Insulting Royalty- Saudi Arabia and Beyond

Many countries with royal families tend to be extremely protective about defending their honor. Thailand was recently in the news because of the jailing of an Australian writer for insulting the monarchy and his subsequent pardon. A few weeks later a British professor ran from Thailand with similar charges against him. Several years ago Spanish magazines were pulled off the shelves for depicting insulting images of the royalty.

Saudi Arabia is similar to many of these countries regarding the high regard for the royal family, with an additional aspect- the Saudi monarchy are the ACTUAL rulers of the country, not just figureheads! This seems to elevate them to an even higher standard where criticism is not allowed at all and makes people very sensitive about the topic. Blogs that criticize the Saudi royals are blocked in the country as are several human rights web-sites.  Defacing the currency is a big no-no as it has images of the royalty on it. People discuss issues like corruption off the record in “safe” settings with trusted friends only. 

These cultural sensitivities were highlighted last week when the coach of the Al-Hilal football (soccer) team was fired and told to leave the country because he threw down his shirt that had the picture of Crown Prince Sultan on it. This happened right after his team won at the Crown Prince Cup. The organizers of the match did not allow the whole team to come to the podium; in anger the coach did not go to the podium and threw his shirt. The next day he was fired. His apology was not accepted.

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Change in Saudi Arabia- Short and Long Term

As we have all read by now, Saudi Arabia has made some changes in its government and brought in more moderates. Some changes were expected, some were nominal while others are profound.

A lot of people focused on the first woman appointee as it heralds something new, however bringing in women is an inevitable change. No matter how much certain segments of society fight this change, it will happen – and within a generation. The reasons are obvious in a country where women will be majority business owners within a decade: demographics, telecommunications and education. By the way, a week or so before these changes, the first female Saudi cultural attache was announced for Canada.

Some are talking about the change of the Justice minister which is in line with the judicial reform that started a few weeks/months ago. Plans to overhaul the system were put into action several months ago.

Others are talking about the changes in education. This is aligned with the changes in curriculum that have already been started, as well as some of the “experimental” programs that have been tried out.

Changes in SAMA, Health and Info/Culture (along with all the other changes) were necessary for stability. The word is that several people maintained their positions/ranks however they have been reformed by internal pressure- better to reform yourself than be replaced!

The next big area is of course the change in the Hayy’a head (Commission for Promotion of Virtue and  Prevention of Vice). This is where it starts to get really interesting, not because of the change in person but because of the change in status quo in the ongoing tussle between the reform agenda of the administration and the religious right. There is a constant thrust-and-parry dance between society and the Hayy’a; the King has come down on the side of society.

The most profound and long term changes are the ones in the Shoura Council. Changing the head is of  course newsworthy. However this is the first time that all four Sunni schools of thought are being represented in the Shoura Council, not just the Hanbali school. Avoiding a history lesson, Wahabbism/Salafism is an off-shoot of the Hanbali school.

Including the other schools of thought on the Shoura Council dilutes the impact of Hanbalism/Wahabbism/Salafism. This is a long term change that has the potential to change the country in unprecedented ways; it effectively weakens the alliance between the House of Saud and the idealogues of  Ibn Abdul Wahab. There are different extreme end points that can come out of this (over the next few decades):

  • the door can be opened to move from a direct monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy
  • the religious right can feel threatened and destabilize the legitimacy of the monarchy
  • the country moves in the direction of becoming the next Dubai

Reality will probably lie somewhere between these extremes. The reign of King Abdullah has initiated the internal reform process. Crown Prince Sultan will have the choice of continuing on this path or reversing its course.

Several news story that cover the recent government changes are given below: