By Clare Lopez
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.
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