book Fair in 2011

Saudi liberalism was subject to criticism due to the recent events that took place at the Riyadh International Book Fair earlier this month. The annual event has always highlighted intellectual and cultural tensions in the country. For years, official and unofficial religious figures patrolled the aisles of the book fair to reinforce gender segregation or to find books they considered blasphemous (see the following video).

This year, and for the first time, the tables were turned. As the growing resentment towards Muslim Brotherhood figures in the country has reached an all-time high, Saudi liberals pointed out the availability of their publications in the book fair and called for banning them. Ma’ali Almowaten, a talk show that airs on MBC, reported from inside the book fair by showing some titles written by Muslim Brotherhood authors (see the following video). As a result, one of the stalls in the book fair was shut down for selling banned Muslim Brotherhood books.

The recent events in the Riyadh International Book Fair caused a number of Saudi thinkers and writers to voice their concerns over the repetitiveness of this pattern. Before, it was conservative and religious figures who demanded banning certain books. Now, liberals are the ones calling for the ban, an act that contradicts with the same liberal values they preach. The recent events re-questions the true meaning of liberalism in the new Saudi Arabia.

Background on Saudi Liberalism

Saudi Arabia has long defined itself as a conservative nation. It’s national identity was created around being the birth place of Islam and the land of two of its most holy cites. The term “liberalism” began appearing in the 1990s, when Saudi lifestyle started to change as a result of introducing satellite dishes and the internet. Banned publications by some notable Saudi writers, such as Turki Al-Hamad and Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, were circulated and discussed in the country. The novels by Al-Hamad and Al-Gosaibi introduced ideas and concepts that challenged the conservative Saudi society at that time.

The word liberal was used to describe someone who is critical or does not adhered to conservative norms or strict Islamic teachings. Saudi liberalism became negatively charged as it was associated with Westernization at a time when western influences were mostly feared by conservatives. Ever since, tensions between conservative and liberals would escalate at times, yet the conservatives almost always kept the upper hand. Until today.

Former Saudi Minster of Culture and Information, Abdulaziz Khoja, confronted by religious figures during the Riyadh Book Fair in 2011.
Former Saudi Minster of Culture and Information, Abdulaziz Khoja, confronted by religious figures during the Riyadh Book Fair in 2011. (Al-Hayat Newspaper)

The Shifting Paradigm

In the early 2000s, more diverse voices joined the Saudi liberalism camp. Some members of the sahwa era, such as Mansour Al-Nogaidan, Abdul Rahman Al-lahim and Abdullah bin Bijad Al-Otaibi, changed their views and began voicing criticism against their own religious figures and leaders. Moreover, the relatively big margin of freedom during King Abduallah’s time allowed for more debates between liberals and conservatives to find their way in national newspapers as it was the main platform for discussion between the two opposing forces.

Yet, Saudi liberalism remained largely vague as it did not have a clear-cut definition. In 2010, Saudi thinker Abduallah Al-Ghathami attacked Saudi liberalism, arguing that it has no “features” and that Saudi liberals are as oppressive as conservatives. Al-Ghathami’s analysis, whom many consider a liberal himself, highlighted the contradictions and confusions often associated with Saudi liberalism.

Saudi Liberalism

Liberalism is centered around the concept of individual freedom. But how much does Saudi liberalism correspond to liberal values?

The clashes between conservatives and liberal over the past few years has led to a polarizations that demonstrates a lack of acceptance towards the other. Moreover, cultural and social norms that celebrate tribal history and restrict women’s movement resonate among some Saudi liberals. The meaning of Saudi liberalism has always been difficult to define, yet, it is the influence of cultural and social norms that made a definition even harder to pin down.

One distinct feature of Saudi liberalism has always been its strong reaction against the conservative camp. That does not mean, however, that Saudi liberalism is what conservatives are not. On the contrary, as Khalid Al-Dakhil points out, Saudi liberalism is now using the same tools that were used by conservatives to silence and attack their opponents. The clash between the two is more of an ideological survival than an existentialist pursuit.

Is the New Saudi Arabia Liberal?

Detaining those who challenge conservative norms is still a common occurrence. Now, with the vision of the new government, there seems to be a blurry red line where conservative and religious values are not supposed to be criticized. During King Abduallah’s era, the imprisonment of Raif Badawi and Hamza Kashgari demonstrates the presence of this red line. Now, with the new Saudi leadership, the red line was crossed when a woman was arrested for not wearing an abaya, and another was seen dancing on the street. The Saudi writer Mohammed Al-Suhaimi was questioned and banned from writing for criticizing the use of loudspeakers in mosques.

The current leadership is serious about its modernization efforts and has introduced drastic changes to the cultural and social fabric of the country. Liberals now live their most triumphant time as they can openly criticize conservative beliefs on social media. The Saudi government, however, seems to be standing in-between these two camps, allowing some reforms against the conservatives, and also countering liberals when their voices become too loud. However, the fight against Muslim Brotherhood influences, as declared by the Saudi Education Minister, will tilt the balance in favor of liberals in the meantime.

The sahwa is considered now a dark era in the history of Saudi Arabia. Fear of being ostracized and attacked by conservatives created a growing tension and frustration among Saudis who were forced to live double lives away from the public eye. As conservatives are not in favor anymore, those who felt oppressed for years are in the forefront and exhibit the same lack of understanding and acceptance towards those who oppressed them for years. The calls by liberal Saudis to ban titles at the book fair shows that the most important liberal ideal, freedom of expression, is not a constituent in the Saudi liberal understanding.

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