GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Enjoying “the Comfort of Opinion without the Discomfort of Thought”: Saudi Arabia, the Arab Spring, and the West
Paper Proposal Text :
On January 1, 2013 a petition appeared online and was disseminated by social media in Saudi Arabia. Signed by 440 individuals, the document decried the detention of a famous intellectual, Dr. Turki al-Hamad, and expressed confidence that seventy-seven-year-old Crown Prince Salman would release him. The petition, however, was largely ignored outside of Saudi Arabia, where it did not fit the Arab Spring narrative in which young activists use Facebook to defeat aging dictators. Nor did it fit the dominant Western view of Saudi Arabia: a supposedly repressive monarchy that lacks the legitimacy of democracies and which escaped collapse in 2011 because of oil revenues, conservative Islamic support, and Western military protection.

This paper seeks to provide a fresh view of Saudi Arabia’s relationship to the Arab Spring, a view that transcends mainstream Western interpretations of the Kingdom and the one question that has been asked about its politics for decades: does the monarchy have the resources to repress the forces which seek to destroy it? It argues that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to witness a mass political movement because Saudis reaffirmed their commitment to the Kingdom’s governing system of mutual obligation and reciprocity in 2011. That system reflects a Foucaultian conception of politics, in which power is a productive network throughout society rather than a force of repression imposed by kings. It is legitimized by petitions and other public rituals that force elites to be accessible to ordinary Saudis, permitting them to voice concerns, hold leaders accountable, and maintain a just social order—an order in which, according to a striking poem by Hasan al-Sabe, the divine, the “fruits of paradise,” can be glimpsed in the figure of a beautiful Saudi woman. Saudi Arabia is not “paradise” as such—like the woman, it belongs to the earth—but, like the woman, its earthly perfection is such that it can function as an emblem of paradise, a figuring forth of that place where “houris stroll”: “what couch is wide enough / for this beauty?” The system al-Sabe idealizes does indeed reflect aspects of Saudi society: multiple generations and branches of families share physical and social spaces and must find ways to cooperate and talk—a process that produces discourse and the Kingdom’s politics. 

This paper’s argument draws on the work of Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett. Their book, Going to Tehran, discusses the mythologization of Iran and other states whose political systems—like Saudi Arabia—use Islamic principles that contradict liberal paradigms. According to the Leveretts, these myths reflect America’s “liberal absolutism,” which argues that liberal democracy is the sole form of legitimate government and tends to identify “the alien with the unintelligible.” These myths also allow commentators to portray Tehran and other governments as they wish them to be (irrational and illegitimate) rather than as how they are. Today, these myths are so divorced from reality that the Leveretts believe that they suggest President Kennedy’s 1962 statement that the “great enemy of truth is not the lie…but the myth”—a myth built on clichés and “prefabricated sets of interpretations” that allow us to “enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Freeing ourselves from the myths about Saudi Arabia allows us to see how discourse in social and political spaces explains the Kingdom’s response to the Arab Spring. In February 2011, Saudi tribes publicly voiced their support for the government, and eighty-eight year-old King Abdullah thanked Saudis on national television for supporting the government. While there is little question that government spending won good will, the King’s comments, officials’ use of social media, and overall policies won something that rarely can be bought: trust. According to a 2012 survey, 84% of Saudi youth reported that they had increased faith in government after 2010 and 55% viewed civil unrest as the chief obstacle facing the region. In 2011, college students reportedly greeted King Abdullah like a rock star in public appearances. The confidence of the Saudi youth in their leaders and reticence to pursue political change are critical measures of the monarchy’s strength in a region where youthful anger and demand for democracy toppled entrenched autocrats. While commentators portray Saudi leaders as out of touch with their youth, no modern Saudi King has faced a rebellion comparable to the one waged since 2011 by Syria’s youth against their nation’s forty-seven-year-old president, Dr. Bashar al-Assad.

Nor did Saudis replicate how Syrians and other Arabs used the internet to organize opposition to their government. This absence of online political activism is noteworthy for two reasons. First, Saudis in the 1990s pioneered many of the techniques that would be used to great effect by Arabs online in 2011. Second, the Kingdom has one of the highest rates of social media and YouTube use in the world. The demands for change that have appeared online have been from older, established Saudis. Their message has largely endorsed the system and signaled a confidence in the ability of the monarchy to reform it, including the prohibition on women driving. One of the most prominent online critics of the monarchy—an anonymous Twitter user named Mujtahid—is assumed to be a member of the ruling family or to be working closely with members of the ruling family. Here it is worth asking: why would Saudis publish an online petition for the Crown Prince if they did not believe that he would take their concerns seriously? It is difficult for the West, and particularly for America—whose revolutionary traditions have diminished in recent years into a generalized “distrust of authority” and whose Oedipal patterns tend to identify “youth” with “rebellion”—to conceive of a context in which such issues are not central to public concerns.

Finally, this paper draws on the author’s book, The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam, and sources that are rarely seen in similar studies: the visual arts, literature, and research in urban and rural areas throughout the Kingdom. By widening the net, we should be able to catch at least some fish that other fishermen have failed to notice.