Among the internal contradictions Saudi Arabia faces are that its population is over-educated in areas such as the theocratic ideology of Wahhabism, the monarchy’s official interpretation of Islam –- but that this education is of little use for gaining employment in a modern economy subject to the global financial cycle and fluctuations in energy pricing.

Saudi joblessness has grown recently, last year reaching 15 percent of the workforce. Economic woes are aggravated by the outsized number of immigrant laborers in the country – one out of four residents in a population of almost 30 million.

Many “guest workers”’ have come to Saudi Arabia because of the bizarre Wahhabi strictures on women. As 80,000 Saudi women own motor vehicles but are prohibited from operating them, the kingdom has long had a disproportionate demand for drivers.

Women’s issues have therefore, and perhaps predictably, become central to the process of social change – a development many Westerners would find counter-intuitive, but which nonetheless exists. King Abdullah has taken measures to make the kingdom a normal country, comparable to its neighbors, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, where women may dress and drive as they wish. Reforms include the foundation of a new educational campus, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), where women students are exempt from wearing the all-covering cloak known as the abaya, and niqab, the face-veil.

King Abdullah’s main enemies in his campaign to change Saudi Arabia for the better include members of his own ruling family as well as the entrenched Wahhabi clerical apparatus.

The repression of women is a barrier the Wahhabi clerics believe they can reinforce against any step away from their own status as monitors of Saudi morals and customs.

Most recently, as reported on 18 March by the Saudi newspaper Arab News [here: http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article31538.ece], Yusuf Al-Ahmed, a professor of sharia law, called for a radical change in Islamic tradition. Al-Ahmed teaches at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh – a Wahhabi stronghold known to Saudis as ‘the terrorist factory’. According to him, women should not be allowed to join men during the ritual of tawaf, which consists of walking around the Ka’ba, the cube-shaped building of monotheism at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca – Islam’s holiest site. Rather, a separate area should be constructed for women’s use. Tawaf is practiced in the hajj pilgrimage, which is limited to one week at the end of the Islamic lunar calendar year, as well as during umrah, the ‘lesser hajj’ which may be undertaken at any time.

In 1400 years of Islamic history, women have never been segregated from men during pilgrimages and prayer-visits to the Grand Mosque. The opinion of professor Al-Ahmed follows on a series of similar efforts by Wahhabi reactionaries, including a demand that women wear niqab during pilgrimages – another previously unknown burden on women.

Al-Ahmed’s demand is connected to the Saudi drive for demolition of the architectural heritage of Mecca, especially its Ottoman legacy. This campaign of vandalism has been undertaken on the pretext of accommodating more hajj and umrah visitors, but Al-Ahmed argued that with the ‘modernization’ of the sacred precincts, women would be more susceptible to ‘immodesty’ in tawaf. His solution: to rebuild the Grand Mosque with two separate floors for the use of women alone, in their circumambulation of the Ka’ba, and at prayer.

The hajj and umrah pilgrimages embody liberation from sin in Islam, which is why women have never been required to cover their faces or occupy separate spaces in the Grand Mosque.

But debate is widening as the demand for change presses against the Saudi order.

The day after Al-Ahmed appealed for new restrictions on pious Muslim women, Isa Al-Ghaith, a judge in the Summary Court in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, repudiated the proposal [here: http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article32118.ece]. “Such opinions must be totally rejected. The issuers of such fatwas must be put in their place,” the judge said. Al-Ghaith called for Al-Ahmed to be ‘re-educated’ and ‘re-guided’ – i.e., inducted into the Saudi regime’s programme for separating terrorists and their sympathisers from their extremist views.

The sensible opinion of the judge demonstrates that as discussion of the country’s future expands and evolves, the Wahhabi clerics are losing their hold over Saudi society. When a prominent member of the judiciary in Riyadh, a city built by the Wahhabis, pronounces against them, the end of their domination may soon be at hand.

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