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Jewish World Review August 21, 2002 / 13 Elul 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Where church and state are one How long can Saudi Arabia's puritanical version of Islam survive?

The writer, who lost his nephew on Sept. 11, is traveling to three Arab countries in an effort to make sense of the tragedy and to find answers to unanswered questions. Below is his fourth dispatch. | JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia It's 12:23 p.m. on a recent Monday in the old marketplace of this historic port city on the Red Sea. A sonorous male voice over loudspeakers is filling the warm, humid air with the call to noon-hour prayers.

The cloth merchant whose small shop is just in front of me drags a large blue covering over his wares. Around the corner the Seiko watch shop shuts down. And nearby the Citizen watch dealer also closes so that Muslims (in this country, that means everyone but foreign nationals who work on contract and a few visitors) may engage in one of their five required daily prayers.

No doubt people in the capital of Riyadh are stopping work at the Saudi American Clinic, at Pepsi distributorships, at Starbucks, McDonald's, Toys R Us and Baskin Robbins so they, too, may pray. ("Americans built this country," says a Western diplomat in Riyadh. "Saudis paid for it.")

Here in the Jeddah market this noon, I see no mutawwa'in, the religious police, but they aren't far away, and they are authorized to make sure people behave in acceptable Islamic ways - or, at least ways approved by the Saudi government.

"Islam is our way of life," says Mohammed Ahmed Rasheed, Saudi minister of education. "It's not just worshiping."

Adds Foad al Farsy, information minister: "It's not easy to understand the way of life in Saudi Arabia. Religion is a very dominant factor."

The profoundly conservative variety of Islam known as Wahhabism, in fact, is the very air Saudis breathe.

And that is part of the tension Saudi Arabia faces as it confronts modernity - the relationship between a strict form of Islam and a high-tech, warp-speed world of commerce, entertainment and sociological change. Beyond that, it is trying to work through all this with an unelected government led by a royal family that is directly accountable to no one - however much it must curry favor with its subjects.

"It's a complicated society," says an American businessman with long experience here, "very complicated."

The Arab civilization is ancient, and Islam itself is nearly 1,400 years old. But Saudi Arabia is just 70 years old. Its constitution is the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, which Muslims believe God dictated to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century through the angel Gabriel. King Fahd (one of the almost four dozen sons of the country's founder, King Abdul Aziz) now holds the title of custodian of the two holiest mosques of Islam, in Mecca and Medina.

Church and state here are one. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs appoints - and, when they stray from orthodoxy, removes - the imams in the country's 40,000 mosques. But how long can this puritanical version of Islam survive in a society that's growing too fast for its own good (the capitol of Riyadh, for instance, has ballooned from about 100,000 people 50 years ago to 4.5 million today)? Can austere religion escape unchanged in a nation struggling to find jobs for a population with a median age of 17?

And can the Saudi government - led by an anachronistic if well-meaning monarchy that tolerates and even encourages nepotism where it desperately needs meritocracy - persist or will it be swept into history's large pile of failed rulers?

These questions cannot be answered definitively yet. The Saudi leadership - political, religious and economic - says both the Saudi form of Islam and the government can and will make it. But there are many reasons to be skeptical about such optimism.

How questions about the future of the faith and the government are answered will have an enormous effect on the United States. Despite a series of disagreements and the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - perpetrated mostly by disaffected Saudis - Saudi Arabia has had a long, fruitful relationship with the United States.

It supplies much of the oil we import and is of key strategic importance in the volatile Middle East, as evidenced by the American troops still stationed here to keep a watchful eye on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

Saudis and the Americans who work here all want the United States and Saudi Arabia to have a long, friendly, profitable relationship. But Sept. 11 has made that more difficult.

"We had 60 years of friendship with the United States that blew up in flames, in smoke," says Khaled Al-Maeena, editor of the English language newspaper Arab News ( To be sure, it has been pragmatic, self-interested friendship on both sides but that's often what passes for friendship in geopolitics.

Now, however, the number of Saudi tourists and college students coming to America has dropped dramatically because they feel unwelcome. And Saudis almost universally express frustration about being blamed for the Sept. 11 hijackings and about seeing that blame extended to all of Islam. They say it's like blaming average Americans for Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City terrorist, though that analogy falls apart on many levels.

"To demonize Islam, to make us look like aliens, that is something that I cannot stand," says Al-Maeena. (A Western diplomat here has this wise suggestion: "Don't treat friends like enemies or they will become enemies.")

