Within the first months of ‘Abdullah’s term as King, the Saudi government pursued a number of policies to improve the Kingdom’s economic profile. Saudi Arabia became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the limits were raised on foreign stakes in sectors such as banking, telecommunications services, wholesale, retail, and franchising. These reforms were intended to answer the economic priorities of diversifying from dependence on oil revenues, finding jobs for young Saudis, and opening up foreign investment. But they had another function too, one that was more transparent in a centerpiece of the early period of ‘Abdullah’s reign: the establishment of “economic cities” where, freed from the influence of the Wahhabi clerics, Saudis would live, work, and study as productive members of a modern economy.

The lead project was the King ‘Abdullah Economic City, which was announced in December 2005. Three more have followed for Jizan, Hail, and Medina. For now little more than an expanse of desert by the sea north of Jeddah, the King Abdullah City has been sold in publicity material as a hypermodern, eco-friendly mélange of port and industrial zone, financial center, residential quarters, luxury resort, and schools and colleges — a Dubai on the Red Sea coast. With images of men and women in beach wear, its developer Emaar Economic City, a subsidiary of Dubai’s Emaar, proclaimed in 2005 “the dawn of a kingdom in a new colour.”[1] Officials let it be known in foreign media that women would be allowed to drive cars, schools and universities would be co-educational, the gender restrictions in public places would be relaxed, and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s entertainment firm Rotana could operate cinema houses. Housing two million people by its completion around 2020, the city was to be a model of urban renewal and modern education, as well as a zone where the rules of society were put in abeyance. Though no one has said so publicly, the city was intended to be a liberal enclave in Saudi Arabia’s sea of religious conservatism. As such, the project encapsulated the hopes of socio-economic reform that the Saudi liberal class invested in King Abdullah when the long, turbulent era of King Fahd finally came to an end.

The economic city/liberal enclave innovation was part of a wider shift engendered by the hijacking of civilian airliners in the United States by an al-Qa‘ida cell on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks were a serious blow to Saudi prestige and created panic within the ruling dynasty for the future of the state in which they had monopolized political power since 1932. Fifteen of the attackers were Saudi, and they acted in the name of a group headed by a Saudi, and driven by an ideology shared in essence by the Saudi class of Wahhabi religious scholars, or ‘ulama’ (the precepts of jihad and takfir, or holy war and pronouncing other Muslims and non-Muslims as infidels). The reformist wing of the royal family led by ‘Abdullah seized the moment to gain the upper hand over his hawkish half-brothers Sultan and Nayif, who saw no need to upset the clerics by reducing their grip on society through the mosque, education system, the judiciary, and their coercive apparatus, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. ‘Abdullah’s calculation was that Saudi Arabia needed to offer a better image to the world if it wanted to challenge the idea fashionable among some circles close to the Bush Administration of toppling the regime, as was of course planned for Iraq. That meant smoothing the rougher edges of al-Wahhabiyya, though nothing as drastic as breaking the historical alliance with its ‘ulama’.

The Saudi-Wahhabi state contains other liberal zones where Wahhabi social control is relaxed. They include parts of the city of Jeddah where some restaurants play music and allow unrelated men and women to sit together, on the assumption that the religious police will not drop by. Jeddah’s summer festival has included a cinema section since 2006, and concerts have featured rappers, reflecting the more liberal social attitudes of the Hejaz region compared to the Najd. The religious police generally avoid the diplomatic district in Riyadh and the town of Dhahran on the Gulf coast that houses state oil firm, Aramco. They maintain a light presence in neighboring Khobar, but a strong presence in the more conservative Dammam in the same Eastern Province vicinity. This year the King ‘Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was inaugurated at a lavish ceremony north of Jeddah next to the economic city, the latest addition to the small set of liberal enclaves.

KAUST has been fêted in Western media as one of the final gambles of an octogenarian monarch in his twilight years to outflank the repressive clerics.[2] KAUST breaks with tradition on many fronts. It is run by Saudi Aramco, widely seen as the country’s most efficient and modern corporate institution. It has a foreigner, from Singapore, as its President, and faculty hired from around the world at immense expense. It opens with a huge $10 billion endowment said to be from the King’s own pocket. Its curricula are designed by Western consultants rather than the Education Ministry where, despite the hype, Wahhabism still reigns. There is no question of marauding religious police seeking to impose gender segregation on the premises.

