GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Saudi National Dialogue and the Arab Uprisings – The Question of Citizenship and Plurality
Paper Proposal Text :
The Arab Uprisings have not just caused a necessity to restructure political institutions in the affected countries, but also caused a need to discuss concepts integral for a successful transition from autocratic regimes to democratic political orders. Among these terms and concepts are the understanding of “national identity” (al-huwiyya al-waṭaniyya), “national unity” (al-waḥda al-waṭaniyya) and “citizenship” (al-muwāṭana), as well as the relation between state and citizens (especially the question of mutual rights and duties, ḥuqūq and wāǧibāt) itself. All of these terms hint to the underlying question of how to cope with political, ethnic, religious and other sorts of plurality, and with the integration of minorities into social and political practices of state and society. With Islamist Parties – often claiming universal validity for their political and social concepts – taking the lead in parliaments and governments, the subject of how to cope with this factual plurality seems the more urgent then ever.

Having this in mind, turning the attention to the Saudi Kingdom might come as a surprise: Saudi Arabia has neither been directly affected by political turmoil itself nor is it structured as heterogeneously as other Arab countries.

However, Saudi Arabia as so far been the only modern Arab state based on Islam: Governmental and political structures within Saudi Arabia are based on the commitment to the exclusivist school of Wahhabi thought. It serves as a legitimizing factor to the rule of the Āl Saud. Furthermore, the “Saudi Ummah of Wahhabism” is presented as a central element of national identity politics. Hence, throughout Saudi history, the Kingdom’s Shiite, Ismaili and Sufi minorities have been marginalised in many relevant parts of society and politics and have often been declared “unbelievers” in accordance with the Wahhabi dogma.
However, the experience of Islamist terrorism abroad (especially 9/11), as well as in the Kingdom itself, caused a destabilisation to this traditional narrative of legitimation and identity. In reaction to this destabilisation, the “King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue” (KACND) was founded in 2003. It provides all social and religious groups with a platform for discussions, thus presenting an innovation within the Saudi religious and political spheres. Within the framework of KACND, the terms mentioned (“national unity” etc.) above have been discussed in some detail and a remarkable number of Saudi intellectuals (Sunni and Shiite) have worked on the topics of identity and plurality in recent years.

The current developments in other Arab countries make these discussions more relevant then ever: Initiatives by political activists for a widening of civil participation and protests by the Shiite minority in the Saudi Eastern Region show that the question “what it means to be a Saudi” and what exactly can be regarded as the uniting element of Saudi identity, remains yet to be answered, or rather, “work in progress”. Also, the terms of unity, identity, plurality and citizenship might become even more relevant in the future of Saudi discussions and politics, if Islamic parties in countries such as Egypt succeed in integrating different social, political and religious factions into an authentic Islamic understanding of citizenship and national identity, despite the existing differences.

The paper aims at presenting and examining some concepts of citizenship (muwāṭana), which have been discussed and presented by intellectuals and religious thinkers in Saudi Arabia in recent years. It examines whether these concepts might serve possible future needs to political reform in Saudi Arabia itself and/or as examples for similar discussions in the states of the Arab Uprisings. The paper also raises the question in how far giving room for discussion has helped stabilizing Saudi rule in recent years and during times of turmoil in other Arab countries.

The analysis is based on an in-depth study of publications and protocols by the KACND as well as publications by Saudi religious scholars and intellectuals. Moreover, the analysis is complemented by interviews conducted during fieldwork in 2010 with several representatives of each of these groups. The doctoral thesis, on which the paper is based will be submitted in early 2013 at the department of Islamic Studies, University of Münster/Germany. It combines a hermeneutical approach with tools and theories of discourse analysis, thus relating the project to the fields of political studies and sociology of religions.