Saudi Arabia: The shroud of Islamic fundamentalism encloses the kingdom As world's attention fades, ultrareligious tighten their grip WAR IN THE GULF


DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- She can be called Mageeda. All she wanted was to go to the amusement park in nearby Dammam with her husband and their children, just as the family used to do.

Now the trip poses problems. On some days, King Fahd Park admits children and their fathers; on other days, only children and their mothers. But never mothers and fathers at the same time, for fear that a man riding the roller coaster or the Ferris wheel might get a long look at a woman other than his wife.

The family gave up going to the park.

"Everything is going backward," said Mageeda, a Saudi woman whose husband is an executive at Saudi Aramco, the national oil company. "This time the religious have gone totally berserk. After the cease-fire, they became wild."

Maybe not wild, but definitely more assertive. For many of Saudi Arabia's liberals, the cease-fire with Iraq and the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops have brought an unwelcomed return to the almost normal -- including the familiar tensions between liberals and ultraconservative Islamic religious authorities.

King Fahd and his government, composed almost entirely of members of the extended royal family, are often caught in the middle, nervous about offending either side.

The government's greatest fear is to be accused by one side of being insufficiently Islamic or by the other side of being too slow to accept change. In a country where consensus is sought at almost any price, criticism from either side is perceived as a dangerous challenge to the legitimacy of the regime.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, military threats to the kingdom, the arrival of U.S. forces and the war itself focused extraordinary attention on the kingdom and generated a few liberties. But now that much of the attention has been withdrawn, Saudi Arabia is returning to its old habits.

Contact with things American once again is limited largely to driving American-made cars and eating fast food. Television and newspapers avoid even a passing reference to the 20,000 U.S. troops remaining in the kingdom. Except in a line at a Pizza Hut or a Hardee's, Saudis have almost no way of knowing the Americans are even here.

After a polite pause for U.S. troop withdrawals to begin, the kingdom resumed carrying out public executions in accordance with Islamic law. About 20 people were beheaded over a span of two weeks in the spring, the backlog of cases deferred from when Americans were obsessive Saudi-watchers.

Yet, talk about dramatically expanding the Saudi military has been forgotten or become an embarrassment. Even after the start of the fighting with Iraq, Saudi commanders spoke of enlarging the military to 400,000 men from the current 65,000. Then 250,000. Now 100,000, although no one mentions a deadline for the expansion to occur.

"Let's say there are 16 army divisions in Iraq and, to put it charitably, one in Saudi Arabia," a diplomat in Riyadh said to explain the change in plans. "Whether you expand to three or four, you'll never be able to have Saudi Arabia go it alone."

What is new are changes in how people think. Saudis express much greater suspicion, for example, of the country's neighbors, the same Arab states that used to be lauded as the friendliest of brothers.

Educated Saudis speak of Jordan -- which sided with Iraq -- as "ready to jump," that is, invade. The same is said of Yemen, another ally of Iraq. Given the impoverishment of those countries, and the state of their armies, non-Saudis consider those scenarios wildly unrealistic.

The change in state of mind includes a new restlessness. People have been emboldened to admit their impatience for change, an impatience that always lay just beneath the surface.

"We have some complaints," said Abdullah Kabbaa, a professor of political science, "but we're not seeking a revolution. People are looking for the government to take steps."

Often, the debate over the pace and nature of reform is acted out in public. The rules of behavior for women are usually the subject, and the debate has been heating up.

In Dhahran, women complain that the mutawin, the much-feared religious police, are extending their vigilance to women in cars. Cars have been stopped and female passengers admonished for failing to keep their faces covered while servants are at the wheel.

Mageeda, for example, has abandoned wearing her usual ankle-length skirts and a scarf around her neck for shopping hTC trips. For the first time as an adult, she has given in to wearing a veil and abaya, a traditional black cloak. As her invisible sign of rebellion, she wears shorts underneath.

Mageeda is no radical. Saudi-born and in her 40s, she earnestly objects to any man touching a woman he doesn't know, even by an accidental brush of the arm. She is part of the mainstream in describing the prospect of a mutawa touching a woman as "frightening."