It is not unlikely that this will be the fate of the King ‘Abdullah Economic City. Domestic media has never presented the economic city concept in the way it was described to foreigners. When foreign media used the phrase “liberal enclave” in 2008, there was a visceral reaction from conservatives.[3] The government has not even hinted that the subsequent economic cities announced for Hail, Jizan, and Medina would be similarly segregated from Wahhabi power.[4] Religious conservatives have consolidated their position after the period of intense Western pressure for reform and brief sense of empowerment that liberals enjoyed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The maneuvering of Interior Minister Prince Nayif this year to secure the succession while Crown Prince Sultan wrestles abroad with intestinal cancer has further emboldened the conservatives. Nayif, who is the main backer of the religious police, declared in June 2009 that they were on a par with the security forces in his eyes.[5]

‘Abdullah removed the chief of the morality police in February 2009, in what was interpreted at the time as a sign of the “reform King” pushing his agenda further. The Commission was embroiled in a number of publicity embarrassments in 2007 and 2008, including the death in their custody of two men. The family of one of them, Salman al-Hurasy, say they witnessed him being beaten to death. The King also appointed a new Minister of Justice and removed Shaykh Salih al-Luhaydan from his post as head of the Shari‘a courts, moves that were interpreted as a boost to ‘Abdullah’s plans for judicial reforms in line with WTO membership that have aroused clerical suspicion. But on the ground events spoke of a different trend. The Jeddah film festival was inexplicably cancelled at the last minute in July, and clerics involved with the morality police used the press to attack other fixtures of the Jeddah summer festival that also were stopped.[6]

Liberals and conservatives have been locked in fierce debate since the 1980s. Although at the level of elites, this debate is unresolved, religious conservatives are by far the dominant force in society (as the results of limited municipal elections in 2005 demonstrated). Generally, they are the dominant force because of the fundamental structure of the state, a division of power between the ruling dynasty which controls state policy and the Wahhabi clerics, who control society. But more specifically, they are dominant because the convergence of three events — the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the seizing of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Wahhabi zealots opposed to the royal family — caused a panicked Al Saud to retrench and reinforce the social control mechanism by further empowering the forces of al-Wahhabiyya. Saudi society as a result went through a kind of “re-Islamization” in the 1980s after a period of laxity in the 1970s, when the regime felt secure in the wake of secular Arab nationalism’s discrediting in the 1967 Arab-Israel war, though of course it was not enough for the so-called “Sahwa” clerics — subsequently arrested for their dissent in the 1990s — who wanted still more.

Rather than tackle the unresolved debate between liberals and conservatives, modernizers in the regime have promoted bubbles of modernity as an alternative. Yet even these liberal enclaves are coming under pressure. Many of the liberals, a term that embraces a loose collection of leftists, Arab nationalists, human rights activists, and Western-oriented elites, have crowded around their patrons among Al Saud for protection and solace. Thus, editor Jamal Khashoggi, who served as Prince Turki al-Faysal’s media advisor at the Saudi Embassy in London and Washington, attacks the ‘ulama’ for their extremism from his pulpit in al-Watan, the paper owned by Prince Turki’s brother Prince Khaled where Khashoggi is editor-in-chief. Thus, Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, a rights activist who has suffered for his efforts to catalogue and publicize Interior Ministry abuse, says he looks to the royal family as a “safety valve.”[7] And thus a Saudi Prince could say: “[Saudi Arabia] is one of the rare cases in the world with a liberal government and a conservative population and society.”[8]

Those who have sought a clear program of political reform that could offer a way out of the impasse have been thrown in jail or put on trial. Thirteen were arrested in 2004 after presenting a petition for a constitutional monarchy, three of whom were put on trial, and nine, including three who wrote another petition, were detained without trial in 2007. But influential clerics who involved themselves in previous calls for reform — indeed, they led the movement of dissent during 1991-4 — have been silent. They have all the incentive. Their system of social control remains intact, despite the half-hearted attempts to challenge them. As Sahwa preacher Muhsin al-Awaji says bluntly: “This country was set up on religious bases and it will stay that way forever. It can never change.”[9]


[1]. “Saudi to get $26 bln makeover with tourism project,” Reuters, December 20, 2005.

[2]. “This might just be the last chance the king gets to institutionalize his progressive legacy and improve the future of his troubled land.seem,” Newsweek wrote; “The King Versus the Radicals,” Newsweek, May 26, 2008.

[3]. The author of this article was the subject of the attack. News website http:sabq.net ran several stories including “sahafi reuters hammond yuwasil talfiq al-akhbar ‘an al-saudiyya.” Note the comments that followed in the web forum: www.sabq.org/inf/news-action-show-id-8281.htm.

[4]. Emaar Economic City CEO Fahd Al-Rasheed talked of King ‘Abdullah City surrounded by a fence: “It is private property so there is some sort of need to have some sort of separation.” Interview with author, July 2008.

[5]. “Key Saudi prince gives backing to religious police,” Reuters, June 17, 2009.

[6]. See “Saudi religious police crack down on summer festivals,” Reuters, August 26, 2009.

[7]. “Without them I don’t know what could happen to this country,” Mugaiteeb said; interview with author, September 2009.

[8]. Interview with Prince Bandar bin Saud bin Khalid Al Saud, March 2006.

[9]. Interview with author, August 2008.