March 30, 2014

Obama in Saudi Arabia to talk security and terrorism; the Saudis seem prepared, but are they really?

    Sunday, March 30, 2014   No comments

The new Saudi anti-terrorism law is anti-dissent, anti-civil rights draconian law?
For weeks even before President Obama’s arrival in Saudi Arabia, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have worked hard to make the summit successful. They knew that extremism, regional stability, and the Middle East peace process are high on the U.S. administration’s agenda. The Saudi rulers wanted to show that they are trustworthy, that they are fighting terrorism, and that they are a reliable and stable ally. Specifically, they will be showing President Obama two things: a new law that is supposedly aimed at fighting extremism and an unprecedented designation of an heir to the heir to the throne (Prince Muqrin—half-brother of the King).

Let’s begin with the latter. The King’s designation of a third-in-line underscores the nervousness the ruling family is experiencing. For the first time, the ruling family is divided and some fear that they could lose power, which they exclusively enjoyed for nearly 80 years. The ruling family feel threatened from within and from without the Kingdom. From within, the aging monarch (the third in line will be 70 in weeks, the second in line is 79 and the sitting king is 90 years old) is threatened by young Saudis who want to move towards a constitutional monarchy. The conservative Islamists want to replace the clan rule with an Islamic theocracy. From without, they are threatened by Iran and Sunni Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. The new anti-terrorism law is expected to address both sets of problems. They will be telling President Obama that extremism, the crisis in Syria, and Iran's nuclear program are existential threats and the new law and the designation of a successor to the successor are meant to deal with these challenges.

Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have come to see Iran through sectarian and security lenses. Consequently, the Saudi rulers are threatened by Iran’s real or perceived ties to Shiites in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and by Iran’s influence over Sunni Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, HAMAS, Islamic Jihad, and similar groups. The new Saudi anti-terror law is, therefore, aimed at addressing these fears and preserving the privileged position of the ruling family while taking the global anti-terror sentiment as a cover. The explicit language and implicit implications of the law clearly expose the real intent.   

On March 9, and responding to a directive from King Abdullah, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced the terms of the new law. Most Western analysts and commentators focused on the unprecedented step of placing the Muslim Brotherhood on the list of terrorist organizations. They ignored the more important aspects of the new law: a dangerous minefield aimed at protesters, civil rights activists, minorities, and human rights advocates. 

The problem with the law is that it is flawed in every aspect. The law is conceptually flawed as it prosecutes offenders for acts committed even before the enactment of the law. The law is draconian because it equates between an academician attending a colloquium where criticism of the Saudi government might be voiced and a terrorist who kills civilians on sectarian, religious, or ideological grounds. It is punitive because it practically criminalizes any act or statement of dissent. In short, this is not an anti-terror law; it is a law of terror: it terrorizes students, academicians, activists, human rights advocates, minorities, dissenting voices, and anyone who dares to challenge the established order.

Those who think otherwise must look at the first targets (victims) of this law. During the week immediately after the law went into effect, the court sentenced two activists who (re)tweeted messages supporting peaceful demonstrations to 8 and 10 year prison terms each. As of this writing, none of the Saudi extremist fighters who actually participated in the wars in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan appeared before a court and prosecuted under this law. Returning fighters are likely to be sent to the so-called “rehabilitation programs” instead.

Protesters, civil rights activists, students, and civil society institutions will receive no reprieve. Predictably, Aljazeera satellite television and other channels that do not report within government guidelines (reflecting the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia) or that challenge the Saudi rulers’ authority and power will be barred. Foreigners suspected of sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood will be expelled. Discrimination against minorities will increase and become systemic. The law will also be applied to shut down centers of research like the Brookings Center and Arab Center for Research and Politics Studies (both in Qatar) or to prosecute anyone who attends events held by these or similar entities.

This law will not bring stability to the Kingdom and it will not promote peace in the region because it does not address the root problem: Saudi tolerance of and reliance on sectarian extremism. The Saudi rulers and some of their Western allies used a brand of Islam to recruit, train, and send warriors to fight an “ungodly” government and its backers in Afghanistan. They have applied the same prescription in Syria, which is geographically closer to the Kingdom than Afghanistan. Using religious extremism as a political and military tool legitimized a deadly brand of religious discourse that is now threatening it from within. A cosmetic law that ignores the culpability and complicity of some of the Kingdom’s rulers in creating and sustaining extremism only manages the symptoms; it does not cure it.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.


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