By playing the clerics and institutions against the people, the House of Saud rises above the power struggle and justice itself, and continues further to consolidate its power.

A Saudi court ordered Ali al-Khawahir, a 24-year-old Saudi citizen, to be surgically paralyzed as punishment for a crime he committed as a 14-year-old, that had left his victim paralyzed. The Western media has described the court's ruling as an "eye for an eye punishment."

According to reports in the Saudi Gazette, Khawahir stabbed a childhood friend in the spine during an argument ten years ago. The punishment, as decided by the Sharia courts, is similar to other methods used to administer justice, including beheading, flogging, stoning to death and eye gouging.

This arrangement is the product of the religious and tribal structure upon which Saudi Arabia's system of justice and law enforcement is based. Although Saudi Arabia is a theocracy in which the ruler is responsible for applying Islamic law, the actual system of justice revolves around a nexus of power and money, a structure that protects the tribal and religious values that keep Saudi Arabia firmly in the control of the House of Saud.

In 1971, the judicial system was revised -- a move that consolidated the power of those at the top. Power-holders across the country were tasked with appointing a number of quasi-judicial bodies to deal with administrative and economic disputes. With no legislative authority, however, these courts required the clerics to sanction their existence. For this very purpose, the clerics set up the Institute for Religio-Legal Opinions.

The Institute has its own enforcers, known as the Mutawayyin -- The Committee for the Exhortation to Good and Interdiction to Evil – who ensure that Islamic values are implemented. The Committee's most notable moment occurred in 2002, when its members prevented young girls from leaving a burning building because they were not wearing headscarves; at least fourteen of the girls were burned to death.

Crucially, Sharia Law, applied in both the criminal and civil courts, is not codified. With no precedence or structure, except for half-a-dozen defined crimes, Saudi judges, all of whom are Wahhabi clerics, are free to implement punishments in accordance with their own beliefs.

In many ways, the system is feudal. As in medieval Europe, a blood-money payment to the victim's family is evidently often permissible in lieu of legal retribution – an alternative to punishment presumably designed to prevent bad blood between different communities or tribes. In the case of Ali al-Khawahir, the price of avoiding paralysis is one million Saudi riyals ($266,000) – a price the family cannot afford.

Money, it seems, is the ultimate guarantor, facilitating both power and compromise. In 1982, Ghazi Algosaibi, the Western-educated Saudi Minister for Industry, proclaimed that the man who takes bribes is "active and intelligent, usually enjoying the respect of others."

As some families are able to afford such financial redress, for those with wealth or influence, therefore, certain crimes are alluring and unconstrained modes of behavior. More often than not, those who can afford to pay blood-money are clerics or members of the 3000-strong royal family. Recently, for example, in Saudi Arabia a "celebrity" cleric raped and murdered his 5-year-old daughter, but was released after he paid the prescribed blood money to the child's mother. The King, however, after a public outcry, ultimately overruled the court and placed the cleric back in prison.

Under such a system, however, not only can rich males can buy their way out of the judicial system, but according to one Saudi human rights group, the law rules that a father cannot be executed for murdering his children, and husbands cannot be executed for killing their wives.

Any discussion of inequality before the law however, is futile. Saudi's justice seems designed solely to protect the power-holders. The legitimacy of the justice system, almost entirely based on Sharia law, is guaranteed by the Wahhabi clerics, who are rewarded with authority by the royal family.

The maintenance of "traditional Islamic values" therefore often seems to have more to do with the preservation of power and as an officially sanctioned outlet for the pathological wishes of fundamentalist clerics.

The Saudi armed forces also help to maintain the ruling family's hold on the reins of power. While the clerics have their own enforcers and institutions, the National Guard chiefly consists of the descendants of those tribesmen who once fought with Abdul ibn Saud, the tribal leader who "founded" the House of Saud and first brought control over the entire country.

During the recent waves of protest throughout the Arab World, in Saudi Arabia there were only a few instances of dissent. The al-Saud regime, from what one can determine, did not even enter into discussion about any real political reform. Saudi Arabia suffers huge youth unemployment and its per capita income is less than that of neighboring Bahrain, where there were huge public protests.

In a recent report for the Council on Foreign Relations, F. Gregory Gause III, an academic at the University of Vermont, identified three key reasons for the suppression of all political discontent. First, at the beginning of the "Arab Spring," the Saudi government provided two large payouts, equivalent to two months' salary, for government employees, military personnel, and retired workers from large private-sector employers. Additional financial support was provided for unemployed youths through an expanded benefits system.

Second, security forces, recruited from tribes and regions which the regime regards as particularly loyal, were deployed to areas where the Shia population was involved in some small disturbances in February 2011. These forces demonstrated "that they were willing to arrest and shoot demonstrators, thus deterring larger protests."

Finally, the regime utilized its patronage networks by calling upon the tribes, clans and religious courts to mobilize and support the regime. On March 6, the Council of Senior Clerics, the most important body within the religious-legal establishment, issued a statement forbidding demonstrations. Gause concludes that, "Al-Saud, aided both by their historical ties to the Wahhabi movement, central Arabian tribes, and important families, and by their vast oil wealth, have been able to build and sustain a broad network of support in the country."

A number of Arab writers have drawn attention to the nature of the Saudi state. In his book Beyond Oil, the Kuwaiti academic Muhammed Ruhaimi concludes that, "Vested interests continue to block any rational or open political development."

Saudi Arabia is paralyzed by the past. Immense oil-wealth has not brought about development; it has cemented the country's tribalism and backwardness.

While it is possible that the king may commute the sentence handed down to Ali al-Khawahir, such an action only reminds the Saudi people of where true authority lies. The royal family is the source of legitimacy for the clerical courts and tribual institutions, which in turn guarantee absolute support of the royal family. By playing the clerics and institutions against the people, the House of Saud rises above justice and above the power struggle as it continues further to consolidate its power.

Related Topics:  Saudi Arabia  |  Samuel Westrop

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