Alshamsi (2011 pp. 68) articulates that the power structure in Saudi Arabia, unlike the other Arab countries evolves outside the postcolonial model. This results from the fact that Saudi Arabia was not subject to the European colonial rule and as such, the ethos of governance unaffiliated to European political values such as representative governance, constitutionalism, and similar ideologies. The ethos in Saudi Arabia derived from institutional perceptions of familialism, religious justice and, customs. Saudi being a self-ascribed Islamic state uses the Quran presumably as the constitution, however, the country ascribes to the monarchical system of governance.
Religious discourse can be attributed to the erosion of confidence in the former religious authority having connections to the ruling class and the growing legitimacy of alternative clergy. The clergy do not seek incorporation into the official institutions but rather aim for actual religious reforms. As a result, the Islam community openly criticizes the fundamental notions of religious legitimacy. Religious discourse can be traced to the letter of demands presented to the king in 1991 by 453 religious scholars, university professors and judges. The letter sought political and economic reforms a creation of a council to advise the government, but the government dismissed the demands. The basis for disregarding the demands based on the fundamental notion that advice should be given in private and not for political gain. It is, however, noteworthy that whereas the government puts in place a religious apparatus aimed at controlling society, on the other hand, society requires the regime to be religiously legitimate and act to limit the state powers. In essence, Islamic discourse aims to address political grievances.
Accordingly, Welsh (2009 pp.7) asserts that the perception of modern Islamist is that of democracy entirely in agreement with the Islamic laws. Although the concept of a representative democracy is unattainable in the circumstances, these individuals seek governance that is more inclusive. In essence, the anticipated situation portrayed as a middle ground between the imposition of the rigid and impervious familial structure of governance and representative democracy facilitated through Islamic discourse. The demands of these individuals revolve around the desire for reforms in education, employment, infrastructure, health and a decreased patronage of foreign military especially the American military. Furthermore, the Islamist aims for an increased freedom of both assembly and expression. The increased application of stifled authority by the government on the clergy further fuels the Islamic discourse in the country.
Ibrahim (Carnegie, 2013) points out an increase in reform and right oriented activities in the Saudi Arabia with the activists having their own interpretations of the essential course of action. He justifies the increase in these activities with the public reception of Salafi Sheikh Sulaiman bin Nasser al-Alwan after his release from prison. The activities of these activists have recently brought a conflict between these activists and the government. Elsewhere Frederic (Carnegie, 2012) asserts that the activities of these activists foreshadowed to compromise the legitimacy of the ruling class, as well as the security of the country. He identifies that the clerics oppose government reforms, and in light of the Syrian crisis, he asserts that the call by the clerics for unofficial involvement is unnecessary given the fragile domestic relations. To put the cleric activism in context Frederic provides that although the previous stance of the clerics regarding the Syrian issue fell within the Saudi foreign policy, current developments especially those calling for support of the opposition and the armament of the opposition contravene these policies.
According to Ibrahim (Carnegie, 2013), the government has continuously attempted to curb the influence of Islamist in government institutions while at the same time distracting the society with domestic and foreign issues. He clearly identifies that the situation in Saudi Arabia is because of decades of doctrinal, political, and social tyranny. As a result, some cleric’s activists and intellects believe that there are alternative jurisprudential and doctrines as opposed to sacrosanctity. The desire, therefore, is to replace the absolute monarchy system with a constitutional system that emphasizes justice freedom and participation. The previous success of the government in the suppression of such activities is exemplified by the situation in the 1980s. In this case, the government mesmerized the people with communist threats and the western menace. However, the downside of the suppression resulted in the arms trade scandal involving the government and some British companies and the unjust allocations of land to royals. The perception, therefore, is that the suppression are not in the interest the public but skewed towards the interest of the ruling class.
The approaches of the activists take two angles both aimed at attaining desirable reforms. There is the approach of non-violence where the activists engage in activities aimed at reformulating the government structure from a monarchy to a constitutional one supported by a constitution and with elected representatives and checks on corruption and graft. To push this idea further, the Umma Islamic party provides for an elected government and subsequent transfer of power to the elected regime from the monarch. Owing to these assertions, the party founders subsequently arrested after the establishment of the party a clear indication of the opposition by the Saudi government. The other approach spearheaded by the Movement of Islamic reform in Arabia proposes the complete removal of the monarchy and replaced by a democratically elected government. The argument of this group is that reforms are impossible with the governance structure in place for the ruling class is incapable of governance. Ibrahim provides that those within the ruling class call for reforms aimed at self-interests of political and financial balance within the ruling family. The comparison with the system of the kingdom with a company is striking, and thus, reflects the current governance structure of Saudi.
Regardless of these activities, Ibrahim (Carnegie, 2013) states that the Saudi government has reacted with its time-tested counterattack tactics involving financial incentives. The key beneficiaries of these incentives include the military where they were promoted and their payments raised and further opportunities in the force created. The religious institutions also benefit from these incentives by increased budgetary allocations. A significant move by the government in this regard is the curtailment of the press, which restricts the activities of the press and limits press freedom. The success of the government in the regulation of Islamic discourse can also be attributed to the lack of consensus on the part of the activists where there is a lack of agreement on reforms. Furthermore, the country lacks civil activism and, therefore, becomes difficult to develop a civil society.
Alshamsi, M. (2011). Islam and Political Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Quest for Political Change and Reform. Taylor & Francis.
Carool, K. (2011). Arab Spring: Is there a critical Islamic discourse in Saudi Arabia? Available at: < http://caroolkersten.blogspot.com/2011/10/arab-spring-is-there-critical-islamic.html>[Accessed 6 February 2013].
Frederic W. (2012). Saudi Arabia Reins in Its Clerics on Syria, [online] Available at:< http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/06/14/saudi-arabia-reins-in-its-clerics-on-syria/bu10> [Accessed 6 February 2013]
Ibrahim, H. (2013). Unhappy Arabia. Available at:< http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2013/01/22/unhappy-arabia/f4et> [Accessed 6 February 2013]
Welsh, P. 2009. Complicity and Dissent in the Islamic‐Political Discourse of Saudi Arabia. Prof. Bulliet.