Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Reading around the world: Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Capitol, Riyadh

I chose Saudi Arabia not because I know nothing about it, but because what I did know invoked a very unusual reaction from me: one of intense dislike and growing prejudice. Between scraps of knowledge about the place Saudi Arabia has within Islam, most of what I knew came from anguished news articles about yet another Sri Lankan maid being sent home after her Saudi employers forced her to eat glass, cut off her hand, or attempted to stone her to death. Foreign domestic labor can be a quick rout out of poverty – at any one time about 10% of the adult population of Sri Lanka persues higher wages and opportunity outside the country. But the chance comes a huge risk to body and soul, especially in opressive societies which have no legal protections for foreign laborers. This kind of abuse isn't limited to Saudi boarders – a couple months ago the Saudi ambassador to India fled under diplomatic immunity after raping his maid. So my image of Saudi Arabia was that of an exceptionally brutal Qatar or Emirates – a country where citizens live off oil royalties and concentrate frustrated energy on oppressing women and brutalizing the household help.

A Saudi Royal Palace

So when I read 'On Saudi Arabia' I was surprised to learn that 40% of Saudis live in poverty, and 60% cannot afford to buy homes.  Religion may be the opium of the masses, but foreign labor is the opium of labor is the opium of the Saudi economy, keeping it breathing but sedated and stagnant. Social stigmas prevent Saudis from taking the jobs which are plentiful in their country – service sector and manual labor are bountiful, but filled with cheaper and more compliant Philippinos, Ethiopians and Bangladeshis. Meanwhile a decrepit, memorization based education system fails to prepare Saudis for skilled jobs, so even doctors are imported. Coveted government jobs are choked by the leviathan royal family, as each of the 7,000 Princes need an adequately ostentatious official tittle. Women meanwhile, are gradually overtaking their male peers on every level of education, but are prohibited from working almost any job by the risk of interacting with an unrelated male, a possibility made dangerous by the vigilance of religious police to seek out and punish such forbidden fraternization.

A slum in Riyadh 

Clearly, with a economy resting on a limited natural resource and capped by the largess of the vast royal family, the current state of the Saudi economy is unsustainable. Saudi Arabia is a welfare state choked by a serpentine bureaucracy and a royal family of around 30,000 members, who dispense favors, scholarships, even placement at good hospitals on a case by case basis. Saudis watch the growing divide between the royal and the common family with resentment. Karen House presents the country as wavering on the edge of a deep divide in Saudi society: reformers who demand a more equitable, modernized society which allows space for dissent, discussion, and maybe even hints of democracy. The other side seeks to solve Saudi's problems with an even further retreat into Islam, though current Saudi society is ironically far more conservative than it was 1,400 years ago during the Prophet's time. Fundamentalists conveniently ignore that Mohammed readily interacted with unrelated women, invited them into the mosques from which they are currently banned, and respected and consulted his wives.

Change in either direction is likely to throw the country into full social unrest, as it would enrage the other side of the political spectrum. The family so far has chosen to vacillate – making modernizing reforms when confident and falling back on fundamentalist Wahhabism when spooked. The play to radical Islam by the royal family is a cynical one, as wealthy Saudis frequently break the rules they publicly espouse. It has thus far maintained social cohesion and kept the devout more concerned with the afterlife than the injustices of this world. But the facade begins to crack under widening inequality and flagrant flouting of the religious commandment to live a simple life. Islam has escaped the control of the Royals – even people on government business can be harassed by the government employed religious police.

Saudi's future remains uncertain. But one thing for sure – I have significantly more empathy for the people trapped in the stagnant milieu of Saudi Arabia. The look into the country was not a pretty one, but it revealed a very human quest for agency in an oppressive and unjust society. 

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