As the revolutionary spirit spreads through the Arab world like wildfire, one nation has managed to remain conspicuously unscathed. During the months of revolution dubbed the “Arab Spring,” the rule of King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia has stayed stable and largely unchallenged. Behind the scenes, however, the Saudi government has played a large role in revolutions abroad, particularly in Egypt and Bahrain.
Before the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were strong allies, united against their common enemy, Iran. Both majority Sunni countries rejected diplomatic ties with Shia Iran, a move that generally found favor in the west. Throughout the Egyptian revolution Saudis attempted to intervene to protect their ally, Hosni Mubarak, and since his ousting Riyadh has continued to deliver billions of dollars in aid to Egypt in an attempt to build connections with new leaders. Despite these efforts, the post-revolutionary Egyptian government has indicated its plans to restore diplomatic ties to Iran, signaling a shift in an alliance that some analysts have called the most influential power dynamic in the Middle East.
Reading the subtext of Saudi-Iranian rivalry into the current power struggles in the Middle East is further complicated in Bahrain. The small gulf country is populated mostly by Shiites but ruled by Sunni leaders. The Saudi government viewed the Shia populous’ rebellion as a threat to Sunni power, and thus sent troops to forcefully suppress the uprising.
Rumors circulated surmising Iranian involvement, although in an article for Aljazeera Hamid Dabashi points out that supporting popular uprisings is not a common phenomenon in the Iranian government. Dabashi claims that the Sunni-Shia divide being flaunted is in fact a red herring for other interests. Ahmed Al-Omran, a Saudi who writes the blog “Saudi Jeans” and currently works in the US for NPR concurs with this analysis, and believes that the Saudi government may have used Iran as a “boogyman” to justify their aggressive intervention. According to al-Omran, the government’s foreign policy has not always reflected popular Saudi sentiment.
“I think there was a clear divide between the stance of the government and the stance of the people,” al-Omran wrote in an email. “I think most Saudi citizens supported these popular uprisings, while the government was concerned and tried to limit their effect. The government welcomed Ben Ali and supported Mubarak, two actions that were not highly popular based on the reaction I have seen online.”
But while it has found mixed success in tipping the power balance in its favor abroad, Saudi Arabia has maintained domestic stability. In the midst of regional upheaval, the country had been conspicuously quiet until a movement began to coalesce around a different kind of cause: women’s rights.
Saudi Arabia is notorious for its unequal treatment of women. Their legal system, based on Sharia law and tribal customs, requires women to have a legal male guardian whose approval is necessary for marriage, divorce, travel, education, employment, and even opening a bank account. Furthermore, women are unable to vote, serve in the government, or drive in Saudi Arabia.
Inspired by the courage and strength of activists seeking freedom, Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old computer security consultant for a premier Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco, decided to tackle the issue of driving as a way to address the broader cause of Saudi women’s freedom. Omar Johani, a friend and neighbor of al-Sharif, said al-Sharif was already known in Saudi Arabia for being the first woman in the world to obtain a certificate in “ethical hacking,” and had appeared on television multiple times.
On May 19th, al-Sharif chose the well-tread road of social media, posting a video of herself driving on Youtube to draw attention to the “Women 2 Drive” campaign she helped establish on Facebook. Al-Sharif was arrested two days later while driving in al-Khobar city in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province with her brother. She was accused of driving a car, inciting other women to drive, and allowing a journalist to interview her while she was driving.
Though the activist and her brother were released that evening, al-Sharif was re-arrested the following day and remained in jail for nine days. On May30, al-Sharif was released on bail, on the conditions of returning for questioning if requested, not driving and not talking to the media. Some analysts suspect that al-Sharif’s acquiescence to these terms was a result of significant duress.
Al-Sharif’s high-profile arrest sparked a flurry of online responses from individuals around the world on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere. Online communities are now harnessing the momentum gained from al-Sharif’s actions to build toward a protest planned for June 17th.
Online commentators were not alone in their reactions to al-Sharif’s arrest. Johani attested that while Sharif was unquestionably a hero outside Saudi Arabia, there were many detractors to her cause in the country.
“People who’re religious reject her campaign as a whole and look down on her,” Johani wrote in an email. “People who’re liberal love what she did and perceive her as a hero. There are always people in the middle who’re undecided. Unfortunately the 1st kind of people are the majority.”
According to Eman al-Nafjan, a blogger who writes as Saudiwoman on Twitter, many ultra conservatives have “come out in full force against Manal.” She reports that Sheikh Nasser al-Omer gave a sermon describing the Women 2 Drive movement as a conspiracy against the country initiated by Shia, liberals, secularists, Jews and the West.
Still, many Saudi men are actively working to help al-Sharif’s cause. According to Johani, the rash of videos recording women driving that has cropped up on Youtube have mostly been recorded by women’s male relatives and colleagues. Walid Abu al-Khair, a Saudi lawyer and human rights advocate, gathered 600 signatures from men and women in a petition asking King Abdullah to free Ms. Sharif and grant women the right to drive. Johani suspects that men’s changing attitudes could be more open now than ever before because of globalization and “men realizing that women driving isn’t really a big deal.”
Though certainly revolutionary, Manal al-Sharif was not the first to speak out on the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia. In the 1990s a group of 47 women took the streets in cars, where they were promptly arrested. These women found little support among their countrymen, and many of them lost their jobs or were forced to close their successful businesses. Three years ago, Wajiha Howeidar, who filmed al-Sharif’s famous driving video, posted a video of herself behind the wheel to mark International Women’s day. While neither of these actions made much of an impact on policy, al-Omran believes this effort could be different.
“Parts of the negative impact of that first attempt [in the 90s] remain until today,” al-Omran said. “But I think the situation now is different. If things keep escalating the way they are now, we might actually see women drive in Saudi Arabia before the end of the year.”
Thus far, Saudi Arabia has only engaged in the Arab Spring from the sidelines, pouring money and manpower into the revolutions of others. But whether Saudi Arabia will fall into the center of the fray and partake of regional changes, and whether this will be the moment that pro-women’s rights Saudis have been waiting for, remains as obscure as the skies in a Saudi sandstorm.
Ariana Siegel is a senior at Tufts University studying Arabic and majoring in Peace and Justice Studies and English.