Reform is still a foreign concept to some people
in Saudi Arabia
Fleishman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 16, 2007
Saudi Arabia — A recent court decision sentencing a victim of gang rape to 200
lashes for un-Islamic behavior has outraged a nation accustomed to harsh
punishment and has highlighted the slow pace of government reform since King
Abdullah rose to power two years ago.
Judges guided by their interpretation of the Koran insinuated that the married
victim, known in the media here as the Qatif girl, was immoral because she was
meeting a man alone when the pair were accosted by seven knife-wielding
attackers. In November, she was sentenced to six months in prison in addition to
the lashing; her assailants received five-year prison terms.
used to the public beheadings of murderers and amputations of the hands of
pickpockets, but the Qatif girl's ordeal embarrassed the country at a time
Riyadh is negotiating major international business deals and emerging as a
potential broker in Middle East peace talks. The government has said it will
review the case, an indication that the king may move to overrule Islamic
King Abdullah is widely regarded as a modernizer in a royal family balanced
between those favoring change and others who insist on maintaining a strict
Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Satellite TV and the Internet have created a
more open media and the king has supported local elections, even if they offer
only token democracy. But liberals and human rights activists complain that
hard-liners remain in control of the courts, Interior Ministry and other
"Don't expect big changes and sudden successes, but reform has taken root," said
Mishary A. Alnuaim, the vice dean of law and political science at King Saud
University. "Modernizing religion is still slow. That's the million-dollar
question. You still find a lot of messages of intolerance.
"Much of this is about the real or imagined invasion of Western culture. . . .
The religious hard-liners want to produce the argument that the Muslim world is
still being victimized by Western influence and political power."
Conservatives have been emboldened by increased global energy demands and high
oil prices that have enriched the kingdom. Reliance on oil has tempered
criticism from Washington and other Western capitals over the lack of women's
rights and the sweeping power of the Saudi state. Some analysts say the king,
while more progressive than much of his population, fears that hurried reforms
could lead to public anger and possible religious revolt similar to that which
brought down the shah of Iran in 1979.
"You have a lot of dynamic change in Saudi Arabia. There's high unemployment,
lost investments and a worried middle class," said Martrouk Faleh, a university
professor who has been jailed for his reformist activities. "At the same time,
the nation's elite feel no external pressure for reform because of strategic
U.S. and British business and oil interests."
Mohammed Fahad Qahtani, a talk show host and professor at the national
Diplomatic Studies Institute, calls it "rhetorical reform."
"One royal camp truly wants change but another doesn't," he said. "When we had
our municipal elections [in 2005] the so-called elected authorities of these
councils didn't know their mandate, and when they asked the government, they
were told 'It's none of your business.' "
There have been some encouraging signs, however. The quasi-legislative advisory
body to the king, known as the Shura Council, appears to have gained influence
in recent years. The monarch followed the council's suggestion to deny a 20% pay
raise to the country's religious police, known as mutaween, who patrol
shopping malls chastising and arresting women whom they deem improperly veiled.
The decision signaled that the king was reining in a religious force many Saudis
complained had become increasingly repressive.
National dialogues have opened debates on reforms and invited limited input from
critics. In 2005, municipal elections in Riyadh, Mecca and Jidda gave hope that
democracy could coexist with a monarchy. Elected officials now have some
latitude in overseeing development in their cities, but overall, their power is
curtailed by the royal family and corruption that drives many business and
"We want to know who gave the permit for that shopping center. How much was paid
for it? This is how you stop corruption," said Ibrahim Hamad Quayid, an elected
Riyadh city councilman, whose corner window office overlooks shopping malls and
tinted-glass high-rises. "The king is good, the crown princes are nice. . . .
But there are those in bureaucracy who can corrupt everything, even when it
comes to putting fire extinguishers in buildings."
The risks of dissent
Challenging the government, especially the judiciary and the Interior Ministry,
can still lead to trouble. In November, Abdullah Hamid, a leading reformer and
human rights activist, was sentenced to four months in prison on charges of
obstruction of justice and for inciting a public protest against the treatment
of alleged terrorists held in Saudi prisons for two years without charges or
trials. Hamid's brother, Issa, was sentenced to six months on similar charges.
"The verdict against the Hamid brothers shows that the Saudi government's talk
of human rights reform is just that -- talk," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle
East director for Human Rights Watch.
Abdullah Hamid, who represented the wives of the suspected terrorists, was
arrested in July after demanding that security police present a search warrant
before entering the home of one of the women, who was also his relative. He has
appealed his sentence. In 2005, Abdullah Hamid, Faleh and other activists had
been pardoned by King Abdullah after serving 16 months on sentences that ran for
six to nine years on convictions for criticizing the government and calling for
"Cracking down on reformers leaves no place for a peaceful civil society," said
Faleh, who is representing Hamid. "We are not allowed to question the
government, not even peacefully."
Reforming the judiciary is one of the most sensitive political challenges facing
the king. The Saudis have parallel legal systems -- one of civil regulations,
and the other a more prominent Sharia system based on strict adherence to the
Koran. Criminal cases, including the rape of the Qatif girl, are presided over
by religiously conservative judges who hold that holy texts are not bound by
civil or man-made laws.
Despite discussion of merging the two systems, the religious judges hold
tremendous sway; they represent a form of Islam that has kept the royal family
in power for generations. They are also regarded by many Saudis as the only
check and balance on the monarchy.
Yet their decisions draw frequent condemnation from international humanitarian
groups and from Saudi activists for disregarding the rights of women, who are
forbidden to drive or vote, and face restrictions on employment, dress and place
in the family.
In November, a court found that the Qatif girl violated Islamic codes by being
in the company of a man not her husband. She was sentenced to 90 lashes. When
she appealed the case and went public with her ordeal, the angry judges
suspended her lawyer's court license and increased her sentence to six months in
prison and 200 lashes.
Sultan Qahtani, a well-known Saudi writer, posted an essay on the Internet
suggesting the royal family was preparing to move against the judiciary: "The
controversy over the Girl of Qatif sentence might lead to a strong push for the
government, which is inclined toward reform, to confront the other elements that
insist the kingdom maintain its extreme religiosity."
Other Saudi writers and commentators, in a rare outburst of harsh criticism,
said the sentence, which is under government review, has embarrassed the nation.
"It is a tale that is more reminiscent of the cruel callous punishments meted
out to women in medieval times. And yet sadly it is a case that is making
headlines in the 21st century," Lubna Hussain wrote in an op-ed piece in the
Saudi-based Arab News. "The judges looked into their crystal ball and saw that
she had 'the intention of doing something bad' and this, therefore, constituted
a very good reason for her to be gang raped. Always the woman's fault, but of