As Saudi Arabia has been spared the upheavals seen in other Arab lands – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen – the Saudi authorities were so confident of their popular support and the legitimacy it confers that they led the occupation of Bahrain, where a mainly Shia protest movement disturbed the sleep of the Sunni rulers.
Saudi Arabia is also committed to social reform, under King Abdullah, who ascended the throne in 2005. But the country's progress has been insecure and inconsistent.
The success of transformation in the Saudi kingdom must be measured in the context of women's rights, the biggest source of discontent with the Wahhabi sect and its official support by the state.
In this critical area, Saudi actions during the beginning of June revealed the well-defined internal contradictions of the ruling family, within the order it created and maintains.
The authoritative Arab News reported on June 7 that the Saudi Justice Ministry has set a target of 1,000 women working in the courts and notary offices next year. Commentator Abdullah Bajubair noted, "Judges, lawyers and women graduates of law colleges who could not find jobs in their fields received the news with joy and satisfaction."
Bajubair, however, indicated that Saudi female legal personnel would likely be assigned only to cases involving women. The journalist wrote, "the establishment of special women sections in courts to assist women, support them and provide them with legal counseling in cases of inheritance, divorce cases and representation is a welcome move."
The effect would therefore be to preserve gender segregation by providing separate services for women.
On the same day, the same newspaper stated that the Shoura Council, the closest institution to a legislature in Saudi Arabia, opined that women should be granted the vote in local elections… in the future. Women have organized protest networks, under the umbrella label "Baladi," or "our country," demanding the right to run as candidates and cast ballots in the municipal elections scheduled for September. In April, women flocked to voting registration centers in Dammam, in the Eastern Province, in Jeddah, in the more enlightened Hejaz region in the West, and in the capital, Riyadh. But they were turned away.
Prohibiting women from voting immediately while promising them a concession in the future – justice delayed and therefore denied – is so obvious in its deceit that it would seem to require no further comment. Mohammed Almuhanna, media spokesman for the Shoura Council, said, "This was a general recommendation… It has nothing to do with the current elections but is rather a recommendation for future elections." The Shoura Council expressed its contempt for women's calls to be treated equally by relegating its discussion of female suffrage to a meeting of its committee on housing, water and public services.
Meanwhile, King Abdullah has called for 70,000 new jobs for women, at a meeting of his cabinet. But the Wahhabi clerics trumped the debate by issuing a fatwa upholding gender segregation. Even the all-powerful monarch downgraded the issue by restricting himself to a brief comment during a session addressing "desalination plants along the Kingdom's coasts to meet the country's water and electricity needs," the arrival in the country of unpopular Yemeni ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, and other details of state policy.
In the Wahhabi discourse, the permanent fatwa committee headed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd Al-Aziz Al-Sheikh, a descendent of the founder of the eponymous sect, Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, asserted, "Women are not allowed to work with men. For example, they cannot work as secretaries for men or at receptions, production lines or accounting sections in a commercial center, pharmacy or restaurant where men are also present." The fatwa stated "Women's work and education should be done without mingling with men. They should work in women-only workplaces."
The Wahhabi body has called for women to pray at home and stay away from mosques, notwithstanding a hadith (oral commentary) by Muhammad advising against preventing women from entering mosques. The Arab News pointed out, "Last year, the committee issued a similar edict banning women from working as cashiers at supermarkets."
Such primitivism would be amusing were it not devastating for the condition of Saudi women, the image of Saudi Arabia, and discussions of Muslim women's rights all over the world. But we may discern in this crossfire of opinions that the country is increasingly polarized, with the Wahhabi clerics and other institutions defending an iniquitous status quo, and the king as well as the overwhelming mass of citizens on the other side, favoring modernization. The possessors of power, both royal and clerical, are trying to keep their balance in a historical stream that has sped up, with ever-louder calls for change. Sooner or later, sanity must prevail in Saudi Arabia, but in the meantime the expansion of freedom is uncertain, and conscientious Muslims throughout the world should press the kingdom's authorities to cease degrading Islam by their denial of women's equality.