With an international push to “modernize”, and domestic pressure for more moderation, King Abdullah is expressing his new vision for Saudi Arabian women. In 2013, women will serve on Saudi Arabia’s majlis al-shura (the advisory branch of Saudi government); they will also vote in the 2015 municipal council elections, and drive in the streets of the kingdom. The monarch announced these gender-focused reforms in September 2011 alongside a slew of political, administrative, legal and economic changes. These reforms extend to Saudi women certain political and civil rights rather than economic incentive packages. The reason for doing so is twofold: Incentive packages, compared to legal reforms, are influential until the funds expire; as band-aid solutions, money grants provide little long-lasting change. In contrast, legal reforms are enshrined in royal decrees and might receive backing from Saudi Arabia’s sahwi ulema (awakening legal scholars) of a more pragmatic bend.
The question remains: why should domestic reforms be discussed in foreign policy analyses? Political scientists including Imad Mansour, Colin Dueck and Ray Takeyh link domestic politics to foreign policy formulations, arguing that a scholarly approach to systemic analysis necessitates a deeper, domestic context for appropriate proscription. For international relations, domestic policy translates directly into the Kingdom’s international policies due to the systemic pressures to modernize applied by liberal democratic actors. Despite the disjunction between the Saudi state apparatus (the ruling family) and society, as well as a limited conception of civil society given strict, repressive laws and punishments, domestic politics matters because the domestic space is where legitimacy paradigms utilize national rhetoric to project regime sensitivity (and therefore accountability) vis-a-vis its constituents to international actors. Speculating the Kingdom’s “next moves” in the international arena requires monitoring its domestic developments. This is particularly true in the context of King Abdullah’s reforms: are these concessions in the face of regional developments, innovations in reaction to domestic demands, or deception on both fronts?
Saudi Arabia bears heavy burdens: international pressure to modernize its laws, liberalize its economy, and adopt a more moderate “secular” political stance in international relations. The fall of dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, strong opposition to the Assad regime, and the near-collapse of Bahrain’s Al-Khalifa monarchy threaten the institutional legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy. The rise in popularity of the mixed Islamist-democratic “Turkish model,” encouraged by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s rhetoric and foreign policy, also undermines the premises on which King Abdullah enjoys rulership. Tension with the Kingdom’s military allies have also evolved into pressing concern: with the United States’ thawing relations with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, the Saudi monarchy seems to be losing (in relative terms) its American ally to its Shi’a nemesis. This tension, exemplified by a Saudi pledge to match lost funds to Egypt’s military junta should the United States withdraw its financial support, indicates a gradual shift in international politics away from pre-2011 status quo.
With these developments’ emphasis on overcoming the Middle East’s “democracy deficit,” and with a non-permanent United Nations Security Council seat up for grabs, Saudi Arabia is at most desperate to rebuke the international community’s perception that it fuels Islamist fundamentalism. It is conceivable, then, that given the aforementioned pressures that imply calls for a less conservative Saudi rulership, King Abdullah would concede reforms in exchange for good governance “bonus point”. This begs the question as to whether the Saudi “push to modernize” is solely a concession to external actors, or whether King Abdullah’s reforms are reactions to domestic pressures. These two are not mutually exclusive: the monarch himself is rather liberal when compared to his conservative political counterparts in the ulema and other parts of the royal family.
Domestically, King Abdullah has become increasingly frustrated with the political and religious conservatism that underpins his claim to power. Take for instance the anecdote concerning the monarch’s struggle to introduce the telephone into state administration. A group of ulema scholars opposed this technology on the basis of the Islamic belief that any apparatus changing, magnifying, or emitting human voice is an instrument of jinn (evil spirit). After the king gathered the scholars in his chamber, Abdullah asked an assistant to call him from another room and recite the Qur’an through the telephone in order to persuade the scholars to adopt telephones in their offices. While this story must not be blown out of proportion, it is indicative of the extent to which the King is tired of conservative constraints- not only on technology, but concerning old rules of succession that will potentially leave a crisis of rulership after Abdullah. The point is that domestic politics in the Kingdom are divided between a liberal-minded monarch and a conservative religious ulema class.
The reception of the King’s reforms illustrates this division in domestic politics as well. King Abdullah wants women to drive: in June 2011, women organized a driving-protest that resulted in several arrests. Religious courts sentenced one woman to ten lashes, but she was pardoned by the Saudi monarch. This not only illustrates a declining pragmatic relationship between King and ulema, but also the monarch’s outward defiance of the conservative scholars in favour of civil rights reform. In other words, the King is no staunch Wahhabi, but rather encourages women driving, running for office, and participating in elections. Further, King Abdullah endorses “feminizing” public spaces through reforms promising employment opportunities, not to mention university settings. From a domestic point of view, the reforms announced in September 2011 demonstrates the monarch’s sensitivity to the driving-protest, defiance to ulema conservatism, and awareness of domestic civil rights concerns. Further, King Abdullah’s reforms, or innovations, seem to express personal convictions while taking into account international and domestic pressures for change. From a domestic-level analysis, the reforms can therefore be likened to planned innovations rather than concessions.
There is also the possibility that the September 2011 reforms were tools of deception. This argument is plausible given the timeframe of the reforms: while announced in 2011, the changes did not apply to the 2011 municipal elections, calling instead for women to vote four years later. Women will also be allowed to drive starting in 2015. Is the monarch attempting to deceive the ulema, announcing far-off reforms that should not dominate present discussion, and therefore might escape the scholars’ attention? This is unlikely, given that the ulema seems responsive to the monarch’s progressive policies and sensitive to their support from the Saudi population. The scholars’ legal opinion on the issue, pleading women not to drive for fear of their ovaries’ health, illustrates the ulema’s responsiveness, as well as their deep conservatism. The theory that King Abdullah is attempting to deceive the population into accepting his reforms, thereby according his rule popular legitimacy, is more tenable. Scholars such as Eakin have noted that extending civil rights to women opens an escape valve for the increasing domestic pressure for liberalization. Otherwise stated, the reforms prove disastrous for political opposition to the monarchy, since promises of rights are announced but not yet instituted, thus dissipating pressure and momentum for domestic institutional change. Based on this theory, undermining the popular appeal of protests deceives the international community as well, since the monarch can point to the lack of protests to his rule as a sign of his regime’s legitimacy. The reforms announced shortly after the “Day of Rage” therefore can be described as deceptive in nature.
It is only after juxtaposing the structural with the domestic analysis of reforms that we see King Abdullah’s September 2011 changes as innovative concessions with deceptive characteristics, announced at a time indicative of the monarch’s focus on domestic stability in the face of rapid change and pressures. While the reforms discussed here can be described as deceptive in character, international pressure should ensure that the reforms are implemented, the extent to which will depend on more than the monarch’s personal conviction. Whether these reforms will be fully instituted will depend on domestic, regional, and international developments- for example, the third driving-protest, scheduled for October 26, and the subsequent reactions throughout the globe. King Abdullah’s domestic reforms, which serve the Kingdom’s foreign policy objectives, could become a new form of Saudi soft power; with a shift in power relations, and a trend towards reevaluating power sources, the outcome and response to these reforms will prove instructive for predicting Saudi Arabia’s subsequent foreign policy choices.