Dr. Ali Alyami, a U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, is the courageous founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR).
CDHR is a small, non-profit organization established in 2004 to "emphasize the importance of empowering the Saudi people (both men and women) through peaceful democratic reforms without which the country will continue to be ruled by a constellation of autocratic and theocratic men who have tremendous influence that can be and has been used to crush the aspirations of the people, to blackmail the international community, or to plunge it into religious and economic pandemonium."
Clarion Senior Fellow Clare Lopez (who is also a CDHR Board member) recently interviewed Dr. Alyami on the critical changes taking place in Saudi Arabia and especially focused on the evolving role of women in the conservative Kingdom.
Clare Lopez: Dr. Alyami, how is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia changing, even as the first generation of Saudi family rulers passes away?
Dr. Ali Alyami: Like all societies, the Saudi people have been deeply affected by modernity and its fast evolving demands. Despite the Saudi autocratic and theocratic ruling elites' severe censorship of all forms of information and depictions of social, political and educational evolutions as the infidel's conspiracy, the flow of uncontrollable information exposed the Saudi people to the international community, different lifestyles, democratic systems, women's participation in national life, freedom of expression, dress codes and everything in between.
The most effective game changer is the social media of which the Saudis, young and old, religious and liberals, men and women are frequent users. Social media have enabled the Saudi population to communicate with each other for the first time in their lives. This alone is changing the Saudi people's perceptions of themselves and of each other. They are finding out that the system is dividing them along religious, gender, ethnic and regional lines in order to manipulate them and prevent them from achieving national unity and identity. They are finding out that they have common grievances that are caused by the same source, the Saudi/Wahhabi ruling dynasties and their rigid and rigidly controlled institutions.
There is no segment in Saudi society that has been more affected by modernity than Saudi women. After being marginalized in the name of Allah and Islam, many of them became educated in schools, from traveling, listening to news and watching satellite TV channels. They are learning how to organize, question male authority and reject the clerics' teachings and interpretation of religion. In short, they are changing Saudi society in ways men could not or were not willing to do. They are using the system to assert themselves and demand their legitimate rights.
Lopez: Are the successors of that first generation - the second and third generations - very different in their outlook on Islam and the world?
Alyami: The second and third royal generations are very different from their fathers and grandfathers. They grew up with all the things that modernity has to offer. They did not live in mud palaces like their parents during the early stages of their lives and they did not have to embrace the nomadic traditions which their fathers had to do in order to appease the public and keep them under control.
Many of the second and more so, the third generation, were born to non-Saudi mothers who introduced them to a different way of life that often clashes with Saudi traditions and way of life. Like their counterparts in society, royals grew up with and use modern technologies to communicate with each other and with those in society who dare to engage them in sensitive issues such as royal corruption, exploitation, oppression and the economic gaps between the royals and the disenfranchised masses. All of this led to a gradual disconnect from the past, religion and a new perception of the world around them.
Lopez: What are the signs of reform and modernization that you see inside Saudi Arabia today?
Alyami: Beside modern infrastructure, the most obvious signs of changes in Saudi Arabia are the number of educated women and their demands to be included and counted. As noted above, they are changing the country. The Arabian Peninsula was isolated from the world for centuries. This is partially due to lack of incentives for anyone to go there, but partially the system did not want the populace to be exposed to new ideas, different ways of lives, non-religious (non-Wahhabism) information and people of other faiths whom the Saudi/Wahhabi ruling men consider dirty ("pigs") and unbelievers. The system has embarked upon projects, albeit cosmetic, it once considered the inventions of the infidels to divide people and turn them against authority. An example of this is the 2005 municipal elections from which women were barred.
Lopez: How does that compare with the situation in other Gulf monarchies?
Alyami: All of the smaller Gulf Arab states are more socially and politically relaxed. This is due to the fact that they were all under the British mandate. Having had seen the actions of the Wahhabi/Saudi revisionists next door, in what became Saudi Arabia in 1932, they wanted to spare their protectorates the misery the Saudis were experiencing under the Saudi/Wahhabi alliance. Women can drive in the Gulf Arab city states. There is more political participation through parliaments, freer media and small numbers of civil societies which are barred in Saudi Arabia. Also, the populations of the small Gulf Arab states have had more exposure to other nationalities due to trade traffic, especially in the pearl industry decades ago.
Lopez: How would you describe the situation and status of women in Saudi Arabia today?
Alyami: In centuries past, women in Saudi Arabia had more freedom of movement and opportunity to work on farms and in herding than they do today. They did not have to cover themselves in black and some regions, they breastfed their infants in public places and did not cover their hair until after marriage. They sat and ate with men and welcomed male strangers when their family men were not around. They had it a lot better prior to the Saudi/Wahhabi occupation of their lands in the 19th and 20th centuries.
When the Saudi/Wahhabi alliance took hold of the country, though, they imposed their value system on all peoples of Arabia, but women were the recipients of the Saudi/Wahhabi lethal dogma. The Wahhabis became and still are obsessed with female sexuality as exemplified by genital mutilations and honor killings. In addition, one of the Saudi/Wahhabis' main ruling tools is "divide and conquer" – and gender segregation served that objective.
However, Saudi women are becoming more assertive, defiant and vocal. This is due to their education, access to communication tools such as the social media and their ability to travel to other countries. As tragic as it was, the vicious attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, by mostly Saudi nationals helped the Saudi people, especially women, immensely. The global media's focus on Saudi Arabia exposed the system's atrocious treatment of its people, especially women. Like Saudi pro-democracy men, Saudi women took advantage of the world's attention and began to demand their citizenship rights. This has worked successfully and there is no going back.
Lopez: Is that situation different depending on whether the women are Saudi or of other nationalities (such as foreign workers)? Or depending on socio-economic status?
Alyami: It depends on the nationalities of foreign workers. If they are Westerners, then they have more privileges than other women including Saudi women. If they are Asians and Africans, they are treated worse than Saudi women.
Lopez: Does the power of Islam and of the religious establishment still dominate women's lives and limit their potential and contribution to society in Saudi Arabia as they used to?
Alyami: The power of the Saudi system and its twisted interpretation of Islam and institutionalized discriminatory policies against Saudi women are more responsible for women's oppression than Islam itself. Muslim women in most parts of the Muslim world are not as oppressed, marginalized and restricted as Saudi women. It's the system that needs change.