Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Fri, Jan 8th, 2016

It Just Takes Time…

Saudi Arabia is all over the news these days, more for its beheadings and diplomatic impasse with Iran than the ongoing 10-month bombing campaign against Yemen.


Imagine what would happen if Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s three-decade-old deputy crown prince and the country’s defense minister, sat down for an interview with a respectable British journal. Well, he did just that on January 4th with The Economist and you can read the transcript here and follow up with the journal’s analysis here.

Although the journalist touched all the issues that make Saudi Arabia a news story, the scripted answers by the young deputy crown prince make it seem as though the Saudis have done nothing wrong. When asked why a prominent Shi’a critic was beheaded, the prince said: “And the court did not, at all, make any distinction between whether or not a person is Shi’ite or Sunni.”Now there is breaking news. And how could any one doubt the court’s judgement since a lawyer was present? Moreover the prince expressed shock that Iran took offense at what he calls “a Saudi citizen who committed a crime in Saudi Arabia, and a decision made by a Saudi court.” When asked “Do you consider Iran to be your biggest enemy?”, the immediate response was “We hope not.” I am sure this removes a considerable amount of stress from the ayatollahs. At least I hope so.

So if the royally privileged prince hopes that Iran is not their biggest enemy, where does that leave Yemen? The interviewer was quite blunt in asking “One area where there might be considered to be what you might call proxy conflict between you is Yemen. You are the architect of the war in Yemen; when will it end?” So here is a startling revelation. It was not his foolish young (not militarily trained) mind’s idea:

First of all I’m not the architect of the Yemen operation. We are a country of institutions. The decision to proceed with the operation in Yemen, this is a decision to do with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, with the intelligence, the council of ministers, and the council of security and political affairs, and then all recommendations are submitted to His Majesty, and the decision to go forward is with His Majesty. My job as the minister of defence is to implement whatever decision his majesty has ordered. And I will submit any threats that I see. And to make preparations for any threats.

For this, I think the young prince dipped into the archives of the Nuremberg Trials after the fall of Hitler’s Germany, which also was a country of institutions with a supreme leader, indeed one that Turkey’s Erdogan thinks was a prime example of a stable government.

There is much to learn, depending on how you define learning, in the whole interview. It seems the Saudis are not worried about running out of oil money nor how to find jobs for the 70 percent of their population under the age of 30, nor the civil response to introducing taxes that are not called taxes and are without representation. After all, as guardians of the two holy mosques, the prince bragged that “We have four million square metres in Mecca alone of unutilised state-owned lands.” Think of all the shopping malls and replicas of Big Ben yet to be built. I am sure the Prophet Muhammad himself would be proud that “increasing the numbers of tourists and pilgrims to Mecca and Medina will give more value to state-owned lands in both cities.” All that medieval spiritual reverence about the pilgrimage as a pillar of Islam is really about making a profit for the royal family, which is the state, which is Islam. As the prince notes with pride, there is a Thatcher revolution going on in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabi/ARAMCO privatization über alles. No wonder all those wrong-headed Shi’a are envious of the Saudis.

Then there is the issue of women.  Consider the following exchange:

What about broader social reform? How can you create a high-productivity modern economy with a vibrant tourist industry, a vibrant healthcare sector, a vibrant education industry, if women can’t drive, if women can’t travel without permission.

– Women today can travel. They work in the business sector…

But with the permission of their family members.

– This is different. When you’re talking about permission, you’re talking about women who do not reach a certain age. Not a woman who’s responsible for herself. This has its own social criteria and religious criteria. Some of them are things we can change, and some things even if we want to change we cannot do that. But I guarantee to you that there are no obstacles in the way of women furthering their participation and working in the…

So why is Saudi Arabia’s rate of women in the workforce, 18%, one of the lowest in the world?

– Culture of women in Saudi Arabia; the woman herself. She’s not used to working. She needs more time to accustom herself to the idea of work. A large percentage of Saudi women are used to the fact of staying at home. They’re not used to being working women. It just takes time.

So women can travel, but they cannot drive. A woman who is responsible for herself (whatever this means) does not need family permission to work. And there are no obstacles for women participating in the work force. So here is the problem. It seems that so few Saudi women work because they are “used to the fact of staying home” and “not used to being working women.” I suppose that if a southern plantation owner had been interviewed before the American Civil War about slaves, he would have insisted that these slaves captured in Africa and sold in New Orleans were used to being slaves and not used to being free.

But, of course, in overtly modern, quasi-cosmopolitan, and institution-driven Saudi Arabia the problem is that old traditional scourge of culture, culture in fact being “the woman herself.” Pity the poor reformist-minded partisans of patriarchy who would gladly give women driving rights, working rights and perhaps even fashion rights (but not going so far as to bring up the controversial issue of sexual rights), since the reason women have so few rights in their kingdom is the women’s own fault. But, there is hope, suggests the young thirty-something prince. “It just takes time.” Just not this time in this place.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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