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Saturday, March 06, 2004

Introducing Democracy into the Middle East and why its so difficult - 

The sociocultural problems in Saudi Arabia have been well documented (by Robert Baer among others): a dissolute and corrupt royal family that is bleeding the country dry, no willingness to allow for any meaningful social criticism and rights for any of a large number of minorities. Less clear in much of this work, but really nicely highlighted in Elizbeth Rubin's piece in the current issue of the New York Times Magazine, is just why reform is so difficult.

Rubin argues that the modern state of Saudi Arabia was founded on a sort of devil's agreement betweent he House of Saud and the Wahhabi clerics...

The Saud dynasty and the Wahhabi clerics mutually reinforce each other's authority. It's been that way since the 18th century, when Muhammad Ibn Saud, a tribal ruler in the untamed deserts of central Arabia, struck a bargain with Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a puritanical religious reformer. They would purge Islam of the idol worshiping that had slipped into Bedouin religious practices, unify the competing tribes and conquer the Arabian peninsula. The Sauds lost and regained power over the centuries, but that religious-political covenant has endured and is the source of today's Saudi system. The royal family rules over politics, security and the economy. The clerics hold sway over things social and cultural while preaching loyalty to the ruler as one of the highest duties of the good Muslim.

So substantive reform, then, requires a sort of rewiring of the basis of the state: inventing a new state justification, and somehow managing to substitute it for the old, on the fly. Once you start to think about how truly difficult this is, the rest of the article, largely focussed on the reform efforts of the jounrnalist/activit Mansour Al-Nogaidan seem all to predictable.


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