Old men cannot dye their hair and beard black and women cannot appear in public places without Hijab or the veil, say Saudi Imams. But the last seen visuals of King Abdullah who passed away last Friday showed the 90-year-old monarch sporting a thick black beard -- and this week, the social media drew a plethora of comments, mostly in jest, when the Saudi royals did not mind the United States’ first lady Michelle Obama appearing without a head scarf and in a dress Saudi imams would condemn as un-Islamic. She even shook hands with the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz. Islamic law forbids men from touching women, if they are not a mahrem – meaning the woman’s father, brother, son, uncle or a close relative who cannot marry her in terms of Islamic law. But the law bends itself for the royals in the name of diplomacy.
Interpreting Shariah law to prop up the male chauvinistic social order in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive. Women can’t go out unless they are accompanied by a male mahrem. But they do not mind when housemaids, including Muslim housemaids, come to the kingdom unaccompanied by a mahrem.
Shariah law, though criticised by liberals, has its merits -- because it gives more weight to the rights of the community than to the rights of the individual. It is seen as a body of law that is not in consonance with 21st century thinking largely because those who adopt Shariah enforce it selectively while ignoring its human face. The Salafi or Wahhabi version of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia conveniently forgets the Islamic democratic concepts that were found in the early caliphates.
Shariah has become a convenient political tool to safeguard the royal’s hold on power. Terms such as fitnah and fasad -- terms that denote sins -- are invoked to justify suppression of dissent.
Giving the king a veneer of religious legitimacy is the title ‘Khadim al-Haramaini Sharifine’ or the servant or custodian of the two sacred mosques in Makkah and Medina. By conveniently confining his role to the service of the holy mosques, the king has apparently shirked his religious duty towards the oppressed people of Palestine.
The late King Abdullah aroused much hope in the Arab world when he was the crown prince. His land-for-peace plan to solve the Palestinian crisis is even today touted as one of the best proposals that could have won the Palestinian people their state and ensured Israel’s security. But when he became the king, he failed to revive the plan or use his influence with the US to find a solution to the issue. As crown prince, he opposed the presence of US troops in his country. But when he became the king, he was seen to be doing the West’s bidding. Among his provocative acts was the conferring of the kingdom’s highest award on President George W Bush, the man who was responsible for the deaths of more than one million Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese and people in other Arab and Muslim countries.
Often the kingdom’s foreign policy was seen to be in harmony with that of Israel -- and nothing will emphasise this convergence more than their policies on Iran and Egypt. Leaked US embassy cables published on WikiLeaks claimed that the king had urged the US to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. “Cut off the snake’s head,” the king was quoted in the cables as saying, referring to Iran. As regards Egypt, King Abdullah made no effort to hide his dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s first presidential and parliamentary elections after the 2011 Arab Spring. The king feared that the Brotherhood cancer would gradually spread in the region, converting the Gulf Arab sheikdoms into democracies. The kingdom sponsored a military coup in Egypt and subverted the will of the people. The late king also sent troops to Bahrain to put down a pro-democracy uprising there. When the king passed away last Friday, there were very few tears in the streets of the Arab world.
The kingdom’s special relations with the United States go back to the early days of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s or to the days when the US was wandering in eastern Saudi deserts in search of oil after Britain refused to share Iraq’s oil pie with Washington. In terms of an understanding, the US had pledged to protect the Ibn Saud family, which came to possess a new country called Saudi Arabia -- a gift from Britain in return for the Arab tribal leaders’ betrayal of the Ottoman caliph, the ruler of Arabia during World War One.
Ever since, the kingdom has remained a loyal ally of the US. The only aberration was the rule of King Faisal. He was deeply committed to the Palestinian cause and had an ambitious vision for the Arab and Islamic world. He was killed by a royal family member and many believe his death was a Western conspiracy.
Today the kingdom works in tandem with the United States. Its recent decision to glut the oil market was seen as following the West’s directive aimed at further punishing Russia and Iran – oil-importing countries that are already hit by Western economic sanctions.
Saudi Arabia has also been accused of rekindling the age-old Sunni-Shia conflict within Islam and this was seen as another case of doing the West’s bidding.
That Western leaders, including US President Barak Obama, are trooping to Riyadh to meet the new king shows the strategic importance of the kingdom in containing Iran and safeguarding Israel’s and the West’s interests in the region. But there have also been instances of policies going wrong. One such instance is the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This was largely due to Saudi Arabia’s initial support to Sunni extremists fighting the regime in Syria. In yet another instance of foreign policy bungling, Saudi Arabia is today faced with a major crisis in neighbouring Yemen where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have virtually taken over the country.
With the new king reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s, it will be new Crown Prince Muqrin and deputy crown prince Mohammed ibn Nayef who will be running the show. Prince Mohammed was long seen as Washington’s preferred candidate. He has closely worked with the US in counter-terrorist measures in the region.
With the kingdom’s fate firmly affixed to the West, there is little hope for the oppressed people of Palestine and other Arab states.