"Even before the whole world knows about (terrorism) we started fighting it," Crown Prince Abdullah told our visiting group of American journalists in the opulent green and gold reception hall of his palace. "We were one of the first nations to suffer from terrorism."

However, even if you discount the disruptive aftermath of Sept. 11, Saudi Arabia faces a future that could turn ugly before it improves. If the country stays engaged with the rest of the world - as it must to sell oil - the pressures to modify social restrictions rooted in its conservative religion may become overwhelming.

Some of these restrictions aren't really religious but, rather, cultural. The Qur'an, for instance, naturally says nothing about forbidding women to drive cars. But Saudi Arabia forbids it. Few women work outside the home, though some are well-educated. Indeed, I met intelligent, thoughtful women who hold well-informed opinions on many subjects.

Still, many Saudi women feel trapped. In private moments, health-care workers confide that lots of women are almost certainly clinically depressed, though diagnosing that is hard because doctors don't get to talk to women alone. Beyond that, they say, lots of young Saudi women try to commit suicide. Even if these stories are exaggerated, the cultural pressure such conditions represent cannot be contained forever.

"It's difficult to talk human rights issues in this country," says a Western diplomat in Riyadh. "You easily have Saudis getting very defensive."

Modernity - never entirely kept out - is increasingly breaking through the Saudi veil. Satellite TV dishes are everywhere, though they were legalized only a year and a half ago. The Internet, cell phones and other accouterments of cultures-in-a-hurry are here, too.

"Saudi law," says an American working here, "doesn't change as quickly as Saudi society does."

It's not clear how high-tech advances and other changes will - or can - be fully accommodated in a culture resistant to change, but some people are willing to guess. "I don't think it will affect society," says Information Minister al Farsy. "I lived in America for seven years, and I never missed one prayer. Never."

More credible is a Western diplomat's assessment of the Saudi government's control of change: "They'll continue to muddle on because they're sitting on this ocean of oil." That oil allows the royal Saud family, if necessary, to redirect resources to areas of social or cultural discontent and, thus, keep domestic peace.

Saudia Arabia, in fact, is blessed with the largest known oil reserves in the world, and Petroleum Ministry officials say they'll be quite content if world oil prices stay at roughly current levels. Oil represents most of both the Saudi economy and government revenues.

Pressure to use that money to mollify citizens is likely to grow. Many young people now are jobless, and the median income of Saudis has fallen in recent years. So young people entering the job market will discover they must work harder than their parents did just to make less money.

A Western diplomat in Riyadh calls this a "demographic time bomb."

More worrisome for Americans is that fewer Saudis are coming to the United States for college. The number of American-educated government officials here is simply overwhelming. Education Minister Rasheed is typical. He has degrees from Indiana University (as do a number of his aides) and the University of Oklahoma and has taught at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Two of his seven children were born in the United States. Another example is Abdulrahman H. Al-Saeed, a close advisor to the crown prince. Al-Saeed taught for several years in the 1970s at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

But Saudi Arabia now has built its own universities. That development, coupled with the current Saudi sense of being unwelcome in the United States after Sept. 11, means the next generation of Saudis will not have the same deep personal experience of America or, perhaps, the same good feelings toward us.

Because Saudi Arabia has been unable (and unwilling) to train and educate a fully integrated male-female work force from among its own citizens, it has brought in 6 million foreign nationals to work in various jobs. For instance, at the medical facility in Riyadh that serves the military, I met a nurse from Germany, a nurse from South Africa and a physician from Canada, all of whom work on contract.

Now, however, the government has adopted a policy of "Saudization" of the work force. It wants the percentage of Saudi employees in most fields to grow by 5 percent a year. The goal this year is 35.

"If you ask the private sector," says one Saudi businessman, "many are not so gung-ho for Saudization." But they understand the long-term need for it and support it, he says, despite the inefficiencies and disruptions it may cause initially.

Saudi Arabia, despite its enormous cultural differences with the United States and despite such severe disputes as the 1973 Arab oil embargo, has long been a useful American ally. Saudis think America has adopted an unjust bias toward Israel and against the Palestinians and are distressed that a country often in favor of oppressed people has not done right by the Palestinians. But they hope America will recognize the value of an honest and practical relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi minister of Islamic Affairs, Shaikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz Al Ashaikh, says he doesn't like the oft-used metaphor that Americans and Saudis are on different sides of a "clash of civilizations."

"We prefer dialogue," says the man in charge of making sure people in the Jeddah market get called to prayer each day. Dialogue, in fact, is the only answer in the long run. But dialogue requires that we understand the Saudis and Islam as well as they understand Americans. So far, that's a test most Americans fail.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved