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A Revolution In Saudi Arabia!

This is a cross-post by Shiraz Maher of the Focus on Islamism blog

Is it just me or has the whole world gone mad?

Yesterday the Spittoon revealed that Inayat Bunglawala – the Mr Bean of modern Islamism – wrote an article promoting gay rights and calling for greater tolerance of homosexuality within the Muslim community. Now, I’ve got news of a remarkable story from Saudi Arabia.

Last month the Kingdom inaugurated the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, a coastal town on the Red Sea about 50 miles north of Jeddah. There’s lots to marvel at, as their slick English language website reveals.

The entire 14 square mile site was built in two years, hosts one of only fourteen supercomputers in the world (named Shaheen after the Peregrine Falcon) and has invested $1.5 billion in state of the art technology including three-dimensional imaging facilities.

But then the Saudi’s have always had money – putting up impressive buildings and importing the latest gadgets is hardly that impressive. What matters about this university is not the infrastructure but the fact that King Abdullah has made it a staging post for his battle with Wahhabi clerics.

KAUST is the first coeducational university in Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah has banned the Kingdom’s much feared religious police – the mutaween – from entering its grounds. For the first time, there is a part of Saudi society where their authority does not reach. Traditionally the House of al-Saud has had to rely on the Wahhabi leadership to validate their rule. In return, the Royal Family has given them sweeping powers to impose Shariah law throughout the Kingdom. That marriage of convenience has been under constant pressure since 9/11, although this is the first sign that someone from the ruling family is prepared to weaken the iron grip of the mutaween.

In addition to being fully coeducational women are also allowed to drive and remove their headscarves on campus. Freemixing between the sexes will similarly be encouraged – something that can still land you in jail elsewhere in the Kingdom! Classes will also be delivered in English.

Naturally, there’s been a clerical pushback against these moves. Sheikh Sa’ad al-Shathry immediately resigned from the Supreme Committee of Scholars, the state-sanctioned body for Saudi’s Wahhabi clerics. He demanded KAUST’s closure, arguing:

Mixing is a great sin and a great evil. When men mix with women, their hearts burn and they will be diverted from their main goal [of]…education.

The fact King Abdullah is willing to challenge the Supreme Committee is encouraging. It simply wouldn’t have happened a decade ago. I spent 14 years in Saudi Arabia and have a vast array of contacts there. The general view of King Abdullah among most of them – and these are young Saudis keen for reform – seems positive. In short, he’s seen as a moderniser operating in a difficult climate.

The intricacies of this are explained by the peculiarities of the House of al-Saud. King Abdullah succeeded Fahd in 2005 after he died from pneumonia. However, his ascension to the throne was not straight-forward. Although Abdullah was next in line, he was only a half-brother to King Fahd. The next five behind him in the line of succession were all full-brothers of Fahd who were collectively known as the ‘Sudairi Six’, after the powerful clan from which they hailed. Abdullah, by contrast, was always seen as an outsider. That almost certainly fuelled his more progressive outlook and desire for reform – but has also meant that he faces a constant battle to drive through his initiatives against the powerful clique of Sudairi brothers who are much more conservative and arrayed against him.

During a trip to Saudi last year, when I reported on the new al-Qaeda rehabilitation centres the government has created there, one influential commentator told me, ‘the problem is that Abdullah is already 84 years old, he doesn’t have much time to make a difference. I keep praying that he has another 84 years in him’.

The creation of KAUST is a manifestation of Abdullah’s desire for change, and the aspirations of many young Saudis. The struggle for further reform is bound to be fiercely contested by Wahhabi clerics who still retain unprecedented powers over social life there. The future of the Kingdom however will be decided neither by the religious elite nor King Abdullah – but by the Sudairi’s and where they decide to position themselves.

*To see student life in KAUST for yourself, here’s footage of a party being held there during Ramadan last month. Unveiled women singing and dancing with men – I never thought I’d see the day!

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