A recent court decision sentencing a victim of gang rape to 200 lashes for un-Islamic behavior has outraged a nation accustomed to harsh punishment and has highlighted the slow pace of government reform since King Abdullah rose to power two years ago.
Judges guided by their interpretation of the Koran insinuated that the married victim, known in the media here as the Qatif girl, was immoral because she was meeting a man alone when the pair were accosted by seven knife-wielding attackers. In November, she was sentenced to six months in prison in addition to the lashing; her assailants received five-year prison terms.
Saudis are used to the public beheadings of murderers and amputations of the hands of pickpockets, but the Qatif girl’s ordeal embarrassed the country at a time Riyadh is negotiating major international business deals and emerging as a potential broker in Middle East peace talks. The government has said it will review the case, an indication that the king may move to overrule Islamic fundamentalists.
King Abdullah is widely regarded as a modernizer in a royal family balanced between those favoring change and others who insist on maintaining a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Satellite TV and the Internet have created a more open media and the king has supported local elections, even if they offer only token democracy. But liberals and human rights activists complain that hard-liners remain in control of the courts, Interior Ministry and other government agencies.
“Don’t expect big changes and sudden successes, but reform has taken root,” said Mishary A. Alnuaim, the vice dean of law and political science at King Saud University. “Modernizing religion is still slow. That’s the million-dollar question. You still find a lot of messages of intolerance.
“Much of this is about the real or imagined invasion of Western culture. . . . The religious hard-liners want to produce the argument that the Muslim world is still being victimized by Western influence and political power.”
Conservatives have been emboldened by increased global energy demands and high oil prices that have enriched the kingdom. Reliance on oil has tempered criticism from Washington and other Western capitals over the lack of women’s rights and the sweeping power of the Saudi state. Some analysts say the king, while more progressive than much of his population, fears that hurried reforms could lead to public anger and possible religious revolt similar to that which brought down the shah of Iran in 1979.
“You have a lot of dynamic change in Saudi Arabia. There’s high unemployment, lost investments and a worried middle class,” said Martrouk Faleh, a university professor who has been jailed for his reformist activities. “At the same time, the nation’s elite feel no external pressure for reform because of strategic U.S. and British business and oil interests.”
Mohammed Fahad Qahtani, a talk show host and professor at the national Diplomatic Studies Institute, calls it “rhetorical reform.”
“One royal camp truly wants change but another doesn’t,” he said. “When we had our municipal elections [in 2005] the so-called elected authorities of these councils didn’t know their mandate, and when they asked the government, they were told ‘It’s none of your business.’ ”
There have been some encouraging signs, however. The quasi-legislative advisory body to the king, known as the Shura Council, appears to have gained influence in recent years. The monarch followed the council’s suggestion to deny a 20% pay raise to the country’s religious police, known as mutaween, who patrol shopping malls chastising and arresting women whom they deem improperly veiled. The decision signaled that the king was reining in a religious force many Saudis complained had become increasingly repressive.
National dialogues have opened debates on reforms and invited limited input from critics. In 2005, municipal elections in Riyadh, Mecca and Jidda gave hope that democracy could coexist with a monarchy. Elected officials now have some latitude in overseeing development in their cities, but overall, their power is curtailed by the royal family and corruption that drives many business and construction deals.
“We want to know who gave the permit for that shopping center. How much was paid for it? This is how you stop corruption,” said Ibrahim Hamad Quayid, an elected Riyadh city councilman, whose corner window office overlooks shopping malls and tinted-glass high-rises. “The king is good, the crown princes are nice. . . . But there are those in bureaucracy who can corrupt everything, even when it comes to putting fire extinguishers in buildings.”
The risks of dissent
Challenging the government, especially the judiciary and the Interior Ministry, can still lead to trouble. In November, Abdullah Hamid, a leading reformer and human rights activist, was sentenced to four months in prison on charges of obstruction of justice and for inciting a public protest against the treatment of alleged terrorists held in Saudi prisons for two years without charges or trials. Hamid’s brother, Issa, was sentenced to six months on similar charges.
“The verdict against the Hamid brothers shows that the Saudi government’s talk of human rights reform is just that -- talk,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch.
Abdullah Hamid, who represented the wives of the suspected terrorists, was arrested in July after demanding that security police present a search warrant before entering the home of one of the women, who was also his relative. He has appealed his sentence. In 2005, Abdullah Hamid, Faleh and other activists had been pardoned by King Abdullah after serving 16 months on sentences that ran for six to nine years on convictions for criticizing the government and calling for parliamentary elections.
“Cracking down on reformers leaves no place for a peaceful civil society,” said Faleh, who is representing Hamid. “We are not allowed to question the government, not even peacefully.”
Reforming the judiciary is one of the most sensitive political challenges facing the king. The Saudis have parallel legal systems -- one of civil regulations, and the other a more prominent Sharia system based on strict adherence to the Koran. Criminal cases, including the rape of the Qatif girl, are presided over by religiously conservative judges who hold that holy texts are not bound by civil or man-made laws.
Despite discussion of merging the two systems, the religious judges hold tremendous sway; they represent a form of Islam that has kept the royal family in power for generations. They are also regarded by many Saudis as the only check and balance on the monarchy.
Yet their decisions draw frequent condemnation from international humanitarian groups and from Saudi activists for disregarding the rights of women, who are forbidden to drive or vote, and face restrictions on employment, dress and place in the family.
In November, a court found that the Qatif girl violated Islamic codes by being in the company of a man not her husband. She was sentenced to 90 lashes. When she appealed the case and went public with her ordeal, the angry judges suspended her lawyer’s court license and increased her sentence to six months in prison and 200 lashes.
Sultan Qahtani, a well-known Saudi writer, posted an essay on the Internet suggesting the royal family was preparing to move against the judiciary: “The controversy over the Girl of Qatif sentence might lead to a strong push for the government, which is inclined toward reform, to confront the other elements that insist the kingdom maintain its extreme religiosity.”
Other Saudi writers and commentators, in a rare outburst of harsh criticism, said the sentence, which is under government review, has embarrassed the nation.
“It is a tale that is more reminiscent of the cruel callous punishments meted out to women in medieval times. And yet sadly it is a case that is making headlines in the 21st century,” Lubna Hussain wrote in an op-ed piece in the Saudi-based Arab News. “The judges looked into their crystal ball and saw that she had ‘the intention of doing something bad’ and this, therefore, constituted a very good reason for her to be gang raped. Always the woman’s fault, but of course!”