In Riyadh, the capital of dourness, a religious crackdown might have been expected. But even there, the mutawin have provoked complaints. An especially vigilant group of mutawin has accosted women wearing abayas and veils and exhorted them to do more. The women were advised to add a mask and completely cover one eye.

"My wife says we're not going to go out anymore," a Saudi civil servant said in exasperation, recalling a recent visit to Popeye's.

To guarantee that women aren't seen except by family members, the fast-food restaurant recently raised the partitions walling off each booth. The change gave the restaurant the atmosphere of a prison with many small cells.

"I feel as if I can't breathe," complained the civil servant.

In al Khobar, a shopping district outside Dhahran, Saudis talk of an encounter that began when a mutawa saw a woman smoking in a parking lot. As is standard practice, he rapped her leg with a stick. Then the unthinkable happened. The woman slapped the mutawa.

What is unclear is whether the incident actually occurred, or whether the Saudis describing it are narrating a fantasy they wish were true. A woman striking back at what threatens her would be, for some, a dream come true.

The argument over how a woman should behave is politics. In a kingdom without political parties or elections, there have been few outlets for people to test their beliefs.

But that is being changed by a proliferation of audio cassettes and, more recently, fax machines.

The ultrareligious were among the first to appreciate the possibilities. When U.S. forces began arriving, cassettes exhorted Saudis to limit their contact with non-Muslims. Within a few months, shops began a semi-clandestine trade in tapes condemning the government for allegedly un-Islamic practices. In a few instances, tapes called for the government's overthrow.

Thanks to faxes, Saudis for the first time could obtain magazine and newspaper articles from abroad, without the scrutiny of authorities who dutifully censor anything considered remotely critical of the regime or of Islam.

By the end of the war, fax machines were turning out a blizzard of petitions with lists of demands addressed to the government.

Most of the petitions have come from the religious. Their demands are generally that the government subject itself to a stricter interpretation of the laws of Islam, such as the prohibition against usury. A petition signed by the chief Muslim cleric denounces the practice of Saudi banks charging interest on loans as "an assault against Allah."

Liberals present their own agenda. In letters and other forums, they ask the king somehow to rein in the mutawin. That demand embodies the desire to loosen restrictions on women and lessen the pressure for conformity.

Ominously for the government, some demands come from both sides. Both the religious and the liberals ask for a brake on official corruption, a subject that used to be virtually off-limits for discussion.

However elusive the proof, Saudis are convinced that corruption is endemic. Princes enter new businesses and compete successfully for contracts against firms that are longer-established but less well-connected. Members of the -Z royal family settle into sinecures within the government and fill jobs with their relatives and friends.

The complaints feed the restlessness. A civil servant said of a minister: "He counts the pennies for us but lets loose the millions for his friends." Another Saudi tells of a friend, a deputy minister, complaining that he had not had a meeting with the minister for two years.

The petition endorsed by the chief cleric, while using polite language, cited corruption as one of the main issues. Criticizing "a favoritism to the elite," the document asked that officials "be of exemplary disposition, competence and dedication"; anything less was "dishonesty."

Both sides are asking the king to make good on his pledge to create a consultative council. In most other countries, the appointment of a body with no legislative powers might seem an insignificant step. Here, where the king rules by decree, the creation of an official body of advisers from outside the royal family would amount to radical change.

Then again, Saudi Arabia's kings have talked about such a council for more than 25 years. King Fahd, who revived the proposal last November and made another public mention of it this spring, is the first Saudi ruler to sound serious about the idea.

The king hasn't hinted who might sit on the council, or even how he is to decide.

Leaders of the religious establishment count on being represented, a very safe assumption. Members of the wealthy merchant families assume they will be there; the major Bedouin tribes assume likewise. The smaller class of liberal academics and technocrats has hopes, too.

It's also a safe assumption that given the kingdom's interpretations of Islam, neither Mageeda nor any other woman will be there.

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